Fitzgerald, Ella (1917–1996)

views updated

Fitzgerald, Ella (1917–1996)

Jazz and pop world's "first lady of song," the most honored female vocalist in modern music history. Born Ella Jane Fitzgerald out of wedlock on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia; died at her home in Beverly Hills, California, on June 15, 1996; daughter of William Fitzgerald and Temperance Williams; had a half-sister Frances who died in 1960; educated in local schools in Yonkers, New York; married Benjamin Kornegay, in 1935 (annulled 1937); married Ray Brown (a bassist), in 1947 (divorced 1953); children: (second marriage) one adopted son, Ray Brown, Jr.

Discovered by bandleader William "Chick" Webb in Harlem, who gave her her first paid singing engagements with his band (mid-1930s); later became a noted jazz stylist with Dizzy Gillespie's band, known for her "scatting" and her emotive interpretations of pop and jazz standards; remained the most popular female vocalist of international stature from the end of World War II to the mid-1980s, winning 12 Grammy Awards before retiring because of poor health.

One night in 1935, at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, bandleader Chick Webb was presented with an odd vision as he sat backstage between sets. Standing before "the king of the Savoy" was a gawky young girl of 18, wearing an ill-fitting dress and shoes much too large for her. "Don't look at her," his master-of-ceremonies said. "Just listen to her sing." With that, Ella Jane Fitzgerald took a deep breath and, unaccompanied, sang "The Object of My Affection" with such perfect pitch and subtlety of expression that not another sound could be heard until she had finished. Even though the last thing he had been thinking about was a vocalist for his band, Webb hired her on the spot, sensing instinctively what one biographer would later describe as Ella's "superb blend of musicianship, vocal ability, and interpretive insight."

Ella Fitzgerald">

I just sing as I feel, man. Jazz ain't intellectual.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald's remarkable talents seemed completely spontaneous, since she had no formal vocal training, grew up in a distinctly non-musical household, and harbored a secret desire as a girl to become a dancer. She was born out of wedlock in Newport News, Virginia, in 1917, and while her father—a truck driver named William Fitzgerald—acknowledged paternity, he disappeared when Ella was only three. Her mother Temperance ("Tempie") Williams supported her daughter by taking in laundry before marrying a retired fisherman, Joseph Da Silva, and moving with him in 1920 to Yonkers, just north of New York City. By then, radio had become a major form of entertainment, and Ella grew up listening to the big bands of Fletcher Henderson, Jimmy Lunceford, and Jack Teagarden, many of whom appeared regularly just a train ride away at Harlem's nightclubs and ballrooms.

Her only musical training was in junior high school, where she sang in the Glee Club and was told by friends that she was good enough to make a living at it. Too shy to even consider such a thing, Ella would only go so far as to take the train into Harlem as often as she could to hang around the clubs and get autographs from stars like Billie Holiday . When her mother died of a heart attack in 1932 and her stepfather turned to drink and became abusive, Ella moved to Harlem to live with an aunt. But when her new guardian found out that Ella had been making extra money by running numbers between illegal betting parlors and, worse, serving as a police lookout for one of Harlem's brothels, she disowned her niece and packed her off to the Riverdale Orphanage, where Fitzgerald learned to type and seemed destined for a drab life of secretarial work.

But there was always music—on the radio, in the movies, and best of all, live on stage. A favorite spot for hearing live music for not much money was the Harlem Opera House, and it was there one night in 1934 that Ella Fitzgerald first sang for a paying audience. Arriving for the Opera House's weekly amateur night, she and two friends dared each other to get up on stage and perform, drawing straws to decide which one of them was the victim. Ella drew the short straw. Shaking with stage fright, she stepped onto the stage intending to dance, but her body refused to cooperate; instead, she asked the pianist to play a number she'd heard Connee Boswell sing on the radio, "The Object of My Affection." "I didn't know one key from another," she said many years later. "I just sang … in the key they picked for me." In only a few moments, the raucous audience had fallen silent before Fitzgerald's apparently effortless, silky, perfectly tuned singing, and asked for three encores before she was awarded the $25 first prize. (Another young hopeful named Pearl Bailey , also born in Newport News, was in the audience.)

Encouraged by her success, not to mention the $25, Fitzgerald entered as many amateur night shows as she could, adding two other numbers—"Believe It, Beloved" and Hoagy Carmichael's "Judy"—to her repertoire. She won again the next year at the Opera House, this time for $50 and a week's work singing with Tiny Bradshaw's house band, all of whom chipped in to buy her a dress to wear. By now, word was getting around about the Fitzgerald girl with the velvet voice, and when Ella sang at the Apollo's amateur night (which she won), Chick Webb's M.C. Bardu Ali was in the audience and promptly got her to sing before his boss.

