Light up 99 candles because today we celebrate the birthday of the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.
Let’s let her official website speak for her:
Dubbed “The First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald was the most popular
female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century.
In her lifetime, she won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million
Her voice was flexible, wide-ranging, accurate and ageless. She
could sing sultry ballads, sweet jazz and imitate every instrument in an
orchestra. She worked with all the jazz greats, from Duke Ellington,
Count Basie and Nat King Cole, to Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and
Benny Goodman. (Or rather, some might say all the jazz greats had the
pleasure of working with Ella.)
She performed at top venues all over the world, and packed them
to the hilt. Her audiences were as diverse as her vocal range. They were
rich and poor, made up of all races, all religions and all
nationalities. In fact, many of them had just one binding factor in
common – they all loved her.
A recent remix of one of Ella’s most well known tunes proving her relevance to another generation
on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, singer Ella Fitzgerald was
the product of a common-law marriage between William Fitzgerald and
Temperance “Tempie” Williams Fitzgerald. Ella experienced a troubled
childhood that began with her parents separating shortly after her
My meager Ella Fitzgerald collection, but I have the best stuff
With her mother, Fitzgerald moved to Yonkers, New York.
They lived there with her mother’s boyfriend, Joseph De Sailva. The
family grew in 1923 with the arrival of Fitzgerald’s half-sister
Frances. Struggling financially, the young Fitzgerald helped her family
out by working as a messenger “running numbers” and acting as a lookout
for a brothel. Her first career aspiration was to become a dancer.
her mother’s death in 1932, Fitzgerald ended up moving in with an aunt.
She started skipping school. Fitzgerald was then sent to a special
reform school but didn’t stay there long. By 1934, Ella was trying to
make it on her own and living on the streets. Still harboring dreams of
becoming an entertainer, she entered an amateur contest at Harlem’s
Apollo Theater. She sang the Hoagy Carmichael
tune “Judy” as well as “The Object of My Affection,” wowing the
audience. Fitzgerald went on to win the contest’s $25 first place prize.
unexpected performance at the Apollo helped set Fitzgerald’s career in
motion. She soon met bandleader and drummer Chick Webb and eventually
joined his group as a singer. Fitzgerald recorded “Love and Kisses” with
Webb in 1935 and found herself playing regularly at one of Harlem’s
hottest clubs, the Savoy. Fitzgerald also put out her first No. 1 hit,
1938’s “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she co-wrote. Later that year Ella
recorded her second hit, “I Found My Yellow Basket.”
With Decca’s Milt Gabler as her manager, Fitzgerald began working regularly for the jazz impresario Norman Granz and appeared regularly in his Jazz at the Philharmonic
(JATP) concerts. Her relationship with Granz was further cemented when
he became her manager, although it would be nearly a decade before he
could record her on one of his many record labels.
With the demise of the Swing era and the decline of the great touring big bands, a major change in jazz music occurred. The advent of bebop led to new developments in Fitzgerald’s vocal style, influenced by her work with Dizzy Gillespie‘s big band. It was in this period that Fitzgerald started including scat singing
as a major part of her performance repertoire. While singing with
Gillespie, Fitzgerald recalled, “I just tried to do [with my voice] what
I heard the horns in the band doing.”
Her 1945 scat recording of “Flying Home” arranged by Vic Schoen would later be described by The New York Times
as “one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the
decade….Where other singers, most notably Louis Armstrong, had tried
similar improvisation, no one before Miss Fitzgerald employed the
technique with such dazzling inventiveness.” Her bebop recording of “Oh, Lady Be Good!” (1947) was similarly popular and increased her reputation as one of the leading jazz vocalists.
It was during this latter period of Fitzgerald’s career that she entered the pantheon of musical superstars to become the First Lady of Song.
I was lucky enough to see Ella Fitzgerald at Toronto’s Imperial Room. I thought it would be her last tour (but I believe she did one more after this) and I thought if I didn’t see her then, I might never have the chance again.
It was my first time in the Imperial Room, even though it was not my first time wearing a tie, required at the Imperial Room. It was also very expensive. It cost $75.00 per person and, of course, I took a date. That was a pretty penny for me back then, but I could console myself that it came with dinner. The Imperial Room was a supper club.
It was one of the most memorable musical moments of my entire life!!!
In 1985, Fitzgerald was hospitalized briefly for respiratory problems, in 1986 for congestive heart failure, and in 1990 for exhaustion.
In March 1990 she appeared at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England
with the Count Basie Orchestra for the launch of Jazz FM, plus a gala
dinner at the Grosvenor House Hotel at which she performed. In 1993, she had to have both of her legs amputated below the knee due to the effects of diabetes. Her eyesight was affected as well.
In 1996, tired of being in the hospital, she wished to spend her last
days at home. Confined to a wheelchair, she spent her final days in her
backyard of her Beverly Hills mansion on Whittier, with her son Ray and
12-year-old granddaughter, Alice. “I just want to smell the air, listen
to the birds and hear Alice laugh,” she reportedly said. On her last
day, she was wheeled outside one last time, and sat there for about an
hour. When she was taken back in, she looked up with a soft smile on her
face and said, “I’m ready to go now.” She died in her home 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 Los Angeles.
As always it’s all in the grooves. Here are some of my favourite Ella Fitzgerald recordings out of the hundreds that she has made.