First Lady Of Song
Beautiful, talented, innovative, angelic, and inspirational are just a few of the words that have been used to describe Ella Fitzgerald’s trademark voice and novel singing ability.
Ella’s music and singing style was very reflective of her general personality; bubbly, vibrant, and humble yet not passive enough to be overlooked entirely. Her list of accomplishments and accolades are vast, yet still somehow fall short of accurately encompassing her full impact and contribution to jazz as well as African Americans and women in the field of jazz and music at large.
Born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1917, it’s hard to believe that Ella could’ve developed such a beautiful and humble personality and world outlook despite the early tragedy that befell her. Her chaotic childhood began when her parents separated shortly after her birth.
After the divorce of her birth parents, Ella was relocated to Yonkers, New York, by her mother where she lived with her mother’s boyfriend and her younger half-sibling that came as a product of that relationship.1
Sadly, Ella Fitzgerald’s mother died in a car accident in 1932, after she was relocated to New York, followed by the deaths of her step-father Joseph Da Silva and her half-sister Frances.2 As many close to her recall, this was a very dark period in the life of Ella Fitzgerald. She ended up in reform school a few times around her mid-teenage years due to misbehavior, no doubt as a result of the extreme inner emotional turmoil that she was combatting after facing so many devastating losses in such a short period of time.
Although Ella never publicly spoke about this period of her life, it served as a prequel to a phenomenal story of triumph and perseverance. It is rumored that Ella Fitzgerald was actually homeless during the time that she got her ‘big break’ in 1934 at Apollo’s amateur night.3
Here she is in 1948, wowing both The Duke himself Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman to his right.
Although in 1938 she was new face and unknown at the beginning of the competition, she left that night the talk of the town and the buzz about her magical musical performance was an accurate premonition of things to come for the young Ella Fitzgerald. Shortly thereafter, Ella entered many more talent shows and virtually won every single one that she entered into.
All of her success eventually drew the attention of Chick Webb and scored her a long-term gig singing with his famous band. As a member of his band, she was signed to the ‘Decca’ label and produced a few hits while there, however, she did not yet strike any major success.
Still, this is not to say that Ella did not receive overwhelming praise and love everywhere she performed, ‘wowing’ crowds across the United States among various demographics and venues. Her talent was simply undeniable.
During the time she was in Chick Webb’s band, the swing era was just beginning to gain steam and Ella, of course, was a master at the swing. Known as the ‘Queen of Swing,’ many said that it seemed as though Ella was born with the ‘swing gene’. It was during this period that Ella began to engineer and perfect her ever famous scat singing style. Here she is later on, having perfected the style.
Back then, at just the age of 21, she scored her breakout single with her famous jazz rendition of the song ‘Tisket Tasket’. Her adorable persona coupled with her happy-go-lucky, jovial personality and tender, infectiously beautiful voice won audiences across America. After the song and subsequent video were released, Ella rocketed to the top of the charts and remained there for ten consecutive weeks, effectively making her a ‘star’.4 Ella effectively followed this record with another smash record ‘Undecided,’ which solidified her stake as one of the foremost Jazz singers at the time.5
Around the time of her roaring success, Chick Webb had passed away. Being her mentor and band leader at the time, this left a huge void in Ella’s personal life and career. However, instead of letting his untimely passing deter her or derail her career, she stepped up and took on role of band leader and was highly successful at it. She held this role until the start of World War 2, when most of the band members were drafted, and recorded nearly 200 songs during her tenure.6 During this time, she gained much critical acclaim and notoriety in the jazz world and rubbed shoulders with legends by the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and others.
After Chick Webb’s former band had disbanded, Ella made what could possibly be considered her greatest hit to date with her rendition of the song called, ‘Flying Home’. It featured her famous scat singing and made the style of jazz improvisation a legitimate and popular technique that became etched in music history; no small feat. The song was such a smash hit that the New York Times referred to it as ‘one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade’.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Ella received no shortage of awards over her musical career. She set historical precedent by becoming the first African American female to ever receive a Grammy and she didn’t do it just once. She won fourteen Grammy awards and was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as a musician. She has multiple honorary doctorates from schools such as; Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Howard and Princeton. By many standards, she is considered to be one of the greatest singers of all time in any genre, and perhaps the best in the 20th century entirely.
It’s impossible to talk about Jazz greats and not include Ella’s name in the conversation. Specifically, when we talk about singers in the field of jazz, there may be none more influential than Ella Fitzgerald, and she certainly was the undisputed pioneer and architect of jazz vocals for both genders and all races and creeds that followed after her recording days were long over.
For as long as we discuss jazz and music in general, Ella Fitzgerald will have a permanent seat at the table as one of the figures that must be mentioned in order to accurately chronologize and archive its history.
- Holden, Stephen (June 16, 1996). “Ella Fitzgerald, the Voice of Jazz, Dies at 79”. The New York Times.