Ella Fitzgerald: Biography, Songs & Awards

Instructor: Laura Armstrong

Laura is a freelance musician and has taught college Music courses and holds a D.M.A. in Music Performance.

In this lesson you will learn about one of the greatest American jazz singers, Ella Fitzgerald. She was gifted with a stunningly beautiful voice, and her recordings are universally beloved, even after her death.

First Lady of Song

Ella Fitzgerald in 1947
Ella Fitzgerald in 1947

There is no voice like that lady. She has it all. She is complete. - Louie Bellson

Whatever she does to my songs, she always makes them sound better. - Richard Rodgers

Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest of them all. - Bing Crosby

These are only a few of the praises that Ella Fitzgerald received during her lifetime. She has been known as the First Lady of Song, Lady Ella, and the Queen of Jazz. Ella's smooth and lovely voice has universal appeal, and her recordings are ever popular. Although she struggled through a difficult childhood, she rose to become one of the most beloved jazz vocalists of all time.

Ella Fitzgerald: Biography

Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia. Shortly after her birth, her parents separated and her mother moved to Yonkers, New York, where she raised Ella with her new stepfather. Life was difficult for the whole family, and even as a child, Ella worked to help with the expenses. Some of her early jobs included running errands for local gamblers.

In 1932, Ella's mother passed away after a car accident. Ella then moved in with her aunt. Understandably, Ella struggled emotionally and was very depressed and began skipping school, and her truancy got her in trouble with the law. Eventually, she was sent to a reform school, where she was poorly treated and was even beaten. She managed to escape and at age fifteen was living in the streets.

Soon, Ella's luck would change. In 1934, she won a chance to perform on Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater. She had always loved dancing and planned to perform a dancing act, but that evening, she was intimidated by a fine dance performance before her slot. At the last minute, she decided to sing Hoagy Carmichael's "Judy," a song that her mother had loved. The audience loved her so much, they demanded an encore. One of the members of the band that evening was so impressed by her voice that he began introducing her to prominent musicians who could help further her career. Ella entered and won more competitions and soon won a place in Chick Webb's band as the singer.

Albums, Songs, and Musical Style

In 1938, Ella recorded her first number-one hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," with Chick Webb's band. The single was on the pop charts for seventeen weeks and sold over one million copies. Now everyone knew who Ella Fitzgerald was. She also recorded and performed with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. The following year, she took over as bandleader after Chick Webb passed away, and it was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band.

Soon Ella began her solo career and signed a recording deal with Decca Records in the early 1940s. In 1946, she moved over to work with Norman Granz, who would eventually found Verve Records. She also toured with Dizzy Gillespie and his band. It was during this time that she started adding scat singing to her performances. Scatting, or vocal improvisation, became one of her trademarks, and she helped make the technique popular.

Ella Fitzgerald in 1962
Ella Fitzgerald in 1962

During the 1950s and 1960s, Ella recorded some of her best-known work under the Verve label. These include the albums Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook. These albums, and many of her other "songbooks," were to become a major part of The Great American Songbook, or what are known as the most popular jazz standards of the twentieth century.

Some of her highly regarded recorded songs include "Someone to Watch Over Me," "How High the Moon," "Mack the Knife," and "Lady Be Good." Her version of "Mack the Knife" even made its way into the pop charts in 1960. Over her long career, which spanned six decades, she recorded more than two hundred albums and some two thousand songs. No wonder she was the First Lady of Song.

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