The greatest female interpreter of the American songbook, a unique vocalist combining scat and jazz, with enduring influence.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald, b. April 25, 1917 in Newport News, VA, d. June 15, 1996 in Beverly Hills, CA. Following the disappearance of her father, Fitzgerald was taken to Yonkers, New York by her mother and her new man Joseph da Silva. At school she sang with a glee club and showed early promise, but preferred dancing to singing. Even so, chronic shyness militated against her chances of succeeding as an entertainer. Nevertheless, she entered a talent contest at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem as a dancer, but owing to last-minute nerves, after discovering that the Edwards Sisters (a popular dance act) were also on the bill, she was unable to dance and decided to sing. Her unexpected success winning this talent night prompted her to enter other talent contests, and she began to win frequently enough to persevere with her singing. Eventually, she reached the top end of the talent show circuit, singing at the Harlem Opera House where she was heard by several influential people. In later years many claimed to have "discovered" her, but among those most likely to have been involved in trying to establish her as a professional singer with the Fletcher Henderson band were Benny Carter and Charles Linton. They were the probably the house band at the Apollo the night she won.
Fitzgerald continued her round of the talent shows, now effectively homeless and lacking in personal hygiene she was not a pretty sight. Fortunately she was heard by Linton, who sang with the Chick Webb band at the Savoy Ballroom, also in Harlem. Webb took her on, at first paying her out of his own pocket, and for the fringe audience she quickly became the band's main attraction. Even at the age of 17 she showed a remarkable professionalism and ability to learn quickly; even on her debut recording with Webb ("Love And Kisses") in 1935, she demonstrated confidence that belied her experience and age. She recorded extensively with Webb, with a small group led by Teddy Wilson, with the Ink Spots, and with others. Her hits with Webb included "Sing Me A Swing Song", "Oh, Yes, Take Another Guess", "The Dipsy Doodle", "If Dreams Come True", "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" (a song on which she collaborated on the lyric and was her first number 1 in 1938), "F.D.R. Jones", "Wacky Dust", "I Found My Yellow Basket", and "Undecided". She also briefly recorded with Benny Goodman in 1936 but the records were quickly withdrawn due to legal problems. The three collector's items were "Did You Mean It?", "Take Another Guess" and "Goodnight My Love". After a period of moonlighting Fitzgerald returned to Webb and recorded "Big Boy Blue" and "Dedicated To You" with the Mills Brothers. Between 1937 and 1939 Webb's popularity was considerable, and Fitzgerald proportionately received considerable attention. As early as 1937 she was voted best female vocalist in the UK's Melody Maker.
After Webb's death in June 1939 Fitzgerald became the nominal leader of the band, a position she retained until 1942. Bill Beason took over on drums and Webb's name disappeared in favour of Fitzgerald's. She had already gained a reputation as a tough and uncompromising artist, but while her popularity was high her musical credibility began to sour. The band was not discriminating between jazz and trite novelty songs; Fitzgerald would sing them all. She married Benjamin Kornegay in 1941 but the marriage was annuled six months later. Kornegay had a criminal record and appeared to have married her under false pretences. After Eddie Barefield took over the band Fitzgerald departed and then began her solo career, recording numerous popular songs, sometimes teaming up with other artists, notably the Three Keys. Although she was signed to Decca Records her popularity began to slip. It was not until "Cow Cow Boogie" in 1944 that she had another hit record. Her new A&R man at Decca was Milt Gabler and, although often overlooked, he should take much of the credit for resurrecting her flagging career at this time. Important songs such as her major scat number "Flying Home" backed with the superb "Lady Be Good", a duet with Louis Jordan, "Stone Cold Dead In The Market", and a further duet with Louis Armstrong, "You Won't Be Satisfied" backed with "Frim Fram Sauce", helped to raise her profile with the public.
In 1947 Fitzgerald married the master bass player Ray Brown. In 1949 she began a long professional association with Norman Granz. He became a svengali figure in her life, initially as booker for his JATP (Jazz At The Philharmonic) concerts, he went on to become her manager and A&R director. It was Granz's masterly and astute control of her career that helped to establish Fitzgerald as one of the world's leading vocalists. She was certainly the most popular jazz singer with non-jazz audiences, and through judicious choice of repertoire became the foremost female interpreter of the Great American Popular Song Book. With Granz she worked on the "songbook" series, placing on record definitive performances of the work of America's leading songwriters, and she also toured extensively for many years as part of his Jazz At The Philharmonic package. She divorced Ray Brown in 1953 (although they remained close professionally throughout her life). That same year her contract with Decca was up for renewal and by late 1954 she had signed with Granz's new record label Verve Records. Gabler was sorry to lose her but she did leave one last great album for Decca, Ella Sings In A Mellow Mood. This was recorded with only Ellis Larkins and it remains one of her finest recordings. It was however a string of superlative albums for Verve for which Fitzgerald will be remembered (very much like Frank Sinatra's golden age at Capitol Records). In addition to the magnificent songbook series she recorded excellent albums with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nelson Riddle and Frank DeVol. Her albums with Louis Armstrong are also gems. Other highlights during the 50s were her live recordings (some were not issued until Phil Schaap discovered the tapes rotting in the vaults). Granz eventually got bored with Verve and sold it to MGM Records. He relocated to Europe and signed Ella to his new label Pablo. She recorded many albums on Pablo from 1973 onwards, notably her duet work with Joe Pass and further quality recordings with Basie.
