A Rockapaedia Obituary
Ella Fitzgerald died aged seventy-nine from a stroke at home in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, Califfornia, U.S.A. on 15th June 1996. She had suffered from diabetes for several years of her later life, which had led to numerous complications. In 1985, Ella Fitzgerald was hospitalized briefly for respiratory problems and in 1986 for congestive heart failure, and in 1990 for exhaustion. In 1993, she had to have both of her legs amputated below the knee due to the effects of diabetes. Her eyesight was affected as well.
In 1996, fed up of being in the hospital, she wished to spend her last days at home. Confined to a wheelchair, she spent her final days in her backyard of her Beverly Hills mansion on Whittier, with her son Ray and 12-year-old grand-daughter, Alice.
Ella Fitzgerald was born on 25th April 1917, in Newport News, Virginia, U.S.A. She was the daughter of William Fitzgerald and Temperance. Her parents were unmarried but lived together for at least two and a half years after she was born. In the early 1920s, Ella Fitzgerald's mother and her new partner, a Portuguese immigrant named Joseph Da Silva, moved to Yonkers, in Westchester County, New York, as part of the first Great Migration of African Americans. Initially living in a single room, her mother and Da Silva soon found jobs. Her half-sister, Frances Da Silva, was born in 1923. By 1925, Ella Fitzgerald and her family had moved to nearby School Street, a poor Italian area. She began her formal education at the age of six and was an outstanding student, moving through a variety of schools before attending Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in 1929.
Starting in third grade, Ella Fitzgerald loved dancing and admired Earl Snakehips Tucker. She performed for her peers on the way to school and at lunchtime. She and her family were Methodists and were active in the Bethany African Methodist Episcopal Church. She regularly attended worship services, Bible study, and Sunday school. The church provided Ella Fitzgerald with her earliest experiences in music. She may also have had a short series of piano lessons during this period.
Ella Fitzgerald listened to jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and The Boswell Sisters. She idolized the Boswell Sisters' lead singer Connee Boswell, later saying, "My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it...I tried so hard to sound just like her."
In 1932, when Ella Fitzgerald was fifteen, her mother died from injuries received in a car accident. Her stepfather took care of her until April 1933 when she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt.
Ella Fitzgerald began skipping school, and her grades suffered. She worked as a lookout at a bordello and with a Mafia-affiliated numbers runner. She never talked publicly about this time in her life. When the authorities caught up with her, she was placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale in the Bronx. When the orphanage proved too crowded, she was moved to the New York Training School for Girls, a state reformatory school in Hudson, New York. Eventually she escaped, and for a time she was homeless.
While she appears to have survived during 1933 and 1934 in part from singing on the streets of Harlem, Ella Fitzgerald made her most important debut at age seventeen in November, 1934, in one of the earliest Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theater. She had intended to go on stage and dance, but she was intimidated by a local dance duo called the Edwards Sisters and opted to sing instead. Performing in the style of Connee Boswell, she sang "Judy" and "The Object of My Affection" and won first prize. She won the chance to perform at the Apollo for a week but, seemingly because of her disheveled appearance, the theater never gave her that part of her prize.
In January 1935, Ella Fitzgerald won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. She was introduced to drummer and bandleader Chick Webb, who had asked his recently signed singer Charlie Linton to help find him a female singer. Alhough Webb was "reluctant to sign her...because she was gawky and unkempt, a 'diamond in the rough,'" he offered her the opportunity to test with his band when they played a dance at Yale University.
Met with approval by both audiences and her fellow musicians, Ella Fitzgerald was asked to join Webb's orchestra and gained acclaim as part of the group's performances at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. Ella Fitzgerald recorded several hit songs, including "Love and Kisses" and "(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)". But it was her 1938 version of the nursery rhyme, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket", a song she co-wrote, that brought her public acclaim. "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" became a major hit on the radio and was also one of the biggest-selling records of the decade.
