Ella Fitzgerald (1917 - 1996)

A photo of Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Jane Fitzgerald
1917 - 1996
April 25, 1917
Newport News, Virginia, United States
June 15, 1996
Beverly Hills, Los Angeles County, California, United States
Last Known Residence
Beverly Hills, Los Angeles County, California 90210
Ella Jane Fitzgerald of Beverly Hills, Los Angeles County, California was born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia United States, and died at age 79 years old on June 15, 1996 in Beverly Hills, California.
Updated: February 1, 2022
Biography ID: 9340743

Ella Fitzgerald's biography

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Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Jane Fitzgerald, First Lady of Song
Ella Fitzgerald, in full Ella Jane Fitzgerald, (born April 25, 1917, Newport News, Virginia, U.S.—died June 15, 1996, Beverly Hills, California), American jazz singer who became world famous for the wide range and rare sweetness of her voice. She became an international legend during a career that spanned some six decades.
As a child, Fitzgerald wanted to be a dancer, but when she panicked at an amateur contest in 1934 at New York City’s Apollo Theatre and sang in a style influenced by the jazz vocalist Connee Boswell instead, she won first prize. The following year Fitzgerald joined the Chick Webb orchestra; Webb became the teenaged Fitzgerald’s guardian when her mother died. She made her first recording, “Love and Kisses,” in 1935, and her first hit, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” followed in 1938. After Webb’s death in 1939, she led his band until it broke up in 1942. She then soloed in cabarets and theatres and toured internationally with such pop and jazz stars as Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, and Dizzy Gillespie. She also recorded prolifically.
During much of her early career she had been noted for singing and recording novelty songs. Her status rose dramatically in the 1950s when jazz impresario Norman Granz became her manager. From 1956 to 1964 she recorded a 19-volume series of “songbooks,” in which she interpreted nearly 250 outstanding songs by Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and Johnny Mercer. This material, combined with the best jazz instrumental support, clearly demonstrated Fitzgerald’s remarkable interpretative skills. Although her diction was excellent, her rendition of lyrics was intuitive rather than studied. For many years the star attraction of Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic concert tours, she was also one of the best-selling jazz vocal recording artists in history. She appeared in films (notably Pete Kelly’s Blues in 1955), on television, and in concert halls throughout the world. She also recorded a number of live concert albums and produced a notable duet version of Porgy and Bess (1957) with Armstrong. During the 1970s she began to experience serious health problems, but she continued to perform periodically, even after heart surgery in 1986. In 1993, however, her career was curtailed following complications stemming from diabetes, which resulted in the amputation of both her legs below the knees.
Fitzgerald’s clear tone and wide vocal range were complemented by her mastery of rhythm, harmony, intonation, and diction. She was an excellent ballad singer, conveying a winsome, ingenuous quality. Her infectious scat singing brought excitement to such concert recordings as Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin and was widely imitated by others. She garnered 14 Grammy Awards, including one for lifetime achievement. She also received a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement (1979) and the National Medal of Arts (1987).
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Ella Fitzgerald
Most commonly known as
Ella Jane Fitzgerald
Full legal name
None stated
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Beverly Hills, Los Angeles County, California 90210
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April 25, 1917
Newport News, Virginia United States
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Over the decades, Miss Fitzgerald performed with big bands, symphony orchestras and small jazz groups. Her repertory encompassed show tunes, jazz songs, novelties (like her first major hit, "A-Tisket A-Tasket," recorded in 1938), bossa nova, and even opera ("Porgy and Bess" excerpts, recorded with Louis Armstrong). At her jazziest, her material became a springboard for ever-changing, ebullient vocal inventions, delivered in a sweet, girlish voice that could leap, slide or growl anywhere within a range of nearly three octaves.


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Methodist. Very religious.


