"The First Lady of Song" is the title Ella Fitzgerald was given by critics and fans, and it was well-deserved. With a career spanning 60 years, with hundreds of recordings to her credit, and with accolades that included the Kennedy Center honors, 14 Grammy awards, and a school of performing arts in her name, Fitzgerald was perhaps the world's most celebrated and accomplished female vocalist. She was so loved by her many fans that they simply referred to her as "Ella."
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 won thirteen Grammy Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement in 1967.
Other major awards and honors she received during her career were the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Medal of Honor Award, National Medal of Art, first Society of Singers Lifetime Achievement Award, named "Ella" in her honor, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement, UCLA Spring Sing. Across town at the University of Southern California, she received the USC "Magnum Opus" Award which hangs in the office of the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation. In 1990, she received an honorary doctorate of Music from Harvard University.
Fitzgerald married at least twice, and there is evidence that she may have married a third time. In 1941, she married Benny Kornegay, a convicted drug dealer and local dockworker. The marriage was annulled after two years.
Her second marriage, in December 1947, was to the famous bass player Ray Brown, whom she had met while on tour with Dizzy Gillespie's band a year earlier. Together they adopted a child born to Fitzgerald's half-sister, Frances, whom they christened Ray Brown, Jr. With Fitzgerald and Brown often busy touring and recording, the child was largely raised by her aunt, Virginia. Fitzgerald and Brown divorced in 1953, bowing to the various career pressures both were experiencing at the time, though they would continue to perform together.
In July 1957, Reuters reported that Fitzgerald had secretly married Thor Einar Larsen, a young Norwegian, in Oslo. She had even gone as far as furnishing an apartment in Oslo, but the affair was quickly forgotten when Larsen was sentenced to five months hard labor in Sweden for stealing money from a young woman to whom he had previously been engaged.
Fitzgerald was also notoriously shy. Trumpet player Mario Bauzá, who played behind Fitzgerald in her early years with Chick Webb, remembered that "she didn't hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music....She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig." When, later in her career, the Society of Singers named an award after her, Fitzgerald explained, "I don't want to say the wrong thing, which I always do but I think I do better when I sing."
Fitzgerald was a quiet but ardent supporter of many charities and non-profit organizations, including the American Heart Association and the City of Hope Medical Center. In 1993, she established the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation.