Ella Jane Fitzgerald was an American jazz singer, sometimes referred to as the "First Lady of Song", "Queen of Jazz", and "Lady Ella". She was remarkably known for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing, timing, intonation, a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing, and for having a remarkable three-octave range. She was a global superstar who debuted at the Apollo Theater in 1934 in a competition she had entered for. She went on to become the top female jazz singer for decades, made history as the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award, eventually winning 13 Grammys in total and selling more than 40 million albums.
Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia. She was the daughter of Temperance "Tempie" Henry, a laundry girl, and William Fitzgerald, her mother’s shipyard boyfriend, both of whom were described as "mulatto" in the 1920 census. Her parents were unmarried but lived together in the East End section of Newport News for at least two and a half years after she was born. Some other reports have it that they actually split before Ella was a year old.
Ella's mother and her new partner, a Portuguese immigrant named Joseph da Silva, moved to Yonkers, in Westchester County, New York. Their little family will grow bigger in 1923 when her half-sister, Frances da Silva, who she stayed close to for all of her life, was born. By 1925, Fitzgerald and her family had moved to nearby School Street, a poor Italian area. She began her formal education at the age of six and was an outstanding student, moving through a variety of schools before attending Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in 1929.
Ella Fitzgerald recognized her love for music and dance as early on as the third grade. She admired Earl Snakehips Tucker and performed for her peers on the way to school and at lunchtime. Her family was active in the Bethany African Methodist Episcopal Church. Ella got to attend worship services, Bible study, and Sunday school. The church was where Ella had her earliest experiences in music.
In 1932, when Fitzgerald was fifteen, her mother died from injuries sustained in a car accident. This began a series of incredible hardships for the teenage girl. Her stepfather took care of her until April 1933 when she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. Reports state that this move was possibly a result of the abuse she had experienced at the hands of her stepfather. She did not adjust well to her new reality and dropped out of school, “running numbers”—selling tickets for an illegal, Mafia-run lottery—to make money.
She also worked as a lookout at a bordello (brothel) till the authorities caught up with her and placed her in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale in the Bronx. When the orphanage proved too crowded, she was moved to the New York Training School for Girls, a state reformatory school in Hudson, New York. It was an institution for “wayward” or “incorrigible” young women. A government investigation conducted two years later would expose that the black girls living at the school were housed in atrocious conditions and were routinely beaten. This may be a valid explanation as to why Fitzgerald will escape the school and wander the streets as a homeless youth for a time.
Ella returned to Harlem and that is where she began to meet the serious changes in her life. It started with an Amateur Night competition she entered at the famous Apollo Theater on the 21st of November, 1934. Ella loved to dance, but when she saw the Edwards Sisters dance marvelously just before she was to go on, she changed her mind and decided to sing. The crowd wasn’t pleased with the sight of her. She looked homeless and unkempt because she was. But when she started to sing, the audience went silent.
Her beautiful voice helped her claim her first award in the competition. She confidentially claimed her first-place prize of 25 US dollars. She also won the chance to perform at the Apollo for a week but, seemingly because of her messy appearance, the theater never gave her that part of her prize. Her victory, therefore, did not immediately translate into an improvement in her living conditions, however; it was only four months later that she got her big break from Chick Webb, a young, ambitious bandleader who had gained a reputation as one of the best drummers in Harlem.
Webb had tasked his band’s lead singer to find a lead female vocalist for the band. Linton found Ella and showed her to Webb. He was initially reluctant to put her in the band because she didn’t fit the looks he had imagined for his lead female vocalist. But he eventually did due to extra persuasion from Linton. Fitzgerald recorded several hit songs with the band, including "Love and Kisses" and "(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)". But it was her 1938 version of the nursery rhyme, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket", a song she co-wrote, that brought her public acclaim. "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" became a major hit on the radio and was also one of the biggest-selling records of the decade.
Webb’s passing on in 1939 saw her lead his band till it broke up in 1942, after which she soloed in cabarets and theatres, toured internationally with pop and jazz stars, and recorded music prolifically. Her career experienced a dramatic rise in the 1950s under the management of jazz impresario Norman Granz. From 1956 to 1964 she recorded a 19-volume series of “songbooks,” where she interpreted almost 250 outstanding songs. In combination with the best jazz instrumental support, this material established clearly Fitzgerald’s remarkable interpretative skills.
She appeared in films (notably Pete Kelly’s Blues in 1955), on television, and in concert halls throughout the world. She also recorded a number of live concert albums and produced a notable duet version of Porgy and Bess (1957) with Louis Armstrong.
During the 1970s she began to experience serious health problems, but she continued to perform periodically, even after heart surgery in 1986. In 1993, however, her career was curtailed following complications stemming from diabetes, which resulted in the amputation of both her legs below the knees. She died in her home from a stroke on June 15, 1996, at the age of 79. A few hours after her death, the Playboy Jazz Festival was launched at the Hollywood Bowl. In tribute, the marquee read: "Ella We Will Miss You." Her funeral was private, and she was buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, CA.
Fitzgerald married at least twice. Her first marriage was in 1941, to Benny Kornegay, a convicted drug dealer, and local dockworker. The marriage was annulled in 1942. Her second marriage was in December 1947, to the famous bass player Ray Brown, whom she had met while on tour with Dizzy Gillespie's band a year earlier. Together they adopted a child born to Fitzgerald's half-sister, Frances, whom they christened Ray Brown Jr. Fitzgerald and Brown divorced in 1953, due to the various career pressures both were experiencing at the time, though they would continue to perform together.
Fitzgerald was a civil rights activist; using her talent to break racial barriers across the nation. She was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Equal Justice Award and the American Black Achievement Award. She won thirteen Grammy Awards and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967. She also received a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement (1979) and the National Medal of Arts (1987).
Read about another homeless singer who became rich here.