Ella Fitzgerald was one of the most prolific recording artists in jazz. These are some of her best albums: "Ella Fitzgerald: 75th-Birthday Celebration" (Decca Jazz). A two-disk, 39-song collection, it includes the cream of the singer's pop output recorded for Decca between 1938 and 1955. "Pure Ella" (Decca Jazz). These 20 songs recorded in the 1950's with the pianist Ellis Larkins exemplify elegant simplicity and ideal teamwork. "Ella and Louis" (Verve). In this 1956 collaboration with Louis Armstrong, two titans meet playfully. "Like Someone in Love" (Verve). This lush collection of 19 ballads recorded in 1957 with Frank DeVol's orchestra is her most romantic album. "Mack the Knife: The Complete Ella in Berlin" (Verve). This classic live album was recorded in 1960 when the singer was at the height of her powers. "The Intimate Ella" (Verve). Originally released in 1960 under the title "Ella Fitzgerald Sings Songs From the Soundtrack of 'Let No Man Write My Epitaph,' " the collection of 13 ballads recorded with the pianist Paul Smith is a neglected masterpiece. "The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks" (Verve). Taken together, these 16 disks, recorded between 1956 and 1964, constitute the singer's crowning achievement. The tributes to Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer can also be purchased individually. Although the Cole Porter collection, which was the first, is the most famous, it is not the best. The 53-song Gershwin album, recorded with Nelson Riddle's orchestra, is the artistic peak. "Ella and Basie: On the Sunny Side of the Street" (Verve). A swinging powerhouse, released in 1963. "Fitzgerald and Pass . . . Again" (Pablo). The best joint recording by two beautifully matched jazz classicists. "Fine and Mellow" (Pablo). A wonderful swinging album from 1974, recorded with an all-star small ensemble.

Personal Life

Ella Fitzgerald left behind an astounding body of work, with more than 200 albums and 2,000 recorded songs. She earned 13 Grammy awards, influenced countless artists, and touched many lives with her civil rights advocacy. Fitzgerald’s charity work on behalf of children was spurred on by World War II. Shortly after the war, Fitzgerald funded a spot in a home for a war orphan in Naples. Throughout her life, she remained a champion of children, inspired by personal tragedy to help orphans and disadvantaged children. In 1993, the singer founded the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation. The Foundation is dedicated “to use the fruits of her success to help people of all races, cultures and beliefs… Ella hoped to make their lives more rewarding, and she wanted to foster a love of reading, as well as a love of music. In addition, she hoped to provide assistance to the at-risk and disadvantaged members of our communities—assistance that would enable them to achieve a better quality of life.”

