SynopsisFollowing a troubled childhood, Ella Fitzgerald turned to singing and debuted at the Apollo Theater in 1934. Discovered in an amateur contest, she went on to became the top female jazz singer for decades. 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 in total and sell more than 40 million albums. Her multi-volume “songbooks” on Verve Records are among America’s recording treasures. Fitzgerald died in California in 1996.Early YearsBorn on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, singer Ella Fitzgerald was the product of a common-law marriage between William Fitzgerald and Temperance “Tempie” Williams Fitzgerald. Ella experienced a troubled childhood that began with her parents separating shortly after her birth.With her mother, Fitzgerald moved to Yonkers, New York. They lived there with her mother’s boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. The family grew in 1923 with the arrival of Fitzgerald’s half-sister Frances. Struggling financially, the young Fitzgerald helped her family out by working as a messenger “running numbers” and acting as a lookout for a brothel. Her first career aspiration was to become a dancer.After her mother’s death in 1932, Fitzgerald ended up moving in with an aunt. She started skipping school. Fitzgerald was then sent to a special reform school but didn’t stay there long. By 1934, Ella was trying to make it on her own and living on the streets. Still harboring dreams of becoming an entertainer, she entered an amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She sang the Hoagy Carmichael tune “Judy” as well as “The Object of My Affection,” wowing the audience. Fitzgerald went on to win the contest’s $25 first place prize.First No. 1: “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”That unexpected performance at the Apollo helped set Fitzgerald’s career in motion. She soon met bandleader and drummer Chick Webb and eventually joined his group as a singer. Fitzgerald recorded “Love and Kisses” with Webb in 1935 and found herself playing regularly at one of Harlem’s hottest clubs, the Savoy. Fitzgerald also put out her first No. 1 hit, 1938’s “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she co-wrote. Later that year Ella recorded her second hit, “I Found My Yellow Basket.”In addition to her work with Webb, Fitzgerald performed and recorded with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. She had her own side project, too, known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight. Following Webb’s death in 1939, Ella became the leader of the band, which was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra. (Some sources refer to the group as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band.) Around this time, Fitzgerald was briefly married to Ben Kornegay, a convicted drug dealer and hustler. They wed in 1941, but she soon had their union annulled.Rising StarGoing out on her own, Fitzgerald landed a deal with Decca Records. She recorded some hit songs with the Ink Spots and Louis Jordan in the early 1940s. Fitzgerald also made her film debut as Ruby in 1942’s comedy western Ride ‘Em Cowboy with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Her career really began to take off in 1946 when she started working with Norman Granz, the future founder of Verve Records. In the mid-1940s, Granz had started Jazz at the Philharmonic, a series of concerts and live records featuring most of the genre’s great performers. Fitzgerald also hired Granz to become her manager.Around this time, Fitzgerald went on tour with Dizzy Gillespie and his band. She started changing her singing style, incorporating scat singing during her performances. Fitzgerald also fell in love with Gillespie’s bass player Ray Brown. The pair wed in 1947, and they adopted a child born to Fitzgerald’s half-sister whom they named Raymond “Ray” Brown Jr. The marriage ended in 1952.Queen of JazzThe 1950s and ’60s proved to be a time of great critical and commercial success for Fitzgerald, and she earned the moniker “First Lady of Song” for her mainstream popularity and unparalleled vocal talents. Her unique ability to mimic instrumental sounds helped popularize the vocal improvisation of scatting, which became her signature technique.
The West Harlem Art Fund (WHAF) is a twenty-one year old, public arts organization. WHAF presents diverse art and cultural programming in open, public spaces to add aesthetic interest to our beloved city and to promote local history. Our organizational symbol is the double crocodile from West Africa. Funtunmmireku-Denkyemmirreku means unity in diversity.
View all posts by WHAF