Ella Fitzgerald Essay, Research Paper
Singer. Born April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia. (Though many biographical sources give her birth date as 1918, her birth certificate and school records show her to have been born a year earlier.) Often referred to as the “first lady of song,” Fitzgerald enjoyed a career that stretched over six decades. With her lucid intonation and a range of three octaves, she became the preeminent jazz singer of her generation, recording over 2,000 songs, selling over 40 million albums, and winning 13 Grammy Awards, including one in 1967 for Lifetime Achievement.
As a young girl growing up in Yonkers, just outside New York City, Fitzgerald loved music and dreamed of being a dancer. She and a friend, Charles Gulliver, performed a dance routine at the local clubs. Fitzgerald also had an early interest in singing, and was greatly influenced by Connee Boswell, the lead singer of a jazz-influenced combo called the Boswell Sisters.
In 1932, Fitzgerald’s mother died suddenly, and she went to live with an aunt in Harlem. Fitzgerald was “discovered” two years later, in an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where she won first prize for her rendition of a Boswell song, “The Object of My Affection.” She performed at the Harlem Opera House in 1935 before landing a job as the featured vocalist in one of the era’s top “big bands.” She made her first recording, “Love and Kisses,” later that year with the band’s leader, Chick Webb, on his record label, Decca. A swing version of the classic nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” that Fitzgerald co-wrote with Webb and released in 1938, became her first hit recording and made her a national star.
When Webb, who had been her legal guardian, mentor, and close friend, died in 1939, Fitzgerald served as the leader of his band until it broke up in 1942. She spent the war years touring with various road shows and performing as a soloist at jazz and night clubs around the country, and made a number of recordings with Decca, including such popular albums as Lullabies of Birdland and Sweet and Hot. She began to work with an improvisational style of singing called “scat,” or “bop,” singing, based on the complex, spontaneous instrumental style of Dizzy Gillespie. In 1945, Fitzgerald recorded a scat version of “Flying Home,” which became one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade.
While on tour with Gillespie’s band in 1946, Fitzgerald met and fell in love with the bassist Ray Brown, whom she married in 1947. (She had been previously married to Benjamin Kornegay, a shipyard worker, but their two-year marriage was annulled in 1943.) Fitzgerald and Brown were divorced in 1952, but they continued to perform together in Brown’s own jazz combo.
Meanwhile, Fitzgerald had begun to work with Norman Granz, the impresario of a popular series called “Jazz at the Philharmonic.” In 1955, she was the first artist signed to Granz’s new record label, Verve, and began recording a series of “songbook” albums. The first offering, a two-record set entitled Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook (1956) led to eight other songbooks, each devoted to the work of a particular composer or composing team: Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer, Rodgers and Hart, and George and Ira Gershwin. The five-album Gershwin songbook is widely regarded as the finest of the collections. Through the songbook series, recorded between 1956 and 1964, Fitzgerald’s unique vocal talents reached an audience far beyond the jazz world.
Fitzgerald was a tireless performer, touring between 40 and 45 weeks every year. Aside from her touring and recording efforts, she made feature film appearances, including Ride ‘Em Cowboy (1942) and Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955). In 1966, she moved from Verve (which Granz had sold to MGM) to Capitol Records, where she attempted to broaden her range in pop recordings, releasing a country album and a record of Christmas music, among others. With Reprise Records, she made several albums of contemporary music, including songs by the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, and Burt Bacharach. Fitzgerald returned to jazz in 1973, when Granz formed a new label, Pablo. From 1973 to 1986, she made a series of recordings with the guitarist Joe Pass. In 1974, she played a wildly profitable two-week concert engagement in New York, with fellow legends Frank Sinatra and Count Basie.
Starting in the early 1970s, Fitzgerald began to suffer from eyesight problems and other ailments, complicated by diabetes. She continued to tour nationally and internationally, however, and kept up her hectic touring schedule well into the 1980s. In 1986, Fitzgerald was hospitalized for exhaustion, and later underwent a quintuple coronary bypass. By 1990, she had cut back her appearances to a few per month. In 1993, both of her legs were amputated below the knees due to circulatory system complications from her diabetes.
The famously private Fitzgerald lived in Beverly Hills for many years. On June 15, 1996, she died at home at the age of 79, survived by her son, Ray Brown, Jr., and one grandchild.