Ella Fitzgerald is considered one of the most celebrated and influential jazz vocalists of all time. Over her nearly 60 year career, Ella left an indelible mark on jazz music and American culture with her distinct scat singing and incredible vocal range spanning three octaves. This article explores Ella’s early life, rise to fame during the swing era, personal life, later career, death and legacy as the “First Lady of Song.”
When and where was Ella Fitzgerald born?
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. Her parents were William Fitzgerald and Temperance “Tempie” Fitzgerald. Ella spent her early childhood in Yonkers, New York where her mother and young Ella moved after Tempie divorced William in 1932.
Ella grew up in poverty amidst the Great Depression in the 1930s. After Tempie died unexpectedly from serious injury in 1932, Ella spent time at a Catholic orphanage in Riverdale, New York and with relatives in Virginia over the next few years. This early instability and tragedy shaped Ella’s childhood.
How did Ella Fitzgerald’s singing career begin?
Ella’s legendary singing career grew out of the amateur night competitions at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in the mid 1930s. In 1934, Ella competed in one of the amateur nights at the Apollo hoping to win the $17 prize. She originally planned to dance, but intimidated by a talented dance act, she decided to sing instead. Ella sang two Connee Boswell songs that night and won first place in the competition.
This surprise singing debut proved to be Ella’s big break. Soon after, she began to perform professionally around Harlem which helped her land a spot singing with Tiny Bradshaw in 1935. This kicked off Ella’s professional singing career at just 17 years old.
Did Ella have any formal vocal training early on?
No, Ella did not receive any formal vocal training early in her career or throughout her life. Her talent was so innate that she never found professional lessons necessary, even spanning an over 60 year career.
Ella did comment later in life that she wished she had learned to properly read music. But her natural vocal ability, improvisation skills with scat singing and sharp ears more than made up for any traditional training.
Ella remains a model example of a natural, untrained vocal talent shaping an entire musical artform through unrelenting creativity. Many critics agree that classic American jazz singing styles find their roots in Ella’s unique phrasing and vocal capabilities.
When did Ella Fitzgerald become popular?
Ella rose to true fame and became a household name across the United States during her tenure with the Chick Webb Orchestra starting in 1936. She made several instrumental recordings with Webb that increased her visibility.
In 1938, Ella’s fame exploded with her hit recording of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”. This nonsense song based on a childhood game skyrocketed up the charts. It sold over 1 million copies and remains one of Ella’s signature standards today.
After Chick Webb’s death in 1939, Ella took over leadership of the band at just 21 years old. She led the group for the next two years before embarking on her solo career in 1942. By the mid 1940s, Ella solidified her status as the “First Lady of Song” and one of the most popular American jazz vocalists.
Who were Ella Fitzgerald’s biggest musical influences?
Ella cited several musicians and vocalists who influenced her sound as a young singer:
- Louis Armstrong – Ella considered Armstrong’s recording of “All of Me” as life-changing. His innovative jazz vocals and scat singing directly shaped her improvisational singing style.
- Connee Boswell – After hearing Boswell’s recordings as a child, Ella mimicked her vocal style early on and even sang two of her songs at the Apollo amateur night.
- Billie Holiday – Holiday’s emotion, phrasing and delivery inspired Ella’s jazz interpretations over her career. The two vocalists later became close friends.
While these musicians directly inspired her, Ella Fitzgerald’s style remains uniquely her own. Her three octave range, perfect pitch and playfulness with melody set her apart from any prior jazz singer. Over her six decade career, Ella herself became the most important influence for subsequent generations of jazz vocalists.
What was Ella Fitzgerald’s singing style?
Ella Fitzgerald possessed one of the most versatile and virtuoso voices in recorded music history. Some highlights of her vocal capabilities and style include:
- Range – Spanning three full octaves, Ella could hit notes from a low E♭2 all the way up to a high D♯6. This incredible range allowed her to sing and scat over extraordinarily complex compositions.
- Intonation – Ella’s pitch was perfect – she could sing any melody or harmony flawlessly. This precision lent itself beautifully to her scat singing and ability to mimic instrumental solos with just her voice.
- Diction – Every word Ella sang sounded crisp and clear. Listeners hang on each syllable as she blankets them with incredible vocal control.
- Improvisation – As a master jazz vocalist, Ella possessed superior improvisational skills, especially with her scat singing. She could create completely new melodies and harmonies spontaneously using just nonsensical syllables and the wide range of her voice.
- Tone – Ella’s voice conveyed incredible warmth, joy and an infectious playfulness. Even while singing mournful ballads, her tone contained an effervescent quality underscoring her vocal prowess.
While Ella could sing extraordinarily complex compositions with perfect technical precision, she somehow still managed to inject incredible soulfulness and emotion into every performance. Her joyous embrace of lyric and music continues inspiring generations of singers today.
Some Notable Recordings Showcasing Ella’s Vocal Style
|How High the Moon
|Wide vocal range
|Too Darn Hot
|Fast paced scat and diction
|Mack the Knife
What was Ella Fitzgerald’s personal life like?
