Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz and swing singer who made an impact in the world of music. She was the first female to be given star billing in a concert hall, and her voice is still considered one of the most recognizable in popular music. In this article, we’ll take a look at her life from start to finish-from her beginnings, to her career as an entertainer, and then finally how she died.
Ella Fitzgerald was born April 25th 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. Her father worked for Union Carbide Company where he played trombone with other musicians on his lunch break or after work hours. Hence Ella’s earliest memories were listening to live music around dinner time. Ella’s father enjoyed playing the blues, but her mother favored country and classical music. While she had no formal training, Ella later said that she remembered hearing the piano around the house when she was a young child.
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While Fitzgerald never learned to read or write music, she did recall being able to pick out some tunes on the piano before she could speak English. However, her mother was not supportive and believed it would never be a practical and profitable career for Ella.
Her father died when she was only fifteen years old, leaving behind his trombone which he had promised to teach Ella how to play before passing away. Ella’s stepfather John “Uncle Johnny” Walker taught her how to read music, helped her memorize tunes, and accompanied her on the piano.
Around this time Fitzgerald was performing publicly around town with local musicians in what were called “pick-up bands.” A jazz band leader named Chick Webb had heard about Ella’s talents through some of his musician friends back east. He sent a young drummer by the name of Lionel Hampton to go audition Ella Fitzgerald in person. Lionel brought back word that she was phenomenal and Chick Webb came to see her himself. After no more than two auditions, Chick hired Fitzgerald as his band’s lead singer and dropped his former female vocalist Billie Holiday.
Ella started performing with Chick Webb‘s band in the summer of 1935. She was only 18 years old and didn’t make much money at first. In fact, she earned as little as $25 a week for singing with the big-name big band. The group toured all over the country from New York City to Los Angeles and even ventured into Canada, making Fitzgerald a world-class performer at a very young age.
Fitzgerald’s career really began to take off in 1937 when she was offered her own radio show called “Songs by Ella Fitzgerald.” This afforded her the opportunity to sing more hits from various genres, not just jazz. She continued singing with Chick Webb until his death due to tuberculosis in 1939.
Fitzgerald was then asked to sing with the band of saxophonist and clarinetist Artie Shaw. Her new job helped launch her into becoming a household name recognized by everyone, not just jazz aficionados. Fitzgerald became an international sensation able to captivate audiences everywhere she went all over the world. She even appeared in movies and on television, including “The Ed Sullivan Show” several times.
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Fitzgerald’s career took a turn in the early 1950’s when she decided to pursue her own recording career after years of singing with major label big bands. The end result was her first album called “Ella Fitzgerald Sings.” She had broken free from the shackles of having to sing lyrics someone else wrote for her. She also started collaborating with legendary jazz musician/composer/bandleader Duke Ellington in 1951.
Ella Fitzgerald became the first African-American to perform at the world famous Metropolitan Opera House on April 23rd 1955. A year later, Fitzgerald made history again by becoming the first African-American woman to appear on the cover of “Time” magazine on September 5th 1956.
During the 1960’s, Fitzgerald started recording more pop songs and made a full transition from big band swing to singing ballads with big bands or even string orchestras backing her up. She was performing all over the world in places like Australia, Japan, Brazil and even Russia as a goodwill ambassador for the United States. In 1963, Fitzgerald became the first African-American to receive a Kennedy Center Honor.
In 1973 Ella suffered from a stroke which caused loss of speech and movement in her right arm, but she continued performing anyway since doctors said it would be more harmful to stop singing altogether. She made an incredible recovery and even started recording for her own record label called “Palace Records” in 1980.
In 1989, Fitzgerald had to cancel some of her concerts because of a respiratory ailment, but she had recovered enough by 1991 to sing at the inaugurations of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton on January 20th and January 20th, respectively.
In the fall of 1994, Fitzgerald was hospitalized for a stroke which left her totally blind and bedridden until her death on June 15th 1996. She died at the age of 79 from cardiac arrest in Beverly Hills, California.
Ella Fitzgerald’s artistic talents helped raise awareness of African-American performers around the world, and she was one of the first African-American performers to have a highly successful solo career that wasn’t just based on singing exclusively with an all-black band.
In 1981 Ella Fitzgerald was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Reagan. In 1987 she became the first woman inducted into the Grammy’s Jazz Hall of Fame. Her voice is still considered one of the most recognizable in all of music, and her impact on the entertainment industry will live on for years to come.