Fitzgerald, Ella Jane

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Fitzgerald, Ella Jane

(b. 25 April 1917 in Newport News, Virginia; d. 15 June 1996 in Beverly Hills, California), jazz singer acclaimed as among the greatest of her time.

Fitzgerald was born into poverty, the illegitimate child of William Fitzgerald and Temperance Williams. Little is known of her father, who separated from her mother when Fitzgerald was still a child, after which her mother moved her to suburban Yonkers, New York. When she was fourteen, her mother died. She was initially under the care of her mother’s common-law husband Joseph Da Silva but soon moved in with an aunt in Harlem. Here she was inadequately supervised and was briefly placed in a reformatory, the Riverdale Children’s Association. When she came out, she was homeless for a time.

Fitzgerald entered an amateur contest at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, held on 21 November 1934. She initially intended to dance but changed her mind and sang; she won. When she subsequently won another amateur contest at the Harlem Opera House, the prize was a week’s booking at the theater, and she made her professional debut there for the week beginning 15 February 1935. This exposure led to her being hired as a singer with Chick Webb and His Orchestra. She appeared with the Webb band at the Savoy Ballroom, where it had a residency. On 12 June 1935 she first recorded with Webb for Decca Records, singing “I’ll Chase the Blues Away” and “Love and Kisses.” Her first recording to gain commercial recognition was “Sing Me a Swing Song (and Let Me Dance),” recorded in June 1936. Though her voice and singing technique were not as well-developed here as they would be later on, she already exhibited a clear tone, careful articulation, and a supple, buoyant feel for rhythm. That November she sat in with Benny Goodman and His Orchestra on a recording of “Goodnight, My Love” for RCA Victor, subbing for Goodman’s usual singer, Helen Ward; the record hit number one in February 1937. Notwithstanding this success, Fitzgerald returned to work with Webb. (Because she was African American, Goodman, who was white, would have had trouble hiring her permanently at the time, although she had attained a level of fame that gave her some autonomy.)

“(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It” (also known as “Mr. Paganini”), which became one of her signature songs, was on the charts in December 1936, and Fitzgerald scored a two-sided chart entry in April 1937 with “Dedicated to You”/“Big Boy Blue,” on which she was accompanied by the Mills Brothers. “If You Ever Should Leave” and “All over Nothing at All,” both on the charts during the summer of 1937, were issued under her own name, although she was accompanied by members of the Webb orchestra. “Rock It for Me” and “I Got a Guy” both reached the charts under Webb’s name in 1938 before “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which Fitzgerald cowrote with Al Feldman, based on a children’s nursery rhyme, became a massive hit, topping the charts in August and selling more than a million copies, making it one of the biggest hits of the decade.

Fitzgerald continued to score hits with the Webb orchestra through the spring of 1939, reaching the top ten with “I Found My Yellow Basket” (a follow-up to “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”), “F. D. R. Jones,” and “Undecided.” By the time the chronically ill Webb died on 16 June 1939, the twenty-two-year-old singer had gained sufficient prominence to be asked to front the band, which she did, and Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra did their first recording session for Decca less than two weeks later. In January 1941 they scored a top-ten hit with “Five O’Clock Whistle.”

Fitzgerald married Benjamin Kornegay on 26 December 1941, but the marriage was annulled. She was married a second time, to Ray Brown, a bass player, on 10 December 1947. They adopted a son and divorced on 28 August 1953.

In July 1942 Fitzgerald gave up the orchestra, opting to perform as a solo act with accompaniment by a small group called the Keys. On the day before the start of the recording ban called by the American Federation of Musicians for 1 August 1942, she recorded “My Heart and I Decided,” which reached the top ten of the rhythm and blues (R&B) charts in May 1943. Although her race restricted her opportunities, she had had a network radio show for a few months in 1939 and had made her film debut in Ride ’Em Cowboy in 1942. With recordings precluded and travel difficult due to World War II, she returned to radio in August 1942, hosting a twice-a-week show with the Keys through November and then a once-a-week slot on her own through June 1943.

