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Known as the “First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald was a talent destined for the stage. As she said, “It isn’t where you came from, it’s where you’re going that counts.” With her purity of tone, flawless elocution, improvisational ability, and wide vocal range, Ella Fitzgerald elevated every song to its full potential. Bing Crosby had once described her thus, “Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest of them all.”
It all started on November 21, 1934, when 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald won the chance to perform at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Incredibly, she had planned to dance for her performance, but as fate would have it, another act would go on before her – the Edwards Sisters – and they would bring the house down.
Not wanting to follow the duo with her own routine, Ella chose to sing instead. She chose Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy,” a favorite of her mother’s. Her rendition, sung in the style of her idol Connee Boswell, silenced the crowd. They demanded an encore, to which Ella obliged. That night, she would win her first competition – the start of an amazing 58-year career.
A few months after her Apollo triumph, Ella would meet bandleader Chick Webb, who ended up hiring her after she wowed the kids at a Yale University dance. With Webb’s Orchestra, Ella would go on to experience her first commercial success. In 1936, she recorded her first single “Love and Kisses” and in 1938, her first major hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” was released. The public couldn’t get enough of the song or of Ella. The single stayed at the top of the pop charts for 17 weeks.
On June 16, 1939, Chick Webb died, leaving the band’s fate in the hands of Ella. She chose to stay, becoming bandleader of “Ella and Her Famous Orchestra.” Together, Ella and the band would play for another three years. In 1942, she’d leave big band behind to pursue a solo career.
It was 1942 that Ella also appeared in her first film, Abbott and Costello’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy. In it, she sings briefly, but has no speaking lines. It would be 13 years more before she’d appear in another film. Overall, Ella acted in five films and two TV series. She made numerous guest appearances on variety shows however, gracing such shows as The Frank Sinatra Show, The Andy Williams Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show. As Frank Sinatra once said, “The best way to start any musical evening is with this girl. It don’t get better than this.”
During the 13 years between her first and second films, Ella had little time for any other projects outside of her music. Newly signed to Decca, she would record many more hits, working with artists like the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, and the Delta Rhythm Boys.
“I stole everything I ever heard,” Ella once said, “but mostly I stole from the horns.” In 1946, Ella began working with Norman Granz and his Jazz at the Philharmonic. Around this time, she also began incorporating scat into her songs, an influence of her time spent with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. Her ability to scat and improvise raised her prominence in the jazz world even further, with her voice and style being in a word inimitable.
Ella’s ability to replicate the sounds of a horn made her not only a voice in the band, but another instrument all together. Conductor Arthur Fielder observed, “Ella’s voice becomes the orchestra’s richest and most versatile sound.”
In 1955, when she had the chance to return to the movies for a small role in Pete Kelly’s Blues, Ella also took on the Great American Songbook, starting with The Cole Porter Songbook. These songbooks, released under the guidance of her new manager Granz and his record label Verve Records, comprise a musical contribution unmatched. Musicians covered included Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. All together, Ella created eight incredible songbooks. Richard Rodgers stated, “Whatever she does to my songs, she always makes them sound better.”
And such is Ella Fitzgerald’s legacy. From her humble beginnings, she was destined to be known by the world. Her songs are part of pop culture to this day, with her unmistakable voice heard on more than 200 records and 100 soundtracks.
She transcended music, emerging a figure for civil rights and a champion for child welfare. She overcame discrimination through the power of her voice, sung with a joy that came from a simple love of music. “I sing like I feel,” she said.
She played Carnegie Hall 26 times, won 13 Grammy Awards, was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Ronald Reagan, was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H.W. Bush, and was regarded by all as truly, the “First Lady of Song.”
Part I: IntroductionPart II: Ella Fitzgerald Tributes and Other Pages
Part III: Movie Reviews & Where to Find Her Movies
Part IV: Books, Photos, Art, and Posters
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