Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Sings as Young Dizzy Gillespie Listens

(April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996)

The “Queen of Jazz” began her journey as one of the most gifted vocalists in the world after being discovered in 1934 at Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY. Not only did Fitzgerald become the first African-American woman to win a Grammy Award in 1958, she went on to win 12 more Grammys and sell more than 40 million albums throughout her career. Fitzgerald floored audiences with her intonation and broad vocal range. Her multi-volume “songbooks” on Verve Records remain a timeless treasure in American music.

After her mother’s death in 1932, Fitzgerald was sent to live with her aunt. With a streak of rebellion, she started skipping class and was eventually sent to a special reform school. However, she didn’t stay there long. Ella was determined to make it on her own and was living on the streets by 1934, but didn’t give up on her dreams of being a singer. She entered an amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and sang the Hoagy Carmichael tune “Judy” and blew the audience away. After performing a second song, she went on to win the contest with a $25 first place prize.

Ella soon united with bandleader and drummer Chick Webb and joined the group as a vocalist. In 1935, they recorded “Love and Kisses.” Webb and Fitzgerald played regularly at the Savoy Ballroom, one of Harlem’s hottest clubs. Fitzgerald released her first No. 1 hit that she co-wrote with Webb in 1938, “A-Tisket A-Tasket.” That same year, Ella recorded her second hit, “I Found My Yellow Basket.”

The 1950s and 60s came to be a great time of success and popularity for Ella. She garnered the title, “First Lady of Song” from Louis Armstrong for her superior vocal abilities. Louis Armstrong was an influential mentor in Ella’s career and she often imitated his style of scatting, the ability to mimic instrumental sounds. She also picked up on his improvisational techniques that helped set her apart as a musical trailblazer. Fitzgerald and Armstrong performed together as a duo many times and even recorded an album together, Ella and Louis in 1956.

Fitzgerald began recording for Verve Records in 1955, Granz’s fresh new label. Some of her most popular albums were recorded with Verve, starting with 1956’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book. Fitzgerald won her first two Grammys at the very first Grammy Awards show in 1958. She made history as the first African-American woman to win a Grammy. She was selected for best individual jazz performance and best female vocal performance for two songbook projects, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book.

Fitzgerald collaborated with other great artists, such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Frank Sinatra. In the 1960s, Fitzgerald entered the pop scene and broke the charts with her rendition of “Mack the Knife.” She continued her career into the 70s, performing all around the world. One of her most memorable concert series from this time was a two-week show with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie in New York City in 1974.

Ella Fitzgerald recorded her last song in 1989 and gave her last public performance in 1991 at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Ella died on June 15, 1996 after a long battle with diabetes complications at her home in Beverly Hills.