Today would have been Ella Fitzgerald’s 96th birthday, and to celebrate the occasion, we’d like to share some information with you about this amazing and talented woman.
Ella Fitzgerald was born on this day in 1917 and passed away on June 15, 1996 at the age of 79. Ms. Fitzgerald was also knows as the “First Lady of Song” and the “Queen of Jazz”. Over the course of her six decade long career she recorded more than 200 albums, won 13 Grammys, was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Ronald Reagan, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush.
Ella Fitzgerald had a rough start. After her parents (William and Temperance “Tempie” Fitzgerald) split up shortly after her birth, she and her mother moved to Yonkers, New York where they eventually moved in with Tempie’s boyfriend Joseph Da Silva. After Tempie died of a heart attack in 1932, Ella began skipping school causing her grades to fall. Ella was abused by her stepfather and eventually ran away to her aunts and acquired jobs such jobs as being a lookout at a bordello and also working with a Mafia-affiliated numbers runner.
Ms. Fitzgerald made her singing debut at the age of 17 in 1934 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York eventually pulling a weekly audience and won the opportunity to compete on one of the club’s famous “Amateur Nights” where she won the first prize of $25 which is the equivalent of over $400 today.
In January of 1935 Ms. Fitzgerald won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House where she met the drummer/bandleader Chick Webb. Webb later offered her the chance to test with him and his band when they played a dance at Yale University and began singing with them regularly at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. In 1938 Ms. Fitzgerald co-wrote a version of the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” that ended up bringing her wide public acclaim. When Webb died in 1939 the bad was renamed “Ella and her Famous Orchestra” and recorded nearly 150 songs before they broke up in 1942.
Ms. Fitzgerald went on to be signed to the Decca label where she recorded with artists such as Bill Kenny, The Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, and the Delta Rhythm Boys under the management of Milt Gabler. Ms. Fitzgerald later left Decca in 1955 and her then manager, Granz, created Verve Records around her. At Verve she recorded the Great American Songbook (which was actually a collection of songbooks) which was probably one of her more famous productions. In 1955 Ella was also the first black performer at the Mocambo nightclub in Hollywood after Marilyn Monroe promised she’d be in the front row at every performance which ended up being instrumental in her career.
Unfortunately, Ella Fitzgerald did not have an easy end. In 1985 she was hospitalized briefly for respiratory problems, in 1986 for congestive heart failure, and in 1990 for exhaustion. In 1993 Ella had to have both of her legs amputated below the knee due to diabetes complications which also affected her eyesight. In 1996 Ms. Fitzgerald was hospitalized in Niagara Falls, New York and was diagnosed with heart failure. Ms. Fitzgerald opted to spend her last days at home instead of in the hospital. On her final day, she was taken outside one last time, sat for about an hour, then on her way back in looked up and said, “I’m ready to go now.” That same night, the Playboy Jazz Festival was launched at the Hollywood Bowl and, in tribute, the marquee read: Ella We Will Miss You.