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Music / Ella Fitzgerald

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"Forgive me if I don’t have the words. Maybe I can sing it and you’ll understand."

Ella Jane Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996) was a famous American Jazz singer, known for her skilled vocals, incredible sense of swing, and her happy singing style.

Fitzgerald had a tough life growing up and was homeless for most of her teenage years in New York City. There she would dance for pennies to any passerby, hoping to become a great dancer. In 1934 the Apollo Theater staged an amateur night, and – after signing up on a bet – she was selected to perform; however, seeing a popular dance group on the bill ahead of her, she opted to sing instead. The rest is history.

She was heard by one of the musicians in Chick Webb's influential swing band and was soon picked up by Webb, with whom she cut one of the era's most influential and popular jazz songs, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (1938), at age 21. During the '40s, she recorded for Decca Records and gradually advanced her reputation, but still had yet to break through to the "mainstream" (i.e., white) audience. After signing with Verve Records (a label that was created specifically for her) in in the '50s, she released a series of "song book" albums, each devoted to the works of well-known songwriters and composers including Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin; these helped serve to codify the canon of jazz standards and cemented her stardom. She also collaborated with such other famous musicians as Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, and, most famously, Louis Armstrong during this era. She recorded for Capitol and then Reprise in the '60s before moving to Verve founder Norman Granz's Pablo Records label in the '70s. Still a prominent and respected figure in the jazz world, she continued to perform and keep up with the times. Classics of this period include her live Ella in Berlin album and her collaborations with guitarist Joe Pass.

As time went on, Fitzgerald’s voice began to deteriorate along with her health due to her diabetes, so she retired from public life. In 1996 she died at the age of 79, a musical legend.

Not only did Ella Fitzgerald win 14 Grammy Awards and Honorary Awards in her lifetime, but she was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame six times. Her centennial in 2017 was celebrated by the Smithsonian and the Grammy Museum.

Ella Fitzgerald and her works provide examples of:

  • Affectionate Nickname: She earned the nicknames, First Lady of Song, Lady Ella, and Queen of Jazz throughout her lifetime.
  • Christmas Songs: She recorded a number of them over the years, including the full-length albums Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960), which features upbeat arrangements of secular 20th-century Christmas tunes, and Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas (1967), which concentrates on more traditional religious carols.
  • Cover Album: Ella's famed Song Book series. These made Ella break into the mainstream and solidified her career as the jazz vocalist. She sang everyone.
    • Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook (1956)
    • Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Song Book (1956)
    • Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book (1957). Ellington and his orchestra accompanied her on the album.
    • Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook (1958)
    • Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book (1959)
  • Covered Up: Invoked by no less than Ira Gershwin, who said, "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them."
  • Crossover: Her many albums with Louis Armstrong.
  • Glass-Shattering Sound: In the '70s she appeared in a well-known "Is it live or is it Memorex?" TV commercial, in which her voice breaks a wine glass when she hits a high note... and then replaying the tape recording of her singing also causes a glass to shatter.
  • I Am the Band: This came into play when Ella took over Chick Webb’s band after his untimely death.
  • Improv: In her 1960 concert album Ella in Berlin, she had a memory lapse on the lyrics of "Mack the Knife," and proceeded to make up her own words and scat over the music instead. The result won a Grammy Award.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: Her first big hit was a rendition of the Nursery Rhyme "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," which her interpretation with Chick Webb turned from a children's ditty into a sophisticated swing number.
  • Jazz: A prominent figure in jazz and its subsequent subgroups (bebop & scat)
  • Live Album: Her most famous is Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife.
  • Lyrical Tic: Her scatting can be one.
  • Multiple Demographic Appeal: She sung jazz, pop, standards, and even Rock & Roll, and made everything her own.
  • Odd Friendship: Marilyn Monroe and Ella's friendship. Maybe not as odd as one might think: both were shy people and both were judged by the way they looked throughout their careers.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: Ella was willing to tackle songs in any genre from jazz to rock, but probably the most unlikely was a TV performance of "Three Little Maids From School" from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, as a trio with Joan Sutherland and Dinah Shore.
  • The Quiet One: Ella was a very shy person.
  • Scatting: Her skill was legendary.
  • Soprano and Gravel: A series of duets with the gravel provided by none other than Louis Armstrong.
  • Spiritual Successor: Ella was one to her idol, Connee Boswell, from the famed harmonizing group, The Boswell Sisters.
    • Many later jazz and pop vocalists have cited Ella as an inspiration, including artists as different as Adele and Björk.
  • Stuck in a Chimney: "Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney":
    There he was in the middle of the chimney
    Roly-poly, fat, and round
    There he was in the middle of the chimney
    Not quite up and not quite down