Black History Month Salutes: Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)

Ella Fitzgerald

Singer. Born Ella Jane Fitzgerald on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. After a troubled childhood, including the death of her mother in 1932, Fitzgerald turned to singing and debuted at the Apollo Theater in 1934 at age 17. She was discovered in an amateur contest in Harlem and joined Chick Webb’s band and recorded several hits, notably “A-tisket A-tasket” (1938).

After Webb died in 1939, his band was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra. Two years later, she began her solo career and by the mid-1950s, she had become the first African-American to perform at the Mocambo. Her lucid intonation and broad range made her a top jazz singer. Her series of recordings for Verve (1955-9) in multi-volume “songbooks” are among the treasures of American popular song. Fitzgerald is known as “The First Lady of Song,” and was the most popular American female jazz singer for over fifty years. In her lifetime, she won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums.

With the exception of Jazz at Santa Monica Civic ’72, her latter recordings marked a decline in her voice due to complications from diabetes. The disease left her blind, and she had both legs amputated in 1994. She made her last recording in 1989 and her last public performance in 1991 at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Ella Fitzgerald died on June 15, 1996 in her Beverly Hills home.

Fitzgerald was briefly married to Benny Kornegay, a convicted drug dealer and hustler, in 1941. She was married to bass player Ray Brown from 1947 to 1952; they adopted a child born to Fitzgerald’s half-sister whom they christened Ray Brown, Jr. Fitzgerald.


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