Following a troubled childhood, Ella Fitzgerald turned to singing and debuted at the Apollo Theater in 1934. Discovered in an amateur contest, she became the top female jazz singer for more than 50 years. In 1958, Fitzgerald made history as the first African-American woman to win a Grammy Award. Due in no small part to her vocal quality, with lucid intonation and a broad range, the singer would go on to win 13 Grammys and sell more 40 million albums throughout her career. Her multi-volume "songbooks" on Verve Records are among the treasures of American song. Fitzgerald died in California in 1996.
Dubbed "The First Lady of Song," Ella Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. In her lifetime, she won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums.
Her voice was flexible, wide-ranging, accurate and ageless. She could sing sultry ballads, sweet jazz and imitate every instrument in an orchestra. She worked with all the jazz greats, from Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole, to Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman. (Or rather, some might say all the jazz greats had the pleasure of working with Ella.)
She performed at top venues all over the world, and packed them to the hilt. Her audiences were as diverse as her vocal range. They were rich and poor, made up of all races, all religions and all nationalities. In fact, many of them had just one binding factor in common - they all loved her.
Fitzgerald was a versatile performer who was comfortable with several different musical styles. In upbeat jazz arrangements, her lively "scat" singing--in which she embellished a melody with rapid nonsense syllables--was often featured. She was also a lyrical interpreter of the classic love ballads of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, and others. Although at her best with popular standards of the 1930s to 1950s, Fitzgerald recorded more contemporary tunes like Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" a standard part of her repertoire. Her recordings are continually reissued, bringing her music to new audiences and broadening her circle of admirers.
Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia on April 25, 1918. Her parents, William Fitzgerald and Temperance Williams Fitzgerald, separated their common-law marriage within a year of Ella's birth; shortly thereafter, she moved north with her mother, settling in Yonkers, near New York City. At first, young Ella aspired to be a dancer. However, after winning a talent competition at Harlem's Apollo Theater in 1935, it became clear that singing would be her vocation; Ella won the contest with her rendition of "The Object of My Affection," a tune made popular by singer Connee Boswell, her idol and chief influence. In the Apollo audience that night was jazzman Benny Carter; he was so taken with Fitzgerald's performance that he introduced her to bandleader Fletcher Henderson as a possible singer for his band. Henderson, however, was unimpressed, and nothing came of the audition.