“Forgive me if I don’t have all the words. Maybe I can sing it and you’ll understand.”
Ella Fitzgerald, 1917-1996
Ella Fitzgerald, 1917-1996
Ella Fitzgerald was an American jazz singer known as the “First Lady of Song.” With an impressive range and jaw-dropping improvisational scat singing, she had a successful decades-long career and was beloved by audiences young and old alike. She would sell more than 40 million albums in her lifetime, and her “songbook” recordings are widely considered to be American treasures.
As a young girl, Fitzgerald helped support her family by working as a “runner” for gamblers, picking up and dropping off bets and money. When Fitzgerald was only 15 years old, her mother died suddenly and after living with a stepfather, then an aunt, she was sent to a reformatory school. She soon escaped, only to live homeless on the streets of Harlem, singing for cash.
Fitzgerald performed for the first time when she was 16, at Amateur Night at the Apollo. She won the $25 first-place prize. Shortly after she was introduced to bandleader Chick Webb, and joined his group as a singer. Following Webb’s death, Fitzgerald became the leader of the group, renaming it Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band.
In 1942 Fitzgerald went out on her own. She toured with Dizzy Gillespie, and it was then that she started to adopt scat singing—an improvisational technique that would become her signature. Fitzgerald’s career steadily grew, with hits such as “But Not For Me” and “Mack the Knife.” She collaborated with music legends like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra, and recorded some of the most iconic collections of Great American Song Book composers. She came to be known as the “First Lady of Song.”
At the first ever Grammy awards in 1958, Fitzgerald won Best Female Vocal Performance and Best Individual Jazz Performance. She won a total of thirteen Grammy awards in her lifetime, received the Kennedy Center Honor in 1979, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992.
On tour with Dizzy Gillespie she met Ray Brown, whom she would marry and have one son with. They would later divorce, due to strains of always being on the road. For similar reasons, Fitzgerald went long periods of time without her son. They fell out of touch for many years, though they eventually reconciled.
Fitzgerald cared deeply about children’s welfare and frequently donated to organizations for disadvantaged youth. She gave performances to childrens’ audiences through various school and youth programs. She gave such performances at the Royal York here in Toronto, where she was a regular headliner.