Webb died of spinal tuberculosis in 1939, and his band was renamed Ella and Her Famous Orchestra with Ella Fitzgerald taking on the role of bandleader. She recorded nearly 150 songs with Webb's orchestra between 1935 and 1942. In The New York Times obituary of 1996, Stephen Holder wrote that "the majority" of her recordings during this period were "novelties and disposable pop fluff". In addition to her work with Webb, Ella Fitzgerald performed and recorded with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. She had her own side project, too, known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight.
In 1942, Ella Fitzgerald left the band to begin a solo career. While working for Decca Records, she had hits with Bill Kenny & the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, and the Delta Rhythm Boys. Producer Norman Granz became her manager in the mid-1940s after she began singing for Jazz at the Philharmonic, a concert series begun by Granz.
With the demise of the Swing era and the decline of the great touring big bands, a major change in jazz music occurred. The advent of bebop led to new developments in Ella Fitzgerald's vocal style, influenced by her work with Dizzy Gillespie's big band. It was in this period that Ella Fitzgerald started including scat singing as a major part of her performance repertoire. While singing with Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald recalled, "I just tried to do with my voice what I heard the horns in the band doing."
Her 1945 scat recording of "Flying Home" arranged by Vic Schoen would later be described by The New York Times as "one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade....Where other singers, most notably Louis Armstrong, had tried similar improvisation, no one before Miss Ella Fitzgerald employed the technique with such dazzling inventiveness." Her bebop recording of "Oh, Lady Be Good!" in 1947 was similarly popular and increased her reputation as one of the leading jazz vocalists.
Ella Fitzgerald made her first tour of Australia in July 1954 for the Australian-based American promoter Lee Gordon. This was the first of Gordon's famous "Big Show" promotions and the 'package' tour also included Buddy Rich, Artie Shaw and comedian Jerry Colonna. Although the tour was a big hit with audiences and set a new box office record for Australia, it was marred by an incident of racial discrimination that caused Ella Fitzgerald to miss the first two concerts in Sydney, and Gordon had to arrange two later free concerts to compensate ticket holders. Although the four members of Ella Fitzgerald's entourage – Ella Fitzgerald, her pianist John Lewis, her assistant (and cousin) Georgiana Henry, and manager Norman Granz – all had first-class tickets on their scheduled Pan-American Airlines flight from Honolulu to Sydney, Ella Fitzgerald, Henry and Lewis were ordered to leave the aircraft after they had already boarded and they were refused permission to re-board the aircraft to retrieve their luggage and clothing, and as a result they were stranded in Honolulu for three days before they could get another flight to Sydney. Although a contemporary Australian press report quoted an Australian Pan-Am spokesperson who denied that the incident was racially based, Ella Fitzgerald, Henry, Lewis and Granz filed a civil suit for racial discrimination against Pan-Am in December 1954 and in a 1970 television interview Ella Fitzgerald confirmed that they had won the suit and received what she described as a "nice settlement".
Ella Fitzgerald was still performing at Granz's JATP concerts in 1955 but he left Decca, and Granz, now her manager, created Verve Records around her. She later described the period as strategically crucial, saying she had got to the point where she was only singing be-bop and thought be-bop was 'it' and that all she had to do was to go places and sing bop. Norman felt that she should do other things, so he produced Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book with her making a turning point in her life.
In March 1955, Ella Ella Fitzgerald opened her initial engagement at the Mocambo nightclub in Hollywood, after Marilyn Monroe lobbied the owner for the booking. The booking was instrumental in Ella Fitzgerald's career. Bonnie Greer dramatized the incident as the musical drama, Marilyn and Ella, in 2008. It had previously been widely reported that Ella Fitzgerald was the first black performer to play the Mocambo, following Monroe's intervention, but this is not true. African-American singers Herb Jeffries, Eartha Kitt, and Joyce Bryant all played the Mocambo in 1952 and 1953, according to stories published at the time in Jet magazine and Billboard.