William "Chick" Webb had one of the most popular swing bands in New York City at the time, although he was unable to lead the musicians himself because of a crippling childhood bout with spinal tuberculosis that had left him partially paralyzed. While Ali worked the front of the band, Chick was content to sit at the back as drummer. But the band was his baby, and it was Chick who paid Fitzgerald out of his own pocket when he first used her as vocalist at a fraternity dance at Yale University. The collegians went wild for her, and Webb was certain he'd been right—so certain that he and his wife legally adopted Ella, then just 18, so she could work professionally. Back in Harlem, he and Charlie Buchanan, the Savoy Ballroom's manager, each chipped in ten dollars to pay Ella's salary for the next week. "We gave her fifty bucks the second

week," Buchanan recalled. "The third week, we dressed her up."

Webb wisely cautioned Fitzgerald not to be too anxious for success and to develop slowly, telling her that the ones who rose too fast were the ones who fell the quickest. "I felt I wanted to be a big success in a hurry," Fitzgerald recalled, "and I found all through the years you never appreciate anything if you get it in a hurry." Webb would only let her sing one number per set at first, as a way of getting her used to performing, and taught her everything she lacked in terms of deportment—how to stand at the mike, what to do with her hands, and so on. Even with her limited exposure in those early days, a young dancer at the Savoy one night in 1935 remembered, "She was so young and beautiful that we all fell in love with her before she opened her mouth. We were all captivated." So were the judges of 1935's famous "Battle of the Bands" between Chick Webb's group and Benny Good-man's ensemble. Fitzgerald went up against the Goodman Quartette, singing "Big Boy Blue" and "You Showed Me The Way" (a number she had written herself). The Chick Webb Band emerged the winner. Later that year, she made her first recording with Webb for Decca, "Love and Kisses," although she never heard her own voice until some months later, when she had to pay someone of legal drinking age to go into a bar and crank up the jukebox while she stood outside and listened. Early in 1936, she appeared with Webb on radio for the first time, Chick having been invited to appear on a regional radio program called "Gems of Color."

Fitzgerald's talent for "scat singing"—that is, improvising new melodies and harmonies over existing ones using onomatopoeic phrases and nonsense words—emerged early on in her career. In 1936, she recorded a song officially called "If You Can't Sing It, You'll Have to Swing It," although it became known by the more convenient title "Mr. Paganini." Addressed to the famous concert violinist, the lyrics ask him to "play my favorite rhapsody"; and if he can't play it …

Won't you sing it?
And if you can't sing it,
You'll simply have to swing it.

And Ella was off on a soaring, swooping musical game with Webb's band that made the record enough of a bestseller that her next recordings were under her own name, as "Ella Fitzgerald and the Savoy Eight." It was typical of Chick Webb to be content in the background, just as he was when the band played before a live audience. "He never felt he was the only star," Fitzgerald said. "Anyone who could do something, he gave them the chance to do it." In 1937, Ella was named Down Beat's female vocalist of the year, topping Billie Holiday—whose autograph she had shyly sought less than ten years before.

On tour in Boston with Webb in 1937, Fitzgerald picked out a tune on the piano one night between sets. It was a children's song she had learned in school years before, "A-Tisket, ATasket," about the little girl with the yellow basket. An arranger traveling with the band worked it up for her, and Fitzgerald sang it for the first time as a novelty song the next night, with an enthusiastic response. It was a year for novelty songs, one of the top tunes on the charts then being Slim Galliard's and Slam Stewart's "The Flat Foot Floogie with the Floy Floy." Decca was skeptical about recording Fitzgerald's invention, but Webb convinced them to release it, adding some business in which the band and Fitzgerald traded information about the basket in question:

Was it green?
No, no, no, no.
Was it red?
No, no, no, no.

… and so on, until Fitzgerald broke into a scat again when they finally worked their way down to the color yellow. The little song about the basket sold a million copies, went to number one on the Hit Parade, and made Ella Fitzgerald a star of national proportions. Later that year, Webb had to hustle Fitzgerald down to court to annul a marriage she'd made on a bet. ("The guy bet me I wouldn't marry him," claimed Fitzgerald; she also claimed to have forgotten his name, though he appears to have been a shipyard worker named Benjamin Kornegay.) At the hearing, the judge told her, "You just keep on singing 'A-Tisket, A-Tasket' and leave those men alone."

