by John Schrieber and Ira Gitler
If you knew nothing of Ella Fitzgerald you could gain more than a hint of her international stardom by merely reading the titles of some of her CDs: Ella in Rome, Ella in Berlin, Ella at Montreux, Ella in Hollywood. Recordings with Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, and Oscar Peterson are further teshmony to her stature.
Dubbed "The First Lady of Song" she has long had the great admiration of her peers and the adulation of an adoring public. Ms. Fitzgerald's superb musicianship is clothed in tonal clarity, wide range, and inventive rhythmic drive. Her voice is certainly akin to a musical instrument, not only in the fabled flights of wordless wonder on "Lady, Be Good" and "How High the Moon" but when precisely articulating the Iyrics of the Arlen, Berlin, Ellington, Gershwin, Kern, Mercer, Porter, and Rodgers and Hart "songbooks."
Born in Newport News, Virginia on April 25, 1918, Ella moved with her mother to Yonkers, New York, where, although she sang in a glee club at school, dancing seemed to be her forte. At an amateur show her plans to dance were halted by an attack of nerves. At the last minute, rather than just stand there, she decided to sing. A few amateur hours down the line she won a first prize, a week at the Harlem Opera House.
Soon after her mother died and she went to live in an orphanage. She sang at the Apollo Theater's amateur competition and was heard by Benny Carter and Bardu Ali, the conductor of the Chick Webb orchestra. They recommended her to Webb, with whom she earned great popularity at the Savoy Ballroom and other venues. She made her recording debut with him on Love and Kisses for Decca in June 1935 and had her first major success in 1938 with "A-Tisket, A Tasket," a swinging adaption of the old nursery rhyme.
After Webb's untimely death in 1939, Ella became nominal leader of the band for two years. Then she pursued a solo career in clubs and theaters. From 1946 she worked often with Norman Granz, touring in the U.S., Europe, and Japan as a member of his lazz at the Philharmonic cast. From 1948 to 1952 she was married to bassist Ray Brown, the leader of her accompanying trio.
Her recordings included collaborations with the Ink Spots and Louis Jordan and a marvelous Gershwin duet album with pianist Ellis Larkins In 1955 she ended her long affiliation with Decca and signed a personal management contract with Granz. She began recording for the Verve label in a variety of concert and studio situations which established her with a much wider audience. In the seventies she appeared with more than forty symphony orchestras in the U.S., beginning with the Boston Pops in 1972.
Health problems, beginning with her eyes in the seventies and continuing with her heart in the eighties, slowed but did not strongly curtail her career until the end of the latter decade. By the mid nineties she had ceased performing but the popularity of her invaluable body of recordings did not diminish.
Ella's film credits include Pete Kelly's Blues, St. Louis Blues, and Let No Man Write My Epitaph. Her many television appearances include two Frank Sinatra specials, a Timex special, two shows of her own for the BBC, and the "Carol Burnett Show.~ She began winning polls with the Esquire Gold and Silver Awards in 1946 and 1947 and continued with first place in the Down Beat's Critics' Poll from its inception in the sixties to well into the seventies. She was awarded the U.S. National Medal in 1987, the French Commandeur Des Arts et Lettres in 1990.
Ella's career may be heard chronologically on CDs from Decca, Verve, and Pablo.
-- Ira Gitler
Ann Hampton Callaway
Harry "Sweets" Edison
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