Fitzgerald, Ella (Jane)

views updated

Fitzgerald, Ella (Jane)

Fitzgerald, Ella (Jane) , celebrated American jazz singer; b. Newport News, Va., April 25, 1917; d. Los Angeles, June 15, 1996. In a career lasting from the 1930s to the 1990s, Fitzgerald was hailed as the most accomplished female jazz singer of her time. She had a multioctave range and precise intonation and was noted for her imaginative improvisations. Getting her start as a big band singer in the 1930s, she scored an early hit with “A- Tisket, A-Tasket.” Going solo in the 1940s, she paired with various other performers, including the Ink Spots, with whom she recorded the hits “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” and “I’m Making Believe.” She also developed a facility for scat singing apparent in her frequent performances of “Flying Home,” “How High the Moon,” and “Oh, Lady Be Good.” She gave concerts around the world into the 1990s while continuing to make records that brought her 13 Grammy Awards.

Fitzgerald was the illegitimate daughter of William Fitzgerald and Temperance Williams. Her parents sepa-rated when she was a child, and she and her mother moved to Yonkers, N.Y. Her mother died when she was 14, and she at first lived with an aunt in Harlem, then was placed in a reformatory, and for a time lived on the streets. On Nov. 21, 1934, she won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theatre, after which she performed in other amateur contests and began attracting attention as a singer. She made her professional debut at the Harlem Opera House the week beginning Feb. 15, 1935, an engagement that led to her being hired to sing with Chick Webb and His Orch.

Webb performed primarily at the Savoy Ballroom in N.Y. He also recorded for Decca Records, and Fitzgerald made her recording debut with him on June 12, 1935, singing “Love and Kisses” (music by J. C. Johnson, lyrics by George Whiting and Nat Schwartz). In November 1936 she did a session with Benny Goodman and His Orch., resulting in her first hit, “Goodnight, My Love” (music by Harry Revel, lyrics by Mack Gordon), which topped the hit parade in February 1937. With Webb, she returned to the top of the hit parade in August 1938 with the million-selling “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (music and lyrics by Fitzgerald and Al Feldman, based on a traditional nursery rhyme); the recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1986. Her recording with Webb of “F. D. R. Jones” (music and lyrics by Harold Rome) spent four weeks in the hit parade starting in January 1939.

Webb died on June 16, 1939, after which his band was fronted by Fitzgerald. From August to September she had a 15-minute weekly network radio show. She and the orchestra scored a Top Ten hit in January 1941 with “Five O’Clock Whistle” (music and lyrics by Josef Myrow, Kim Gannon, and Gene Irwin). She married Benjamin Kornegay on Dec. 26, 1941, but they soon separated and the marriage was annulled. In March 1942 she made her film debut in the Abbott and Costello comedy Ride ’Em Cowboy.

Fitzgerald’s orchestra continued to perform until July 1942, after which the singer appeared with a vocal-instrumental group, The Four Keys. They had a network radio program twice a week from August to November, and Fitzgerald then hosted her own weekly show from December to June 1943. She was teamed with the Ink Spots for a recording of “Cow-Cow Boogie (Cuma-Ti-Yi-Yi-Ay)” (music and lyrics by Don Raye, Gene DePaul, and Benny Carter), which reached the Top Ten in April 1944, and they recorded together again for the million-selling hits “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” (music by Doris Fisher, lyrics by Allan Roberts) and “I’m Making Believe” (music by James V. Monaco, lyrics by Mack Gordon), both of which went to #1 in December.

For her next Top Ten hit, “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine” (music by Stan Kenton and Charles Lawrence, lyrics by Joe Greene) in January 1945, Fitzgerald was billed as a solo performer, though she was backed by the vocal group the Song Spinners and the Johnny Long Orch. She was again backed by the Song Spinners on “My Happiness” (music by Borney Bergantine, lyrics by Betty Peterson), a Top Ten hit in October 1948.

The rest of her Top Ten hits of the next five years found her paired with other performers: ”I’m Beginning to See the Light” (music and lyrics by Don George, Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington, and Harry James) with the Ink Spots in May 1945; “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Billy Rose and E. Y. Harburg) with the Delta Rhythm Boys in September 1945; “You Won’t Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart)” (music and lyrics by Teddy Powell and Larry Stock) with Louis Armstrong in April 1946; “Stone Cold Dead in the Market (He Had It Coming)” (music and lyrics by Wilmoth Houdini) with Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five in August 1946 (#1 on the R&B charts); “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” (music by William Best, lyrics by Deek Watson) with the Delta Rhythm Boys in February 1947; and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (music and lyrics by Frank Loesser) with Jordan in July 1949.