Military Service

With the US entry into the war, many performers contributed to the war effort by volunteering their time and talent. Just entering the peak of her career, Fitzgerald continued a rigorous touring schedule across the country during the war years, often sharing a bill with the Ink Spots. But she still performed large and small shows along the way for those in service. Fitzgerald, like countless others, often operated through the United Service Organizations (USO). The USO, formed in April 1941 with the aim of bolstering troop morale and providing a “home away from home” for those in service, was the main force behind the entertainment and recreational efforts during World War II. The Camp Shows Division of the USO was formed in October 1941 to bring live entertainment to troops. The division’s output was tremendous; from 1941 to 1947, more than 7,000 performers put on 428,521 shows of all kinds. Many famous African American performers, like Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne, suffered discrimination and segregation even while volunteering to entertain to support the war effort. Although official USO policy forbade discrimination on the basis of creed or race, most USO centers were segregated during World War II because the USO was unwilling to integrate clubs if local communities opposed integration. As a result, the national USO and local African American communities created 375 separate USO clubs for African American servicemen. Of 3,000 total USO clubs, 109 of the clubs staffed by white volunteers admitted African Americans, but only sometimes on nights when white servicemen were barred from entry. Racist policies and practices led some black entertainers to distance themselves from official USO performances, while still devoting themselves to the overall cause by entertaining. Some performers, like Lena Horne, performed solely at camps and facilities for the more than 1.2 million African American troops serving in the segregated Armed Forces fighting tyranny abroad while living under discrimination at home. Restrictions on travel and lack of accommodations were difficult for all during the war, but were a particular hardship on African Americans, who were confined to blacks-only cars on trains and prohibited from many hotels. Once on a crowded train passing through the Washington, D.C. area, Fitzgerald took a seat in a whites-only train car after having stood for hours unable to find a seat in the packed blacks-only car. The conductor tried to remove her from the car, but a group of white sailors intervened and insisted she sit with them. Even under these circumstances, Ella kept a busy tour and travel schedule. A review of a Fitzgerald appearance at Governors Island, New York on February 25, 1942 reads: “A ferryboat full of jive unloaded at Governor’s Island, Wednesday, when Ella Fitzgerald, the golden girl of the dance business, took her famous orchestra for a USO-Camp Show volunteer playdate at Fort Jay. The Tisket-Tasket Gal and her solid sending hand of Harlem rhythm men are another of the nation’s top dance and radio bands contributing their services to USO-Camp Shows who book them into camps and naval stations all over the country, where they play early evening performances free for Uncle Sam’s servicemen.” In June 1942, Ella Fitzgerald was billed as a “special attraction” along with Lena Horne and the eight star-studded big bands in the lineup at a USO benefit dance at the Golden Gate Ballroom in Harlem, New York. She had just turned 24. During this period, Fitzgerald was also a popular performer on the radio show Jubilee, broadcast by the Armed Forces Radio Network (AFRN) from 1942-1953. This show, one of over 100 shows sent overseas by the AFRN, featured African American musicians and singers and was intended to be aimed at black listeners in the US Armed Forces. Because the show featured many unique and unknown acts in addition to stars like Fitzgerald, the show’s recordings are the only traces of some of the broadcast’s performers. On May 31, 1944, Fitzgerald had a special honor when she opened the new outdoor amphitheater at the northern edge of Tuskegee Army Air Field. The airfield was a full-scale military base and was the US Army Air Forces training site for the ground-breaking Tuskegee Airmen, roughly 1,000 African American aviators. One of the most significant artifacts remaining from the jazz heroine’s career as a WWII entertainer is the M-1 helmet liner worn by Fitzgerald at a USO performance for troops. The helmet is displayed at The National WWII Museum in BB’s Stage Door Canteen as part of a tribute to American entertainers who donated their time and talent to help out with the war effort and provide enjoyment for those in service. The Museum’s collection contains items related to Ella’s life and works including sheet music, concert programs, and music albums.
June 15, 1996
Death date
Beverly Hills, Los Angeles County, California United States
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Ella Fitzgerald, the Voice of Jazz, Dies at 79 By STEPHEN HOLDEN JUNE 16, 1996 Ella Fitzgerald, whose sweet, silvery voice and endlessly inventive vocal improvisations made her the most celebrated jazz singer of her generation, died yesterday at home in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 79. She had been suffering from diabetes and its eyesight and circulatory system complications for many years. In 1993, both of her legs were amputated below the knees. A pre-eminent American singer who brought a classic sense of musical proportion and balance to everything she touched, Miss Fitzgerald won the sobriquet "first lady of song" and earned the unqualified admiration of most of her peers. Musicians from Bing Crosby to Benny Goodman, when asked to name their favorite singer, cited Ella Fitzgerald. "Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest," Crosby once said. Mel Torme hailed her as having "the best ear of any singer ever." Until the 1970's, when physical problems began to impinge on her perfect technique, this hefty, un-glamorous woman seemed to loom as an immutable creative force in a musical world where everything else was crumbling. In a career that spanned six decades, Miss Fitzgerald stood above the emotional fray of the scores of popular standards she performed. Stylistically she was the polar opposite of her equally legendary peer, Billie Holiday, who conveyed a wounded vulnerability. Even when handed a sad song, Miss Fitzgerald communicated a wistful, sweet-natured compassion for the heartache she described. Where Holiday and Frank Sinatra lived out the dramas they sang about, Miss Fitzgerald, viewing them from afar, seemed to understand and forgive all. Her apparent equanimity and her clear pronunciation, which transcended race, ethnicity, class and age, made her a voice of profound reassurance and hope. Miss Fitzgerald was renowned both for her delicately rendered ballads and her pyrotechnical displays of scat improvisation. (The jazz historian Barry Ulanov traced the term be-bop to her spontaneous interpolation of the word "re-bop" in her 1939 recording of "T'Ain't What You Do, It's the Way That You Do It.") She was sometimes criticized for a lack of bluesiness and emotional depth. But