Decca Records settled with the musicians union in the fall of 1943, allowing Fitzgerald to record again, and at her first session she cut “Cow-Cow Boogie (Cuma-Ti-Yi-Yi-Ay)” with the Ink Spots; the disc hit the top ten of the pop charts and number one on the R&B charts. A second pairing with the vocal group in August 1944 was even more successful, producing the two-sided hit “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fair”/“Tm Making Believe,” which topped both the pop and R&B charts and sold a million copies. Fitzgerald continued to chart hits on the pop and R&B charts through the early 1950s, often in combination with other artists. Her popular recordings included “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (both in 1945); “I’m Beginning to See the Light” (1945) with the Ink Spots; “You Won’t Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart)” and “The Frim Fram Sauce” (both in 1946) with Louis Armstrong; “Stone Cold Dead in the Market (He Had It Coming)” and “Petootie Pie” (both in 1946), “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (1949), and “I’ll Never Be Free” (1950) with Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five; “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” (1946) with the Delta Rhythm Boys; “That’s My Desire” (1947) with the Andy Love Quintet; “My Happiness” (1948) with the Song Spinners; “It’s Too Soon to Know” (1948); and “Smooth Sailing” (1951). The last song was an example of Fitzgerald’s remarkable scat-singing (wordless vocal improvising) ability, which she also displayed in such memorable 1940s recordings as “Flying Home,” “Oh, Lady Be Good,” and “How High the Moon.”

Such recordings gave the lie to later assertions that Fitzgerald was forced by Decca to record only pop and novelty material and to stay away from jazz singing. Another notable recording from the Decca era was the 1951 album Ella Fitzgerald Sings Gershwin Songs, on which she was accompanied only by the pianist Ellis Larkins, a release that preceded the start of her celebrated series of songbook albums by five years.

In February 1949 Fitzgerald had begun to make appearances in the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts promoted by the impresario Norman Granz, who took over as her manager. Granz also ran various record labels and had strong ideas about Fitzgerald’s recording career, but he was at first unable to get her away from Decca. Meanwhile, she made her second film appearance in Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), and her album of songs from the soundtrack, also featuring her costar, Peggy Lee, became a top-ten hit.

At this point Granz finally succeeded in ending Fitzgerald’s Decca contract, and he immediately signed her to his recently formed Verve Records label. One of his ideas was to have her record a series of two-disc albums backed by an orchestra, each devoted to the work of a great song writer. The first of these efforts was Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book, recorded and released in 1956, which became a critical and popular success. Fitzgerald and Granz followed it with a Richard Rodgers—Lorenz Hart album in 1957, a Duke Ellington album in 1958, an Irving Berlin album, also in 1958, a massive five-album set of the works of George and Ira Gershwin in 1959, and subsequent collections devoted to Harold Arlen (1961), Jerome Kern (1963), and Johnny Mercer (1965). These albums were celebrated efforts that sold well and earned industry accolades. They were showered with the newly instituted Grammy Awards: the Ellington album won a best jazz performance Grammy; the Berlin album took a best vocal performance Grammy; and “But Not for Me” from the Gershwin set won another best vocal performance Grammy. By bringing together songs that had been scattered among long-forgotten Broadway shows, the albums also had the effect of renewing and consolidating the reputations of the songwriters, who benefited from some of the best interpretations of their work ever done.

The songbook albums were not Fitzgerald’s only recordings for Verve in this period. She cut three albums with Louis Armstrong that were popular successes, Ella and Louis (1956) and the double LPs Ella and Louis Again (1957) and Porgy and Bess (1959). The 1959 album Ella Swings Lightly, on which she was accompanied by the Marty Paich Dek-Tette, won a Grammy for best jazz performance. At the same time she was performing in the country’s top nightclubs and, increasingly, in larger venues, such as Carnegie Hall in New York City and the Hollywood Bowl in California. She also made another film, St. Louis Blues (1958), a biography of the musician and composer W. C. Handy, and had guest-star appearances on television. She began to work more frequently overseas, and one of her European shows provided her next record hit. She appeared in Berlin on 13 February 1960, and the show was released on LP as Mack the KnifeElla in Berlin. The title track was a performance of the Kurt Weill standard on which Fitzgerald forgot the lyrics and instead improvised a delightful commentary, turning what could have been an embarrassment into a triumph. The track became a Top 40 hit and won a best vocal performance Grammy, while the album, also a Grammy winner, had a long run in the charts. The same year, Fitzgerald made her last film appearance in Let No Man Write My Epitaph.

Fitzgerald continued to earn Grammys and have healthy record sales during the early 1960s. A follow-up live album, Ella in Hollywood (1961), was on the charts for much of 1962; Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson (Nelson being the conductor and arranger Nelson Riddle) won her another vocal performance Grammy in 1962; Ella and Basie, a collaboration with Count Basie’s Orchestra, was a chart item in 1963; and her Hello, Dolly! album charted in 1964.