In addition to scoring pop hits, Fitzgerald consolidated her status as a major jazz singer with such performances as her October 1945 recording of “Flying Home” (music by Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman, lyrics by Sid Robin), her March 1947 recording of “Oh, Lady Be Good” (music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin), and her December 1947 recording of “How High the Moon” (music by Morgan Lewis, lyrics by Nancy Hamilton), which featured her scat singing; and with her appearances, starting in February 1949, with the all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic touring troupe, organized by impresario Norman Granz.

On Dec. 10, 1947, Fitzgerald married jazz bass player Ray Brown. They adopted a son, Ray Brown Jr., who became a drummer, and were divorced on Aug. 28, 1953. Fitzgerald made her second movie appearance in Pete Kelly’s Blues, released in August 1955. Peggy Lee also appeared in it, and the singers’ album of music from the film became a Top Ten hit.

As early as 1951, on Ella Fitzgerald Sings Gershwin Songs, Fitzgerald had explored the idea of recording songbooks devoted to popular song composers, but it was not until she moved from Decca Records to Norman Granz’s newly formed Verve label at the start of 1956 that she turned to such recordings in earnest, beginning with the double LP Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book, which reached the charts in June 1956 and was followed by collections devoted to the work of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (a chart entry in February 1957), Duke Ellington (a 1958 Grammy winner for Best Jazz Performance, Individual), Irving Berlin (a 1958 Grammy winner for Best Vocal Performance, Female, and nominee for Album of the Year), George and Ira Gershwin (a five-LP box set that made the charts and included “But Not for Me,” a 1959 Grammy winner for Best Vocal Performance, Female), Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. In addition, during the second half of the 1950s she recorded three duet albums with Louis Armstrong, including two, Ella and Louis (1956) and Porgy and Bess (1959), that reached the charts, as well as the LP Ella Swing Lightly, a 1959 Grammy winner for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist.

Fitzgerald performed extensively, at prestigious clubs like the Copacabana in N.Y. and such concert venues as the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall. She also made another movie appearance, in the W. C. Handy film biography St. Louis Blues in April 1958, as well as occasionally working on television. She also toured internationally, and on Feb. 13, 1960, her concert in Berlin was recorded for the album Mack the KnifeElla in Berlin. The title track was released as a single, made the Top 40 in May 1960, and earned a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance, Single Record or Track, Female, and a nomination for Record of the Year; the album remained in the charts for a year and won a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance, Album, Female.

Fitzgerald made her final film appearance in November 1960 in Let No Man Write My Epitaph. In October 1961 she released another live album, Ella in Hollywood, preceded by a single version of one of her showcase songs, “Mr. Paganini (YouTl Have to Swing It)” (music and lyrics by Sam Coslow), which made the easy-listening charts in August and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Solo Vocal Performance, Female. The album spent more than seven months in the charts. Her 1962 album accompanied by Nelson Riddle, Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson, won the year’s Grammy for Best Solo Vocal Performance, Female. She reached the charts with her 1963 collaboration with Count Basie, Ella and Basie!, and with her 1964 collection, Hello, Dolly! She toured with Duke Ellington in 1965–66 and released a collaboration with him, Ella at Duke’s Place, which earned her another Grammy nomination for Best Vocal Performance, Female.

In 1967, Fitzgerald moved to Capitol Records and recorded an album of religious songs, Brighten the Corner, that reached the charts in August. She also reached the charts in October 1969 with Ella, an album of contemporary pop songs, on Reprise. In 1972 she returned to jazz-oriented music on Norman Granz’s new label, Pablo, with which she stayed for the rest of her life. Eye trouble caused her to reduce her performance schedule from 1970 to 1973, but she launched a series of appearances with symphony orchestras with a performance accompanied by the Boston Pops Orch. in 1973. She also continued to tour the U.S. and internationally.