By 1939, five years after her nervous debut at the Harlem Opera House, Fitzgerald was earning $125 a week, was being pursued by the likes of Benny Goodman and Jimmy Lunceford, had won Down Beat's poll for the third year in a row, and was working—either on tour or in the studio—nearly constantly. Her professionalism seemed almost nonchalant, especially when it came to her growing fondness for food. Sammy Cahn remembered one session in 1938 in which Fitzgerald was about to record a sensitive ballad, "a song," he said, "that required some kind of feeling, some personal involvement. She was standing at the mike with a hot dog in one hand and a bottle of Coke in the other, and she couldn't wait to get at the song so she could eat." Studio sidemen, who were paid per song, loved to record with Fitzgerald, since she rarely required more than one take for a tune, and several numbers could be laid down at each session. Jazz critic Whitney Balliet once described Fitzgerald's apparently effortless technique as one "that enables her to slide effortlessly up and down the scales, manage long intervals, and maintain perfect pitch. She is a peerless popular singer." The legendary perfect pitch was actually something much more rare, what musicologists call "relative" pitch—an ability to not only hit the correct pitch for each individual note, but for its relationship to the notes immediately before and after it. Chick Webb didn't bother much with such analyses, however. He merely changed his marquees in 1939, to read: "Ella Fitzgerald and the Chick Webb Band."

Few people besides Fitzgerald knew that Webb had been in nearly constant pain for most of his life because of his childhood tuberculosis, but during the first half of 1939, the pain seemed to be getting worse. Webb died that June, when he was only 29 years old. At the funeral, Ella stood next to his casket and sang "My Buddy" in tribute to the mentor who had brought her from the streets of Harlem to national prominence. Her eulogy for him was even simpler. "There was so much music in that man," she said.

Although Fitzgerald took over the band, renaming it Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra, she must have wondered at times over the next six years if Webb's warning about succeeding too quickly had come true for her. With the onset of World War II and the draft, the band slowly began to break up, as the musicians were called up, one after another. Before long the band's manager, Moe Gale—who had taken over Fitzgerald's personal management as well—suggested that Ella begin to appear separately from the orchestra; and by 1942, with the coming of a bitter strike by the American Federation of Musicians against the record industry over royalties, the band finally gave up the ghost. Fitzgerald did a good deal of radio work and continued to record with all the big bands for Decca, with whom Gale negotiated a new contract with a $15,000 guarantee (although some insiders said she could have easily gotten $40,000). But her career seemed stalled, and for the first time since the mid-30s, she failed to appear on Down Beat's annual poll.

After the war, however, things changed. Dizzy Gillespie had been a fan of Fitzgerald's since her days with Webb, and when the war ended and America was ready to let its hair down again, Fitzgerald went on tour with Gillespie and his band. Dizzy gave her, she later said, her "education in bop"—that happy blend of jazz and pop of which Gillespie was such a brilliant stylist. On tour, Ella said, "we would have some real crazy experiences, but to me it was what you call growing up in the music." The new, jazz-oriented Fitzgerald burst on the national charts with her recording of "Lady Be Good" in 1947, her first major hit built almost entirely around her trademark scat singing. Also in that year, she made her initial Carnegie Hall appearance with Dizzy, singing "Stairway to the Stars" and "How High the Moon." Not everyone was happy with her new style. Melody Maker, in an article bannered "Ella Switches To Sweltering Swing," wondered if she had gone too far for her traditional audience to follow. But follow her they did, loyally and in greater and greater numbers, for the next 40 years.

Fitzgerald's personal life also took a new turn. Ray Brown played bass with the Gillespie band, and, during the 1947 tour, he and Fitzgerald grew increasingly close. On December 10, the two were married in Mexico. During their six years together, most of it on the road, they adopted a son, Ray Jr., who remained with Fitzgerald when she and Ray were amicably divorced in August of 1953. The two continued to work together professionally for many years thereafter, including countless gigs with the Oscar Peterson Trio, for which Ray was the bassist.

It was Brown who introduced Fitzgerald to the man who would bring her, and so many other jazz artists, to international prominence. Norman Granz had loved being around musicians since his childhood in Los Angeles, and he was the first to realize the potential of a paying audience at what was then the novel idea of a "jam session." He staged his first such sessions while he was in college in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, paying the musicians six dollars a night—but he added a social dimension to these evenings by always stipulating to the club owners that the audience had to be integrated. The jams were such a success that Granz moved them to Los Angeles' Philharmonic Hall and instituted, in 1949, "Jazz at the Philharmonic." JATP, as the cognoscenti came to call it, would become a jazz tradition for the next eight years and tour the country to sellout audiences which were always, at Granz's insistence, racially mixed—not an easy proposition in America in the 1950s, particularly in the South, and especially if you were a Jewish jazz promoter from Los Angeles. In Houston, Granz and his musicians were the victims of a setup by the police, who tried to jail Granz, Fitzgerald and the band on gambling charges (Granz sued and won). Hotels that refused to accept black musicians were routinely taken to court or subjected to sit-down strikes organized by Granz, who also did not hesitate to sue the airline that refused to honor Fitzgerald's first-class ticket on a flight from California to Hawaii.

