Accounts of Ella Fitzgerald’s childhood are conflicting, but it is clear that she grew up in poverty and was orphaned at a young age. She was born in Newport News City, Virginia, on April 25, 1917, and moved to Yonkers, New York, as a youngster, dreaming of becoming a dancer. But in January of 1935 her career choice was determined for her. She won the Amateur Hour singing contest in Harlem and by May was performing with the popular band of drummer Chick Webb, who took her under his wing. In 1939 Ella and the Webb band had a huge hit with “A Tisket-A Tasket” which over the years became a million-seller. When Webb died in 1939, Ella took over his band and kept it together for three years before going out on her own.
Both audiences and critics took her to their hearts, and she was the number one vocalist on Down Beat’s Readers Poll for over thirty years, beginning in 1937. She was paired with other popular performers of the time--the Ink Spots and Louis Armstrong--and by the mid-‘40s she had embraced bebop. In 1945 Ella recorded “Flying Home” (not released until 1947) with the Vic Schoen Orchestra, a tour-de-force of scat singing and a landmark in her career. Her 1947 versions of “Oh, Lady Be Good” and “How High the Moon” are classics. In 1948 she joined Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic series which paired her with the top creative instrumentalists in jazz.
In 1955 Ella left Decca Records and joined Granz’s Verve label, recording a popular series of songbooks which featured the music of such luminaries as the Gershwins, Ellington, Berlin, and others. In 1960 she recorded one of her finest albums, Ella in Berlin, which features the award-winning “Mack the Knife” and a reprise of “How High the Moon.”
As Gary Giddins says in Faces in the Crowd: Players and Writers, “Fitzgerald’s long career is a tangle of paradoxes.” Specifically he points out, “She is determinedly a jazz singer, yet she cannot sing the blues...,” “she is an irreproachable connoisseur of ballads, but has little talent for histrionics...,” “she is a peerless ‘straight’ interpreter of pop songs, and also a willful embellisher...,” “she is a product of the Swing Era...who became associated in the public’s mind with bebop-inflected scat singing...,” and “she does not make hit records, but she works exclusively in the world’s great concert halls.”
But she worked her magic, and “The First Lady of Song,” as she was called, became an international star and the winner of 14 Grammy’s in both the Pop and Jazz Vocal categories. By the late ‘80s Ella was plagued with health problems. She recorded her last album in 1989 (which won a Grammy in 1991). She died on June 15, 1996 and in 2007 was honored with a United States postage stamp.