Ella Fitzgerald would have turned 100 years old this week, and fans are celebrating the “First Lady of Song” around the globe.
Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Va. After her father left the family, Fitzgerald’s mother began seeing another man and relocated to Yonkers, N.Y. Historical record says the arrival of a half-sister hit the family hard financially so Fitzgerald began working for a local number-running operation and a lookout for police for a brothel.
Tragedy struck Fitzgerald early when at the age of 15, her mother died from injuries suffered in an auto accident. This forced a move with her stepfather but not much is known about their relationship as Fitzgerald rarely spoke of her early life. Some historians say that there was a strained or abusive relationship. She moved in with an aunt but then dropped out of school and soon began living on the streets.
As a young girl, Fitzgerald admired jazz legends like Louis Armstrong and the Boswell Sisters vocal jazz trio. However, dancing was Fitzgerald’s first true love and she was known for performing routines for her classmates. At 17 in 1934, she entered the “Amateur Night” contest at the famed Apollo Theater.
Struck with stage fright, Fitzgerald said in interviews that she couldn’t get her legs to work so she began singing in a tone similar to one of the Boswell Sisters. She ended up taking home first prize. This led to her meeting bandleader Chick Webb and then joining the band. During this period, Fitzgerald scored her first no. 1 hit, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and her career took off from there.
After Webb’s death, Fitzgerald took over Webb’s band, which was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band. She left the group in 1942.
In the ’40’s, Fitzgerald began working with Decca Records and released several hits. Later in the decade, she began touring with Dizzy Gillespie’s band and started to add scat singing to her performances. This would become a signature part of Fitzgerald’s live show. In 1947, she wed Gillespie’s bass player, Ray Brown and adopted a son born to her half-sister.
The ’50’s and ’60’s were another high period of creative and commercial success for Fitzgerald. By then, her scatting technique was the stuff of legend and made her a critical darling of the music press. She still performed and recorded well into the ’70’s but by the next decade, complications arising from diabetes began to take hold.
She recorded her last song in 1989 and her last public performance was in 1991. In 1993, the disease led to a dual leg amputation and impaired her vision. By the end of her career, Fitzgerald recorded over 200 albums and well over 2,000 songs. She also sold over 40 million records. She is also one of the biggest contributors to the Great American Songbook of jazz and classical standards.
Fitzgerald’s was the first African-American woman to win a Grammy Award in the show’s first year in 1959 for Best Individual Jazz Performance. In all, Fitzgerald won 13 Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award among countless honors. There will be a series of concert celebrations in honor of the jazz queen across America and other nations in the coming weeks.
Fitzgerald died in her Beverly Hills home in 1996 at the age of 79.