Ella Jane Fitzgerald was an American jazz icon of the 20th century. She was born on April 25, 1917 in Virginia to William and Temperance Fitzgerald. The couple separated soon after Ella’s birth, and Temperance moved to New York with her boyfriend, Joseph De Silva. She had a half sister named Frances born in 1923. She attended a number of schools, but with both parents working full time jobs she soon began to cut school. She had dreamed of being a dancer since the third grade and would often perform for her classmates. She regularly attended the Methodist church of which her family were members, which was where she got her first exposure to music. Her mother died in 1932 of a heart attack, and young Ella ran away to live with her aunt to escape the abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather. She was brought to the authorities and placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum, from where she was moved to moved to a state reformatory called the New York Training School for Girls in Hudson, New York.
Fitzgerald made her singing debut at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York. She had initially wanted to perform as a dancer but saw the competition as being too fierce. At an amateurs night contest, she stepped on stage to sing a song by the Boswell Sisters, which left the audience in raptures. Fitzgerald won the $25 first prize and a chance to perform at the Harlem Opera House. Here she met Chick Webb. She joined his group as a singer and wrote and recorded several songs with them, including “Love and Kisses” in 1935, “A-Tisket A-Tasket” which became her first No. 1 hit and “I Found My Yellow Basket” her next No. 1 hit. She performed regularly the Savoy Ballroom, one of the most famous clubs in Harlem.
In 1942, she began her solo career with the Decca label with whom she recorded several hit songs. In 1942, she made her film debut with the comedy western “Ride ‘Em Cowboy”. She also performed in a series of live concerts with Norman Granz, who orchestrated the Jazz at the Philharmonic and also became her manager. Around the same time, she went on tour with Dizzy Gillespie and his band. She fell in love with the bass player Ray Brown, and the two were married in 1947. The couple adopted Fitzgerald’s half sister’s son whom they renamed Raymond Brown Jr. They separated in 1952. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Ella Fitzgerald was at the height of her success. She churned out hit after hit, earning the titles of “First Lady of Song”, “Lady Ella” and “Queen of Jazz”.
After Decca, she signed with Verve Records, where she created “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book”. This was a departure from her traditional style of singing but it was also a phenomenal success. In 1958, she became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award where she received the awards for “Best individual jazz performance” and “Best female vocal performance” for her two albums “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book” and “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book”. She collaborated with several major artists such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Frank Sinatra. Over the years, she recorded more than 200 albums and 2,000 songs, won 13 Grammy Awards and had record sales over 40 million. She also won the “NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement” and the “Presidential Medal of Freedom”.
During the 1980s, Fitzgerald became severely ill with diabetes and heart disease. She became blind and had to have both of her legs amputated. She died on June 15, 1996 at the age of 79 at her home in Beverly Hills, California. Her work is immortal, and her vocal range is unmatched. Ella Fitzgerald is hailed as one of the most talented, courageous and brilliant performers of her time.