With 13 Grammy awards, more than 200 albums, and a career that lasted longer than 40 years, Ms. Fitzgerald is a musical legend. Noted for her perfect pitch, scatting abilities, and vocal range, the “Queen of Jazz” continues to inspire musicians to this very day. However, Fitzgerald’s life was not easy at first.
Born in Newport News, Va., Fitzgerald soon moved with her mother and stepfather to Yonkers, N.Y. When her mother died in 1932, then 15-year-old Fitzgerald ran away from her abusive stepfather and went to live with her aunt. The young Fitzgerald worked odd jobs, even as a lookout for a brothel and with a Mafia-affiliated numbers runner. When police caught her, the authorities attempted to place her in the Colored Orphan Asylum in the Bronx. However, due to overcrowding, Fitzgerald was sent to the New York Training School for Girls. Fitzgerald ran away from the state reformatory and was subsequently homeless for a while.
Fitzgerald debuted at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1934 during one of their popular “Amateur Nights.” Originally intending to dance, Fitzgerald became intimidated after watching the Edwards Sisters dance. She instead opted to sing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy,” which earned her the top prize of $25.
Following her win at the Apollo Theater, Fitzgerald won the chance to sing with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. It was there that she met Chick Webb, who later gave her the opportunity to sing regularly with his orchestra. It was with them that Fitzgerald recorded one of her many hit songs, “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)”. Her big break, however, came with her 1938 version of the nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”
Fitzgerald took over the band when Mr. Webb died. Renamed as “Ella and her Famous Orchestra,” the band broke up in 1942 when Fitzgerald left to begin her solo career. Initially signed with the Decca Label, it was during her years with Decca that Fitzgerald began scat singing. This led to some of her greatest hits, such as “Oh, Lady be Good.”
By 1955 Fitzgerald had left Decca and was instead signed to Verve Records, which her manager had created around her. It was through Verve that her famed Songbook series would be produced. The Songbook series, which celebrated other musicians like Duke Ellington, won Ftizgerald even more public adoration.
When Verve was sold to MGM in 1963, Fitzgerald’s contract was not renewed and she then moved between Atlantic, Reprise, and Capitol records. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan awarded her the National Medal of Arts. She would later receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 from President George H.W. Bush.
Due to health problems, Fitzgerald gave her last performance in Carnegie Hall in 1991. With a career that lasted most of her lifetime, Fitzgerald retired to her home in Beverly Hills with spend time with her son and her granddaughter. She died on June 15, 1996 at the age of 79.
Seventeen years later, she continues to grace the world with her music. Whether it’s the Christmas classic, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” or her heavily acclaimed Songbook series, The Queen of Jazz is still performing in music players around the world. So here’s to you, Ella Fitzgerald. Happy Birthday.
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