Fitzgerald had a wide vocal range, but her voice retained a youthful, light vibrancy throughout the greater part of her career, bringing a fresh and appealing quality to most of her material, especially "scat" singing. However, it proved less suited to the blues, a genre that, for the most part, she wisely avoided. Indeed, in her early work the most apparent musical influence was Connee Boswell. As a jazz singer, Fitzgerald performed with elegantly swinging virtuosity and her work with accompanists such as Ray Brown (they had an adopted son, Ray Brown Jnr., a drummer), Pass, Oscar Peterson and Tommy Flanagan was always immaculately conceived. However, her recordings with Louis Armstrong reveal the marked difference between Fitzgerald's approach and that of a singer for whom the material is secondary to his or her own improvisational skills.
For all the enviably high quality of her jazz work, it is as a singer of superior popular songs that Fitzgerald remains most important and influential. Her respect for her material, beautifully displayed in the "songbook" series, helped her to establish and retain her place as the finest vocalist in her chosen area of music. Due largely to deteriorating health, by the mid-80s Fitzgerald's career was at a virtual standstill, although a 1990 appearance in the UK was well received by an ecstatic audience. In April 1994 it was reported that both her legs had been amputated because of complications caused by diabetes. She lived a reclusive existence at her Beverly Hills home until her death in 1996.
Fitzgerald's most obvious counterpart among male singers was Frank Sinatra (they were the greatest interpreters of the American songbook) and, with both singers now dead, questions inevitably arise about the fate of the great popular songs of the 30s and 40s. While there are still numerous excellent interpreters in the 90s and beyond (Diana Krall and Jane Monheit), and many whose work has been strongly influenced by Fitzgerald, the social and artistic conditions that helped to create America's First Lady of Song no longer exist, and it is highly unlikely therefore, that we shall ever see or hear her like again. No record collection (even a basic one) should be without Ella Fitzgerald.
by Scott Yanow
"The First Lady of Song," Ella Fitzgerald was arguably the finest female jazz singer of all time (although some may vote for Sarah Vaughan or Billie Holiday). Blessed with a beautiful voice and a wide range, Fitzgerald could outswing anyone, was a brilliant scat singer, and had near-perfect elocution; one could always understand the words she sang. The one fault was that, since she always sounded so happy to be singing, Fitzgerald did not always dig below the surface of the lyrics she interpreted and she even made a downbeat song such as "Love for Sale" sound joyous. However, when one evaluates her career on a whole, there is simply no one else in her class.
One could never guess from her singing that Ella Fitzgerald's early days were as grim as Billie Holiday's. Growing up in poverty, Fitzgerald was literally homeless for the year before she got her big break. In 1934, she appeared at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, winning an amateur contest by singing "Judy" in the style of her idol, Connee Boswell. After a short stint with Tiny Bradshaw, Fitzgerald was brought to the attention of Chick Webb by Benny Carter (who was in the audience at the Apollo). Webb, who was not impressed by the 17-year-old's appearance, was reluctantly persuaded to let her sing with his orchestra on a one-nighter. She went over well and soon the drummer recognized her commercial potential. Starting in 1935, Fitzgerald began recording with Webb's Orchestra, and by 1937 over half of the band's selections featured her voice. "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" became a huge hit in 1938 and "Undecided" soon followed. During this era, Fitzgerald was essentially a pop/swing singer who was best on ballads while her medium-tempo performances were generally juvenile novelties. She already had a beautiful voice but did not improvise or scat much; that would develop later.
On June 16, 1939, Chick Webb died. It was decided that Fitzgerald would front the orchestra even though she had little to do with the repertoire or hiring or firing the musicians. She retained her popularity and when she broke up the band in 1941 and went solo; it was not long before her Decca recordings contained more than their share of hits. She was teamed with the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, and the Delta Rhythm Boys for some best-sellers, and in 1946 began working regularly for Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic. Granz became her manager although it would be nearly a decade before he could get her on his label. A major change occurred in Fitzgerald's singing around this period. She toured with Dizzy Gillespie's big band, adopted bop as part of her style, and started including exciting scat-filled romps in her set. Her recordings of "Lady Be Good," "How High the Moon," and "Flying Home" during 1945-1947 became popular and her stature as a major jazz singer rose as a result. For a time (December 10, 1947-August 28, 1953) she was married to bassist Ray Brown and used his trio as a backup group. Fitzgerald's series of duets with pianist Ellis Larkins in 1950 (a 1954 encore with Larkins was a successful follow-up) found her interpreting George Gershwin songs, predating her upcoming Songbooks series.
After appearing in the film Pete Kelly's Blues in 1955, Fitzgerald signed with Norman Granz's Verve label and over the next few years she would record extensive Songbooks of the music of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. Although (with the exception of the Ellington sets) those were not her most jazz-oriented projects (Fitzgerald stuck mostly to the melody and was generally accompanied by string orchestras), the prestigious projects did a great deal to uplift her stature. At the peak of her powers around 1960, Fitzgerald's hilarious live version of "Mack the Knife" (in which she forgot the words and made up her own) from Ella in Berlin is a classic and virtually all of her Verve recordings are worth getting.
Fitzgerald's Capitol and Reprise recordings of 1967-1970 are not on the same level as she attempted to "update" her singing by including pop songs such as "Sunny" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," sounding quite silly in the process. But Fitzgerald's later years were saved by Norman Granz's decision to form a new label, Pablo. Starting with a Santa Monica Civic concert in 1972 that is climaxed by Fitzgerald's incredible version of "C Jam Blues" (in which she trades off with and "battles" five classic jazzmen), Fitzgerald was showcased in jazz settings throughout the 1970s with the likes of Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, and Joe Pass, among others. Her voice began to fade during this era and by the 1980s her decline due to age was quite noticeable. Troubles with her eyes and heart knocked her out of action for periods of time, although her increasingly rare appearances found Fitzgerald still retaining her sense of swing and joyful style. By 1994, Ella Fitzgerald was in retirement and she passed away two years later, but she remains a household name and scores of her recordings are easily available on CD.