Although Fitzgerald still performed successfully in the mid-1960s, her recording career fell into decline. Granz had sold Verve Records to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) at the start of the 1960s but continued to oversee her career at first. Eventually, however, having moved to Europe, he became less involved with her. At the same time the revolution in the recording industry brought about by the arrival of the Beatles threw all non-rock music into the shade. Fitzgerald left Verve in 1966, signing with Capitol Records, where she recorded the religious album Brighten the Comer, which reached the charts in 1967. In 1969 she switched to Reprise Records, where she charted with Ella, an album of contemporary pop songs. Such recordings dismayed her jazz fans, but in 1972 Granz returned to the record business with his Pablo label. Fitzgerald immediately signed with the company and went back to making jazz records, which she did for the rest of her life. The inauguration of a Grammy Award for best jazz vocal performance in 1976 led to another series of nominations and trophies that trace the highlights of her later discography. She won Grammys for Fitzgerald and Pass… Again (1976), on which her sole accompaniment was the guitarist Joe Pass; for Fine and Mellow (1979); for A Perfect Match (1980), a live album with Count Basie; for two songs on Digital III at Montreux (1981), from the same 1979 concert that produced Perfect Match; for The Best Is Yet to Come (1983); and for All That Jazz (1990), which was her thirteenth award.

The bulk of Fitzgerald’s time was spent touring the world, often playing at the increasing number of jazz festivals. She was able to work only intermittently in the early 1970s due to recurring eye trouble, but in 1973 she expanded her schedule to include appearances with symphony orchestras. Despite advancing age, she continued to tour extensively in her sixties and seventies. In 1986, suffering from congestive heart failure, she underwent open-heart surgery. When she recovered, she went back on the road. She was finally forced to retire due to ill health in 1992. She died of complications from diabetes three years later and is buried in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.

Ella Fitzgerald was an amazing singer with excellent intonation and a range spanning several octaves. Her straight singing rendered service to the songs that brought out their best qualities, and her scatting improvisations were as imaginative as the soloing of any jazz musician. She was also an excellent mimic who could re-create the sounds of various instruments and do spot-on impersonations of everyone from fellow female singers to her gravel-voiced colleague Louis Armstrong.

She was, in addition, an animated performer who spread delight among her listeners. Her only serious rival to the title of the greatest of all female jazz singers is Billie Holiday, and a comparison of the two is instructive. They were close in age (Holiday was two years older), and both suffered enormously as children, subject to dire poverty, broken homes, and stints in reform schools. Both emerged as singers in the Harlem of the 1930s, escaping from their conditions into the rarefied world of recording studios and nightclubs. Holiday, with a limited instrument, focused on an individual interpretative style that gave her performances a haunting quality. She lagged behind the beat and seemed to evoke tragedy with every note. Fitzgerald had a girlish quality; she was full of energy, and her performances were celebrations. It is as hard to imagine Holiday singing “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” as it is to think of Fitzgerald performing Holiday’s signature song, the protest lyric “Strange Fruit.” Of course, drugs destroyed the voice, career, and life of the one performer and not the other. But no starker contrast between the two greatest female jazz singers of the twentieth century can be heard than that of their separate recordings from the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival released by Verve. (It was reissued on compact disc in 2000.) Holiday, less than two years before her death at forty-four, is ghostlike and almost voiceless; Fitzgerald, at her peak, turns in a typically buoyant performance despite technical glitches. For Fitzgerald it was another in the thousands of performances she gave between her debut in 1934 and her retirement in 1992, one in which she pleased her audience with a display of vocal prowess in the service of sheer joy.

Two lesser biographies, Sid Colin’s Ella: The Life and Times of Ella Fitzgerald (1986) and James Haskins’s Ella Fitzgerald: A Life Through Jazz (1991), preceded the first major study of her life and career, Stuart Nicholson’s Ella Fitzgerald (1993). Nicholson, a professional biographer and jazz scholar who also wrote a book about Billie Holiday, is a strong researcher and a good music critic, but his book is written at a distance from its subject. All of the above are British efforts. The only American biography is Geoffrey Mark Fidelman, First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald for the Record (1994). As he recounts in his introduction, Fidelman began his book on the advice of an official at Granz’s office who gave him the impression he would get greater cooperation than he did. Nevertheless, the book is a reasonable account of Fitzgerald’s life, written just before her death when she had stopped performing. Also worth noting are Bud Kliment’s well-written biography for young adults, Ella Fitzgerald (1988), and editor Leslie Gourse’s anthology The Ella Fitzgerald Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary (1998). But the definitive book about Ella Fitzgerald has yet to be written. There is an obituary on the front page of the New York Times (16 June 1996).

William J. Ruhlmann

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Fitzgerald, Ella Jane

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