Granz was determined to add Ella to the growing roster of jazz performers that he managed. He tried to convince her of the half-hearted support she was getting from Decca and Moe Gale, who were content with her earlier work's royalties and were doing little to actively promote her. Loyal to anyone who had known Chick Webb, however, Fitzgerald refused to cancel her contract with either Decca or Gale and resisted Granz's pleas until 1954, when her current contracts expired. Signing with Granz in that year, she immediately found herself playing better clubs for higher salaries and, in 1956, became the cornerstone artist of the most prolific jazz label ever created, Granz's Verve Records. (He would later sell Verve to MGM, in 1960, only to return with a new label, Pablo, which recorded and released many of Fitzgerald's live performances.) It was Granz who first presented Fitzgerald singing with the Oscar Peterson Trio, after pianist Peterson joined the JATP tour in the early 1950s. Fitzgerald and Peterson would appear together for the next 30 years, and few will forget their first appearance at the inaugural Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. "I have never truthfully played with a musician," Peterson says, "who frightened me as much as playing for Ella. Because she has the kind of gift you can't describe."

Ella grew to trust Granz implicitly. "It was a Svengali relationship," says keyboardist Paul Smith. "She rarely bucked him." While it is true that Granz chose nearly all of Fitzgerald's material and the musicians who played for her, he is more unassuming about his influence over Fitzgerald. "She didn't always agree with me," Granz says, "and in some cases, rather than push it, I thought she should do what she wanted." It was Fitzgerald's and Granz's idea for her to record the classic "Songbook" series, each record dedicated to a particular composer, from Harold Arlen to Duke Ellington to Cole Porter—many of whom Fitzgerald had known personally.

By 1960, there were few places in the world where the name Ella Fitzgerald was unknown. But outside of her singing and touring, Fitzgerald had very little private life. She relaxed on tour by avidly watching movies or simply going to sleep. "I'm insecure," she had told an interviewer for Ebony in 1961, "because I feel that I'm not glamorous enough." She thought nothing of working seven days a week, doing several shows a day, but the grueling schedule began to take its toll. During a concert in Munich in 1965, she suddenly lost her breath in the middle of a lyric and had to be led from the stage; and for some years previously, her eyes had become increasingly troublesome, first with cataracts and, later, with the glaucoma that accompanied the diabetes with which she was diagnosed. Often weighing 200 pounds or more, she had increasing difficulty negotiating stairs or standing in front of a band for long periods of time; and in the studio, she often took to singing while sitting down.

But sing she did, along with keeping up with the "new" music, telling an interviewer during the late 1960s, for example, that the Beatles "proved they know some kind of music. I'd love to make an album of their songs." She won her 12th Grammy award in 1984 and received the Honors Medal from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts that same year. Throughout the 1980s, as she approached 70 years of age, her voice retained its velvety spontaneity and its uncanny pitch.

By the late 1980s, Fitzgerald's eyesight had deteriorated so badly that she once inadvertently stepped off the stage during a concert at the Hollywood Bowl and toppled into a row of empty chairs, hurting her leg. After being helped back on stage, she brought the house down when she immediately launched into "Since I Fell for You." From then on, her schedule began to slow. Her last released recordings were in 1989—for Quincy Jones' "Back On The Block," teaming up with artists such as Bobby McFerrin and Al Jarreau, and a Pablo release, "All That Jazz." By 1990, jazz commentator Dan Morganstern noted that she had to be led on and off stage and had to sit throughout each concert. "But, boy," he went on, "does she still have energy. And she just does not want to let go!" Her last public performance was in Florida in 1992 (although she sang a few verses of "Lady Be Good" at a party in her honor at the University of Southern California School of Music in Hollywood later that year). In 1993, her worsening diabetes forced the amputation of both her legs below the knee. On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died of complications of diabetes at her Beverly Hills home.

No doubt critics, composers, musicians, and fans will keep trying to define what Chick Webb felt instinctively that night in Harlem in 1935, though Fitzgerald would probably discourage such ruminations. "Listen, brother," she once said, "I sure get all shook up when folks start theorizing about my singing. I just tell 'em to sit back and relax. Yeah, that's it. Relax."


Colin, Sid. Ella: The Life and Times of Ella Fitzgerald. London: Elm Tree Books, 1986.

Fidelman, Geoffrey. The First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald for the Record. NY: Birch Lane Press, 1994.

Holden, Stephen. "Ella Fitzgerald, the Voice of Jazz, Dies at 79" (obituary) in The New York Times. June 16, 1996.

McDonough, John. "Tales from Ella's Fellas," in Down Beat. Vol. 62, no. 9, September 1995.

Nicholson, Stuart. Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Song. NY: Scribner, 1994.

suggested reading:

Cocks, Jay. "The Voice of America," in Time. June 24, 1996.

"The Scat lady," in Newsweek. June 24, 1996.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York

About this article

Fitzgerald, Ella (1917–1996)

Updated About content Print Article