Considered ‘the most honored jazz singer of all time,’ Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia on April 25, 1918. Over the course of her career, Ella recorded over 200 albums, 17 top ten hits on the pop charts and was the winner of the Down Beat poll as top female vocalist more than 20 times.
Her career began in 1934 when her name was pulled in a weekly drawing at the Apollo Theater and she won the opportunity to compete in Amateur Night. On stage, she performed Hoagy Carmichael's ‘Judy,’ a song she knew well because Connee Boswell's rendition of it was among her mother’s favorites.
Offstage, and away from people she knew well, Ella was shy and reserved. She was self-conscious about her appearance, and for a while even doubted the extent of her abilities. Onstage, however, Ella was surprised to find she had no fear. She felt at home in the spotlight.
"Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience," said Ella. "I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life."
In the band that night was saxophonist and arranger Benny Carter. Impressed with her natural talent, he began introducing Ella to people who could help launch her career. In the process he and Ella became lifelong friends, often working together.
Fueled by enthusiastic supporters, Ella began entering - and winning - every talent show she could find. In January 1935 she won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. It was there that Ella first met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb. Although her voice impressed him, Chick had already hired male singer Charlie Linton for the band. He offered Ella the opportunity to test with his band when they played a dance at Yale University. "If they kids like her," said Chick, "she stays." Despite the tough crowd, Ella was a major success, and Chick hired her to travel with the band for $12.50 a week.
In mid 1936, Ella made her first recording. ‘Love and Kisses’ was released under the Decca label, with moderate success. By this time she was performing with Chick's band at the prestigious Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, often referred to as "The World's Most Famous Ballroom."
Shortly afterward, Ella began singing a rendition of the song, ‘(If You Can't Sing It) You Have to Swing It.’ During this time, the era of big swing bands was shifting, and the focus was turning more toward bebop. Ella played with the new style, often using her voice to take on the role of another horn in the band. You Have to Swing It was one of the first times she began experimenting with scat singing, and her improvisation and vocalization thrilled fans. Throughout her career, Ella would master scat singing, turning it into a form of art.
In 1938, at the age of 21, Ella recorded a playful version of the nursery rhyme, ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket.’ The album sold one million copies, hit number one, and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks. Suddenly, Ella Fitzgerald was famous.
On June 16, 1939, Ella mourned the loss of her mentor Chick Webb. In his absence the band was renamed "Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Band," and she took on the overwhelming task of bandleader.
While on tour with Dizzy Gillespie's band in 1946, Ella met and fell in love with bassist Ray Brown. The two were married and eventually adopted a son, who they named Ray, Jr.
At the time Ray was working for producer and manager Norman Granz in "Jazz at the Philharmonic" tour. Norman saw that Ella had what it took to be an international star, and he convinced Ella to sign with him. It was the beginning of a lifelong business relationship and friendship.
Under Norman's management, Ella joined the Philharmonic tour, worked with Louis Armstrong on several albums and began producing her infamous songbook series. From 1956-1964, she recorded covers of other musicians' albums, including those by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. The series was wildly popular, both with Ella's fans and the artists she covered. "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them," Ira Gershwin once remarked.
Ella also began appearing on television variety shows. She quickly became a favorite and frequent guest on numerous programs, including The Bing Crosby Show, The Dinah Shore Show, The Frank Sinatra Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, The Nat King Cole Show, The Andy Willams Show and The Dean Martin Show.
Ella continued to work as hard as she had early on in her career, despite the ill effects on her health. In 1974, Ella spent a legendary two weeks performing in New York with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. Still going strong five years later, she was inducted into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame, and received Kennedy Center Honors for her continuing contributions to the arts.
In 1987, United States President Ronald Reagan awarded Ella the National Medal of Arts. It was one of her most prized moments. France followed suit several years later, presenting her with their Commander of Arts and Letters award, while Yale, Dartmouth and several other universities bestowed Ella with honorary doctorates.
By the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums. In 1991, she gave her final concert at New York's renowned Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she performed there.
On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died in her Beverly Hills home.