The album 'Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book', released in 1956, was the first of eight Song Book sets Ella Fitzgerald would record for Verve at irregular intervals from 1956 to 1964. The composers and lyricists spotlighted on each set, taken together, represent the greatest part of the cultural canon known as the Great American Songbook. Her song selections ranged from standards to rarities and represented an attempt by Ella Fitzgerald to cross over into a non-jazz audience. The sets are the most well-known items in her discography.
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book was the only Song Book on which the composer she interpreted played with her. Duke Ellington and his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn both appeared on exactly half the set's 38 tracks and wrote two new pieces of music for the album: "The E and D Blues" and a four-movement musical portrait of Ella Fitzgerald. The Song Book series ended up becoming the singer's most critically acclaimed and commercially successful work, and probably her most significant offering to American culture. The New York Times wrote in 1996, "These albums were among the first pop records to devote such serious attention to individual songwriters, and they were instrumental in establishing the pop album as a vehicle for serious musical exploration."
Days after Ella Fitzgerald's death, The New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote that in the Song Book series Ella Fitzgerald "performed a cultural transaction as extraordinary as Elvis' contemporaneous integration of white and African American soul. Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians." Frank Sinatra, out of respect for Ella Fitzgerald, prohibited Capitol Records from re-releasing his own recordings in separate albums for individual composers in the same way.
Ella Fitzgerald also recorded albums exclusively devoted to the songs of Porter and Gershwin in 1972 and 1983; the albums being, respectively, Ella Loves Cole and Nice Work If You Can Get It. A later collection devoted to a single composer was released during her time with Pablo Records, Ella Abraça Jobim, featuring the songs of Antônio Carlos Jobim.
While recording the Song Books and the occasional studio album, Ella Fitzgerald toured 40 to 45 weeks per year in the United States and internationally, under the tutelage of Norman Granz. Granz helped solidify her position as one of the leading live jazz performers. In 1961 Ella Fitzgerald bought a house in the Klampenborg district of Copenhagen, Denmark, after she began a relationship with a Danish man. Though the relationship ended after a year, Ella regularly returned to Denmark over the next three years, and even considered buying a jazz club there. The house was sold in 1963, and Ella Fitzgerald permanently returned to the United States.
There are several live albums on Verve that are highly regarded by critics. At the Opera House shows a typical JATP set from Ella Fitzgerald. Ella in Rome and Twelve Nights in Hollywood display her vocal jazz canon. Ella in Berlin is still one of her best-selling albums; it includes a Grammy-winning performance of "Mack the Knife" in which she forgets the lyrics but improvises magnificently to compensate.
Verve Records was sold to MGM in 1963 for $3 million and in 1967 MGM failed to renew Ella Fitzgerald's contract. Over the next five years she flitted between Atlantic, Capitol and Reprise. Her material at this time represented a departure from her typical jazz repertoire. For Capitol she recorded Brighten the Corner, an album of hymns, Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas, an album of traditional Christmas carols, Misty Blue, a country and western-influenced album, and 30 by Ella, a series of six medleys that fulfilled her obligations for the label. During this period, she had her last US chart single with a cover of Smokey Robinson's "Get Ready", previously a hit for the Temptations, and some months later a top-five hit for Rare Earth.
The surprise success of the 1972 album Jazz at Santa Monica Civic '72led Granz to found Pablo Records, his first record label since the sale of Verve. Ella Fitzgerald recorded some 20 albums for the label. Ella in London recorded live in 1974 with pianist Tommy Flanagan, guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Keter Betts and drummer Bobby Durham, wasconsidered by many to be some of her best work. The following year she again performed with Joe Pass on German television station NDR in Hamburg. Her years with Pablo Records also documented the decline in her voice. "She frequently used shorter, stabbing phrases, and her voice was harder, with a wider vibrato", one biographer wrote. Plagued by health problems, Ella Fitzgerald made her last recording in 1991 and her last public performances in 1993.