Ella Fitzgerald, "First Lady of Song," born.
In 1934, an awkward sixteen-year-old girl made her singing debut at the Harlem Apollo Theatre amateur night in New York City. She intended to dance, but she lost her nerve when she got on stage. "The man said, 'do something while you're out there, 'the singer later recalled. "So I tried to sing 'Object of My Affection' and 'Judy,' and I won first prize." She drew the attention of the bandleader Chick Webb. After personally coaching the shy performer, Webb introduced her at the Savoy Theatre one evening as his orchestra's singer *. That evening marked the beginning of Ella Jane Fitzgerald's singing career. One of the great compliments paid to Ella was from Ira Gershwin who said 'I didn't realize our songs were so good until Ella sang them'.
Ella's life was marked both by extreme highs and lows. Born in Newport News, Virginia in 1917 and orphaned at the age of 15, Ella was placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale, one of the few orphanages at the time that accepted Afro-American children. From there, she was transferred to the New York State Training School for Girls, a reformatory at which State investigations later revealed widespread physical abuse. Having escaped from the reformatory, Ella was literally living in the streets of Harlem when she was discovered by Webb. She was married twice, first at the age of 24 to a shady character by the name of Benjamin Kornegay, and then again to bass player Ray Brown at the age of 30. Both marriages ended in divorce. A diabetic for many years, the disease compromised her vision as well as her circulatory system before taking her life. In 1992, both of her legs were amputated below the knee due to diabetes related circulatory problems. As an artist, however, Ella achieved legendary success in a career that spanned six decades, yielded recordings numbering into the thousands, and earned the singer countless awards including a Kennedy Center Award for her contributions to the performing arts, honorary doctorate degrees from Dartmouth and Yale, and thirteen Grammy Awards.
Despite never having received formal vocal training, Ella's technique and range rivaled that of the conservatory trained singer. Throughout her three-octave vocal range, Ella's voice remained uniform in its clarity and child-like timbre. Her diction was unfailingly crisp, and her intonation was absolutely flawless. Coupled with this textbook-perfect technique, Ella had an improvisational talent on par with that of the best jazz instrumentalists. Her spontaneous, often pyrotechnic scat vocalizations, in fact, were a trademark of her style.
In looking back upon Ella's rich catalogue of recordings, the name of Norman Granz consistently emerges in conjunction with that of Ella's. Ella met the record producer and founder of both the Verve and Pablo jazz labels in 1949, after which the two developed a working relationship, which lasted forty years. Under the direction of Norman Granz, Ella recorded her legendary "songbook" albums — a series of albums each devoted to the songs of a particular American composer. Between the years of 1956 and 1964, Ella recorded songbook albums featuring the music of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. Collectively, these are one of Ella's crowning achievements. Granz also produced Ella's phenomenal collaborations with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, respectively entitled "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "Ella at Duke's Place." All of these recordings are on the Verve label, and are available on CD. After founding the Pablo label, Granz recorded the four Ella Fitzgerald/Joe Pass duet albums, each of which are deservedly considered jazz classics.
As amazing as Ella's musical talents were, equally amazing was the fact that she managed not to fall through the cracks of the segregated child welfare system of the 1930's. A victim of poverty and abuse, Ella was able to transcend circumstance and develop into one of the greatest singers that America produced. Ella died on June 15th of complications associated with diabetes. She was 79 years old. Despite suffering poor health Ella remained an active performer until 1992.