Jazz Singer Ella Fitzgerald Career Story

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The legendary jazz/soul singer, Ella Jane Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996) was also affectionately called “Lady Ella” and the “First Lady of Song”.

This dynamic and soulful female jazz singer has a very wide vocal range spanning up to three octaves and is best known for her purity of the singing tonal quality, phrasing and note intonation. Ella was particularly well received for her improvisational singing and scat singing and perhaps the most memorable performance of this exceptional singing skill was exhibited at a live concert when she admitted that she had forgotten the lyrics of “Mack The Knife” and improvised and scatted her way through the entire song much to the delight of the audience and worldwide awe to her ability to impromptu adlibing.

In her half a century career span as an eminent singer, Ella boasted an amazing collection of 13 Grammy Awards and sold over 40 million albums given the astounding fact that her singing career was in the early half of the last century. Not surprisingly so as such was Ella’s singing agility that she could sing sultry soulful ballads, sweet swing jazz and even able to imitate almost every musical instrument in an orchestra.

In her heydays, Ella Fitzgerald performed sung and performed in top notched venues, clubs and concert halls all over the world alongside some of the greatest musicians and singers of her era such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman just to name a few!

Lady Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Va. on April 25, 1917 and her parents divorced shortly after her birth. During her growing up years, Ella took on small mundane jobs and even worked as a runner for local gamblers, picking up their bets and dropping off money to support her siblings.

Ella had a difficult growing up years. She did not do well in school and frequently played truant. She even got herself into trouble with the police and was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. Life in the reform school was even more miserable as she suffered beatings at the hands of her supposedly humane caretakers.

Eventually Ella was forced to escape from the reformatory during the terrible years of the Great Depression when she had to struggle for a living, braved extreme hunger and sometimes without shelter over her young head.

The amazing thing about this formidable singer was that she never complained and used the memories from these sad times to help gather emotions for performances. Perhaps it was because of such unhappy events that she was able to inject so much soul, feelings and passion into her singing.

Ella’s first break was in 1934 at the Apollo where she won the opportunity to compete in an event called the Amateur Night. Ella went to the theater that night planning to dance, but when the Edwards Sisters closed the main show, Ella changed her mind. “They were the dancingest sisters around,” to quote Ella and she felt her act would in no way compared to the dancing sisters.

She then went on stage, faced the boos and derogatory verbal barrage from the rowdy audience, a terrified and disheveled Ella made the decision to sing instead. This was perhaps the best decision she ever made in her life and from that moment on, her life took on another destiny.

She asked the band to play Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy,” a song that she knew very well. Ella at that magical moment quickly silenced the audience booing and by the time the song ended, the crowd was hollering for more! The gutsy young lady then obliged them and rendered Boswell Sister’s “The Object of My Affections” which sent the crowd into a frenzied standing ovation. As fate was smiling on Ella, in the band that night was saxophonist and music arranger Benny Carter. Benny was so impressed with the singer’s natural talent that he begun introducing Ella to people in the entertainment world who could help launch her singing career. In the process, Benny Carter and Ella became lifelong bosom buddies often working together as a team.

Buoyed by the enthusiastic response that night, Ella began entering and winning every talent show she could find and participated in. Then it happened. In January 1935 she was presented with a chance to perform for one week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. It was in this gig that Ella met drummer and bandleader Chick (William Henry) Webb. However much Chick was impressed with young Ella, he had already hired male lead singer by the name of Charlie Linton for his band for the Opera House performances. Chick then offered Ella the opportunity to sing with his band when they played a dance at Yale University and said to Ella that if the audiences like her at the dance, she can stay with his band. You can bet that the audience at Yale definitely adored Ella!

Sometime in the middle of 1936, Ella made her first recording and thus “Love and Kisses” was released under the Decca label, with only a so-so success. By this time she was performing with Chick’s band at the prestigious Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom which as often referred to as “The World’s Most Famous Ballroom.”

During this period of Ella’s singing career, the era of big swing bands was shifting, and the focus was turning more towards bebop style. Ella played along with the new musical style, often using her voice to take on the role of another horn of the brass section in the band. Her rendition of “You Have to Swing It” was when the up and coming young singer began experimenting with scat singing and her improvisation was a big hit with her fans.

Then one day in 1938, Ella recorded a playful version of a nursery rhyme “A Tisket A Tasket” and sold a million copies of the album which stayed number one on the charts for an astounding 17 weeks. With this release, Ella Fitzgerald became a famous singing sensation overnight!

When Ella’s mentor, Chick Webb died in 1939, Ella took over the band and renamed it as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band for the next three years or so.

While on a concert tour with Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1946, Ella fell in love with the band’s bass player Ray Brown. The lovebirds were eventually married and adopted a son whom they named as Ray Jr.

At the time, Ray Brown was working for producer and manager Norman Granz on the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” tour. Norman had the vision that Ella had the talent to be an international star and he convinced Ella to sign with him.

Under Norman’s mentorship, Ella joined the Philharmonic tour, worked with Louis Armstrong on several albums and began producing her famous songbook series. From 1956-1964, she recorded covers of other great musicians and composers, like those of Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hart to great successes and international acclaim.

Ella also began appearing on television variety shows regularly and she quickly became a favorite and frequent guest popular shows 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.”

These busy work schedules finally took their toll on her marriage as Ray and Ella filed for a divorce in 1952. However, they remained as good friends for the rest of their lives.

Ella often suffered from ill health but bravely continued to work as hard as she could early on in her career. She toured all over the world, sometimes performing two shows a day in cities hundreds of miles apart and in 1974, Ella spent two weeks performing in New York with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. Some 5 years later, the singer was inducted into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame and received Kennedy Center Honors for her continuing contributions to the arts.

In 1987, the then President of the United States, Ronald Reagan awarded Ella the National Medal of Arts. It was one of her most auspicious moments in her life. France did the same 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.

As Ella’s health continued to deteriorate, she underwent a quintuple heart coronary bypass surgery in the fall of 1986. Her surgeons also replaced a valve in her heart and diagnosed her with diabetes, which they blamed for her failing eyesight. The press and media carried dreadful stories that she would never be able to sing again.

How wrong the the prophets of doom were! The indomitable Ella returned to the concert stage and pushed on with an exhaustive concert schedule that can make any pressman blush with embarrassment!

By the 1990s, Ella Fitzgerald had recorded well over 200 albums and finally in 1991, she gave her final concert performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall. As the negative effects from her diabetes continued to mount, a 76-year-old Ella experienced severe blood circulatory disorders and was forced to have both of her legs amputated.

The legendary Ella Fitzgerald finally succumbed to her illnesses and passed away on June 15, 1996 at the age of 78 in her Beverly Hills home. Fans all over the world mourned the loss of their favorite and the only “First Lady Of Song”, the incomparable jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald.

About the Author

Chris Chew is a music advisor and editor to music education website at at Learn How To Sing Better and Learn How To Be A Better Pianist

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