Ella Fitzgerald overcame poverty and tragedy early in her life before becoming an international superstar. She also faced personal struggles related to relationships and health issues as an older woman. Some insights into Ella’s personal life journey include:
Marriages & Romantic Partners
Ella married twice, although neither relationship lasted particularly long:
- Benjamin Kornegay (1941) – At just 23, Ella impulsively married shady small time convicted mobster Kornegay after knowing him for just one month. The marriage dissolved quickly as Kornegay was sent to jail shortly after.
- Ray Brown (1947-1953) – Ella carried on a long affair with bassist Ray Brown prior to their marriage in 1947. They adopted a son together named Ray Brown Jr in 1949 prior to divorcing in 1953 due to Ella’s grueling touring schedule putting strain on the relationship.
Ella also had several rumored love affairs over the years with musician Ike Carpenter and later her manager Norm Granz who she remained extremely close to, although they never formally married.
Later in life, Ella faced serious health issues that eventually contributed to her death:
- Diabetes – Ella dealt with escalating problems from diabetes throughout the 1960s and 70s requiring regular insulin treatment.
- Heart Issues – Ella experienced two heart attacks, first in 1986 then again in 1993. These cardiovascular problems signaled declining health overall near the end of her life.
- Eyesight & Leg Amputations – Vision issues related to diabetes forced Ella to stop reading sheet music in her later performances. Towards the very end, advanced diabetes tragically necessitated the amputation of both her legs below the knee in her 70s.
Despite these major health struggles, Ella continued performing live and making albums well into her 60s through pure force of spirit and dedication to her art.
How did Ella Fitzgerald die?
After struggling with declining health in her later years, Ella Fitzgerald died at her home in Beverly Hills, California on June 15, 1996 at the age of 79. The immediate cause was complications related to her long-time battle with diabetes leading up to several related infections that week and kidney failure.
Leading up to her death, Ella remained professionally active but could no longer walk due to vision loss and the double leg amputation – she performed her final concert from a wheelchair just a few months prior at Carnegie Hall.
Upon her death, Ella Fitzgerald left behind an unmatched musical legacy spanning six decades at the absolute pinnacle of jazz music. Her death closed the chapter on arguably the most important and celebrated female jazz vocalist in history.
Ella Fitzgerald rightfully earned her regal moniker as the “First Lady of Song” over her six decade career defining what jazz singing could be. Through incredible natural talent and joyous creativity, she mastered scat, ballads, swing and bebop – leaving a mark on every corner of jazz music.
While she did not receive formal vocal training, Ella’s three octave range, perfect pitch and diction produced some of the most iconic vocal recordings in American music history. Generations of jazz singers cite Ella as a core inspiration for her effortless ability to walk the line between technical mastery and sheer soulfulness with every performance.
Beyond her artistic legacy solely as a singer, Ella Fitzgerald broke down barriers for African American women in the music industry in the 1940s through the civil rights era. As a black woman, she often experienced discrimination personally and professionally early on. But Ella persevered gracefully to become a universally beloved international superstar.
Ella’s rags to riches story serves as an inspiration just as much as the incredible creativity in her body of musical work. While the world lost her special magic in 1996, Ella’s spirited vocals continue lighting up headphones, radios and concert halls with timeless magic. For any music fan or aspiring jazz vocalist, losing yourself in the buttery tone and improvisational brilliance contained in hundreds of Ella Fitzgerald’s recordings remains essential listening.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some common questions related to Ella Fitzgerald’s life and career:
How many albums did Ella Fitzgerald record?
Over her lifetime, Ella recorded over 250 albums spanning a wide variety of jazz subgenres like swing, bebop, mainstream jazz ballads, scat, and pop standards. Some of her most acclaimed works include the Songbook series on Verve, live albums Ella in Berlin and Ella at the Opera House, along with Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin.
Did Ella Fitzgerald tour internationally?
Yes! As Ella’s popularity skyrocketed through the 1940s and beyond, she toured all over the world. Some highlights of her international touring include early trips to Europe in 1948, concerts across Asia in the early 1960s, many South American dates later in the 60s, and a significant European tour in 1968. Audiences globally embraced Ella’s vivacious stage presence and dynamic vocal delivery in every corner of the jazz world.
Who played in Ella’s band?
The musicians who played with Ella shifted across different periods, but some notable sidemen over the years included pianist Lou Levy, double bassist Ray Brown (briefly her husband), guitarists Herb Ellis and Joe Pass, saxophonist Benny Carter, trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, and of course drummer Chick Webb who led Ella’s first band.
Where can I view videos of Ella Fitzgerald performing?
Many amazing Ella Fitzgerald concert videos and TV appearances can be found online. Check YouTube for a wealth of live footage – especially clips from her live shows in Europe and rare TV appearances spanning her whole career from the 1930s through the early 1990s. Jazz on PBS also maintains excellent archives from their historic Ella Fitzgerald performances over the years.