it’s where you’re going that counts.”
Ella Jane Fitzgerald (1917-1996) was born to Temprance and William Fitzgerald in Newport News, Virginia on April 25, 1917. Shortly after her birth, Ella’s parents separated and Temprance moved she and Ella in with her boyfriend Joseph Da Silva to a house in Yonkers, New York. Ella was a self-proclaimed “tomboy” who enjoyed singing. With her friends, Ms. Fitzgerald would often take the train into Harlem to the Apollo Theater.
Ella’s mother Tempie died in 1932 in a car accident. Shortly after, Ella’s step-father Joseph died from a heart attack. Ella and her two half sisters had a very difficult time adjusting to their parents’ deaths and moved to Ella’s hometown in Newport News. Ella’s grades began dropping in school and eventually was sent to a reform school after a run-in with the police. At reform school, her life was miserable and her caretakers beat her. Ella left the reformatory when she was 15 and found herself flat-broke and alone during the Great Depression.
In 1934 Ella’s name was pulled in a weekly drawing at the Apollo and she won the opportunity to compete in Amateur Night. On the stage, the audience booed when stage fright overtook her. Once she began to sing, the audience became silent and then, demanded encores. Off stage, and away from people she knew well, Ella was shy and reserved. She was self-conscious about her appearance and even doubted her abilities. Surprisingly, on stage, Ella had no fear.
In mid 1936, Ella made her first recording. “Love and Kisses”. Her song, “You Have to Swing It” was one of the first times she began experimenting with scat singing. Ella mastered scat singing and turned it into a form of art. In 1938, at the age of 21, Ella recorded a playful version of the nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and was instantly famous.
Ella’s husband Ray Brown was working for Norman Granz on the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” tour when Norman saw that Ella had what it took to become an international star. He convinced Ella to sign with him. On the touring circuit it was well-known that Ella’s manager felt very strongly about civil rights and required equal treatment for his musicians, regardless of their color.
In 1987, United States President Ronald Reagan awarded Ella the National Medal of Arts. It was one of her most prized moments. France followed suit several years later, presenting her with their Commander of Arts and Letters award, while Yale, Dartmouth and several other universities bestowed Ella with honorary doctorates.
Ms. Fitzgerald developed severe diabetes and circulatory problems. At the age of 76, she had both of her legs amputated below the knees. During this time, Ella enjoyed sitting outside in her backyard, and spending time with her adopted son Ray, Jr. and her granddaughter Alice. On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died peacefully in her Beverly Hills home. Her legacy lives on through her music and her contributions to scat jazz. My two favorite song by her are “Manhattan” and “Blue Skies” and they always put a lovely smile on my face.
“Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do.
Where there is love and inspiration,
I don’t think you can go wrong.”