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We Love Ella! A Tribute to the First Lady of Song banner
Ella Fitzgerald (photo © Herman Leonard Photography, LLC)
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BIOGRAPHY

Born: 1917
Death: 1996


The flawless voice and delivery of singer Ella Fitzgerald is woven tightly into the tapestry of American popular music. Her place in the canon of jazz artists was ensured early on in her career, while she reached a wider audience throughout the world with her renditions of those enduring songs that have come to be known as standards. Her name is almost synonymous with the compositions of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, and Cole Porter, as well as the music of Duke Ellington. Her interpretation of their music is forever enshrined in her famous SONG BOOK series of albums, in which she uniquely included the verses to the songs. Billed as "The First Lady of Song," she commanded sell-out attendance at her concerts at home and abroad, touring extensively from the mid-1940s onwards, but her unique integrity to the music and the high standards she set herself never wavered in the face of her immense popularity.

Born in Newport News, Virginia, and raised in Yonkers, New York, Ella Fitzgerald was discovered at the age of 16 while singing in a talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She joined the Chick Webb band in 1935 and became the idol of Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. She was featured on most of Webb's recordings, and Decca was committed to pushing her recording career, which began with "Love and Kisses" in 1935. She had her first hit with the humorous and perkily tuneful ditty, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," in 1938, which propelled her to the top of the charts. In the course of her subsequent recording career, she made over 250 albums and won 13 Grammy Awards.

Ella inherited Webb's band after his death in 1939, and just muddled along until Norman Granz, later her manager (and instigator of her SONG BOOK albums), began to feature her in his Jazz at the Philharmonic Concerts. Mingling with great jazz musicians at a time when jazz drew enormous audiences and dominated the popular music scene, gave her the exposure and education that allowed her to move to the front rank of vocalists. Her live recordings demonstrate the musical affection she and her audience shared. ELLA IN BERLIN, for example, has her forgetting the words to her version of "Mack the Knife," but she keeps going, making it up as she playfully teases herself. The audience loved it. This moment would probably have been cut out of a studio recording. Ella enjoyed touring and continued to do so for most of her life until ill health prohibited her from doing so. She generally appeared with a trio, but was also frequently found at festivals where she would join groups of varying sizes. Fortunately, many of these live performances, in which she was in great form, were recorded.

Ella Fitzgerald was blessed with a crystal clear voice and perfect pitch. Indeed, the Memorex Corporation capitalized on her ability to break glass in their famous commercials that asked whether it was Ella or Memorex tape. Her tone was generally bright and cheerful, and some critics caviled that her sense of fun got in the way of her overall art, depriving her of emotional depth. In fact, her technique enabled her to do anything she desired with a song, and she loved what has come to be termed the Great American Songbook (Berlin, Porter et al.). Her clarity of diction was the admiration of her peers, including her male counterpart of perfection, Frank Sinatra, and her live performances were suffused with warmth and a quality of youthful vulnerability that she never lost.

Source: ST. JAMES ENCYCLOPEDIA OF POPULAR CULTURE. Eds. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 2. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.



Top banner photos: Ella Fitzgerald (photo by James W. Blackman), members of Take 6, and Patti Austin (photo by Lester Cohen).

Natalie Cole

Natalie Cole co-hosts the concert with Quincy Jones.

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder peforms "Too Close for Comfort."

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