her perfect intonation, vocal acrobatics, clear diction and endless store of melodic improvisations -- all driven by powerful rhythmic undercurrents -- brought her nearly universal acclaim. During her long career, Miss Fitzgerald recorded with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong. Her series of "Songbook" albums, celebrating such songwriters as Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart and Duke Ellington, helped to elevate the work of the best American songwriters to a stature widely recognized as art song. "I never knew how good our songs were," Ira Gershwin once said, "until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them." Although most biographies give her birth date as 1918, her birth certificate and school records show her to have been born a year earlier, on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Va. She was the product of a common-law marriage between William Fitzgerald and Temperance Williams Fitzgerald. The couple separated within a year of her birth, and with her mother and a Portuguese immigrant named Joseph Da Silva, she moved to Yonkers. As a child, Miss Fitzgerald dreamed of being a dancer. But she also sang and was attracted to the recordings of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and the Boswell Sisters, in particular the group's lead singer, Connee Boswell. "My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it," she recalled many years later. "I tried so hard to sound just like her." As a teen-ager, Miss Fitzgerald developed a dance routine with a friend, Charles Gulliver, which they performed in local clubs. Then in 1932, her mother died suddenly, and she went to live with an aunt in Harlem. On Nov. 21, 1934, she made her stage debut in an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater, singing two songs, "The Object of My Affection" and "Judy," in the style of Connee Boswell. She won first prize. Miss Fitzgerald made her first recording in 1935 ("Love and Kisses," with Chick Webb), and had her first hit with "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," a song she helped write, adapting the lyric, she later explained, from "that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up." The record became a popular sensation and made her a star. After Webb died in 1939, the young singer was the band's nominal leader until mid-1942, when it broke up. Between her recording debut in 1935 and the demise of the band seven years later, Miss Fitzgerald recorded almost 150 sides, the majority of them novelties and disposable pop fluff. These achievements were among the high points of a recording career that found Miss Fitzgerald recording in all manner of pop settings. Between 1935 and 1955 she recorded for Decca Records. Under the commercially astute supervision of the producer Milt Gabler, she was teamed with the vocal group the Ink Spots for several hits, including the million-selling "I'm Making Believe" and "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall." She also scored commercially with novelty duets recorded with Louis Jordan, the most popular of which was "Stone Cold Dead in the Market." Dictated largely by the fads of the moment, Miss Fitzgerald's pre-1955 pop recording career was an artistically mixed bag and stood distinct from her work as a swing and jazz singer in nightclubs. One of the artistic high points of the Decca years was a 10-inch long-playing record, "Ella Sings Gershwin," which she recorded with the pianist Ellis Larkins in 1950. Miss Fitzgerald's life changed when Norman Granz, the impresario of the popular Jazz at the Philharmonic series, invited her to join the touring jam sessions in 1949 and later became her manager. One of her most popular numbers, "How High the Moon," evolved into the unofficial signature tune of the series. Their relationship quickly developed into one of the most productive artist-manager partnerships in the history of jazz. When Miss Fitzgerald's contract with Decca expired, she became the first artist Mr. Granz signed to his new Verve label. It was under his supervision that she undertook the series of landmark "Songbook" albums that brought her voice to a large nonjazz audience. "I had gotten to the point where I was only singing be-bop," she later recalled. "I thought be-bop was 'it,' and that all I had to do was go someplace and sing bop. But it finally got to the point where I had no place to sing. I realized then that there was more to music than bop. Norman came along, and he felt that I should do other things, so he produced 'The Cole Porter Songbook' with me. It was a turning point in my life." "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook" became the prototype for a series of anthologies recorded over more than a decade and focusing on individual composers or composing teams, blending familiar standards and lesser-known, usually first-rate songs. Backed by various studio orchestras, she also interpreted the work of Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer and Rodgers and Hart. "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook," a 53-song, 5-LP collection recorded with the arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle in 1959, is widely regarded as the greatest of the collections. 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. From 1956 through the mid-1960s, Miss Fitzgerald concentrated on material that was almost consistently commensurate with her artistry, and her career soared. She made her first feature-film appearance in "Pete Kelly's Blues," in 1955, and in 1957 presented her own concert at the Hollywood Bowl. In April 1958 she gave a Carnegie Hall concert with Duke Ellington to celebrate the release of her four-disk set, "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook." Offstage, Miss Fitzgerald lived a quiet, self-protective life in a 13-room house in Beverly Hills. Her social life involved a small circle of old friends, including members of Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras, and other singers, including over the years Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, and Peggy Lee. A model of abstemious self-discipline, she shunned cigarettes and liquor. She was also a person of few words. Shy and extremely sensitive to criticism, she preferred to let Mr. Granz do most of the talking for her. Asked once how she felt about being "a legend," she replied: "I don't think I noticed it at first. But when Norman Granz and I began recording the 'Songbook' series in the mid-'50s, it just seemed that more people began to like my singing. The awards I started winning didn't make me feel important, but they made me realize people loved me. And then kids started calling me 'Ella' -- half of them never even mentioned 'Ella Fitzgerald' -- just 'Ella.' " She amassed countless awards and commendations, including honorary doctorates at Yale and Dartmouth, the National Medal of Arts, and 13 Grammy Awards, including one in 1967 for Lifetime Achievement. In 1979 she was given a Kennedy Center Award for her lifetime in the performing arts. Accepting an honorary doctorate of music at Yale, she commented with her characteristic modesty, "Not bad for someone who only studied music to get that half-credit in high school."