In 1976 a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance was introduced, and Fitzgerald frequently won it, starting with the 1976 award for Fitzgerald & Pass… Again, an album on which she was accompanied by guitarist Joe Pass. She won the 1979 award for the album Fine and Mellow, the 1980 award for A Perfect Match (recorded with Count Basie at the 1979 Montreux Jazz Festival), and the 1981 award for her two songs on Digital III at Montreux (also from the 1979 Montreux Jazz Festival). She was nominated for the 1982 award for A Classy Pair (with Count Basie) and won the 1983 award for The Best Is Yet to Come.

In the summer of 1986, Fitzgerald collapsed from congestive heart failure and underwent open-heart surgery. But she recovered and went back to performing and recording. She was nominated for a 1987 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female, for Easy Living,

another album with Joe Pass, and won her 13th Grammy in the same category for her final album, All That Jazz, released in 1990. She retired from performing in 1992 and died from complications of diabetes in 1996 at 79.


Ella and Ray (1948); The Ella Fitzgerald Set (1949); Souvenir Album (1950); Ella Fitzgerald Sings Gershwin Songs (1950); Songs in a Mellow Mood (1954); Lullabies of Birdland (1955); Sweet and Hot (1954); Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook (1956); Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook (1956). Porgy and Bess (1956); Like Someone in Love (1957); Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook (1957); Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Gershwin Songbook (1957); Ella Sings Gershwin (1957); Ella and Her Fellas (1957); Ella Fitzgerald at the Opera House (1958); Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook (1958); First Lady of Song (1958); Mz’ss Ella Fitzgerald and Mr. Nelson Riddle Invite You to Listen and Relax (1958); Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday at Newport (1958); For Sentimental Reasons (1958); Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook (1959); Ella Swings Lightly (1959); Ella Sings Sweet Songs for Swingers (1959); Hello Love (1959); Get Happy! (1959); Mack the Knife—Ella in Berlin (1960); Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960); The Intimate Ella (1960); Golden Favorites (1961); Ella Returns to Berlin (1961); Ella Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook (1961); Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! (1962); Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson (1962); Ella Swings Gently with Nelson (1962); Rhythm Is My Business (1962); Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook (1963); These Are the Blues (1963); Ella Sings Broadway (1963); Ella and Basie! (1963); Ella at Juan-Les-Pins (1964); Hello, Dolly! (1964); Stairway to the Stars (1964); Early Ella (1964); A Tribute to Cole Porter (1964); Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook (1965); Ella in Hamburg (1966); The World of Ella Fitzgerald (1966); Whisper Not (1966); Brighten the Corner (1967); Misty Blue (1968); Ella ’Live (1968); 30 by Ella (1968); Sunshine of Your Love/Watch What Happens (1969); Ella (1969); Things Ain’t What They Used to Be (1970); Ella at Nice (1971); Ella Fitzgerald at Carnegie Hall (1973); Ella in London (1974); Fine and Mellow (1974); Ella—At the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1975 (1975); Lady Time (1978); Dream Dancing (1978); Digital III at Montreux (1980); Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Antonio Carlos Jobim Songbook (1981); The Best Is Yet to Come (1982); Speak Love (1983); Nice Work If You Can Get It (1983); Easy Living (1986); All That Jazz (1990); A 75th Birthday Tribute (1993). Count Basie and Joe Williams: One O’ Clock Jump (1956). Louis Armstrong: Ella and Louis (1956); Ella and Louis Again (1956). Duke Ellington: Ella at Duke’s Place (1966); The Stockholm Concert (1966); Ella and Duke at the Cote D’Azure (1966). Joe Pass: Take Love Easy (1974); Fitzgerald and Pass Again (1976). Oscar Peterson: Ella and Oscar (1975). Tommy Flanagan: Ella Fitzgerald with the Tommy Flanagan Trio (1977). Count Basie: A Classy Pair (1979); A Perfect Match: Basie and Ella (1979).


S. Colin, E. The Life and Times of E. F. (London, 1986);B. Kliment, E. F. (N.Y., 1988); J. Haskins, E. E: A Life Through Jazz (London, 1991); S. Nicholson, E. F. (London, 1993); C. Wyman, E. F.; Jazz Singer Supreme (N.Y., 1993); G. Fidelman, First Lady of Song: E. F. for the Record (N.Y., 1994); L. Course, ed., The E. F. Companion (N.Y., 1998).

—William Ruhlmann

About this article

Fitzgerald, Ella (Jane)

Updated About content Print Article