Average Age & Life Expectancy

Ella Fitzgerald lived 8 years longer than the average Fitzgerald family member when she died at the age of 79.
The average age of a Fitzgerald family member is 71.

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Amanda S. Stevenson commented on Jan 29
I saw her in person several times. She sat on a stool with a handkerchief next to her face, closed her eyes, and sang beautifully. The audience was there to hear her sing and that is all she did. I don't remember her actually trying to connect with the audience or telling any anecdotes. She didn't "put on a show" like other singers. But I couldn't fault her perfect phrasing, clear enunciation, and lovely voice.

1917 - 1996 World Events

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In 1917, in the year that Ella Fitzgerald was born, on July 28, between ten and fifteen thousand blacks silently walked down New York City's Fifth Avenue to protest racial discrimination and violence. Lynchings in Waco Texas and hundreds of African-Americans killed in East St. Louis Illinois had sparked the protest. Picket signs said "Mother, do lynchers go to heaven?" "Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?" "Thou shalt not kill." "Pray for the Lady Macbeth's of East St. Louis" and "Give us a chance to live."

In 1939, when she was 22 years old, on the 1st of September, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. On September 17th, the Soviet Union invaded Poland as well. Poland expected help from France and the United Kingdom, since they had a pact with both. But no help came. By October 6th, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany held full control of the previously Polish lands. Eventually, the invasion of Poland lead to World War II.

In 1950, by the time she was 33 years old, on October 2, Charlie Brown appeared in the first Peanuts comic strip - created by Charles Schultz - and he was the only character in that strip. That year, Schultz said that Charlie was 4 years old, but Charlie aged a bit through the years.

In 1989, when she was 72 years old, on January 20th, George Herbert Walker Bush became the 41st President of the United States. Previously Ronald Regan's Vice President, he ran against Michael Dukakis and won the popular vote by 53.4% to 45.6%.

In 1996, in the year of Ella Fitzgerald's passing, on July 5th, the first cloned mammal - "Dolly the Sheep" - was born in Scotland. She had three mothers. Dolly lived to be 6 years old and produced 6 lambs. Since, other sheep have been cloned as well as horses, pigs, deer, and bulls.

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