Ella Fitzgerald: Most celebrated jazz singer of her generation

AJC Sepia Black History Month


With a distinctive, sweet sound, the voice of Ella Fitzgerald is instantly recognizable. Her voice radiates joy. Her voice just makes you feel good.

But before Fitzgerald became the First Lady of Song, she experienced great hardship — poverty, loss and homelessness.

Born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Va., Fitzgerald grew up in New York. After her mother’s death in 1932, Fitzgerald started skipping school and was sent to a special reform school. By 1934, Ella was trying to make it on her own and living on the streets.

Never letting go of dreams of becoming an entertainer, she entered an amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Initially, she was going to dance, but a case of stage fright inspired her to sing “Object of My Affection.”

MORE: Follow Black History Month on myajc.com

Her decision to sing rather than dance on that fall evening thrust her on a path toward becoming the most celebrated jazz singer of her generation. She wowed the audience and easily won first place and the contest’s $25 first-place prize.

She resolved to become a singer from that moment on.

Fortunately for Fitzgerald, bandleader Benny Goodman was in the audience for the show at the Apollo. Goodman set up Fitzgerald with a few gigs fronting his orchestra and the orchestra of his friend, Chick Webb. From there, her career soared, and she collaborated with other legends of the time, including Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington.

MORE: AJC Sepia on Facebook provides sophisticated coverage of important issues in the black community.

In 1958, Fitzgerald made history as the first African-American woman to win a Grammy Award. Known for having a remarkable three-octave range and lucid intonation, Fitzgerald would go on to win 13 Grammys, plus the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and sell more than 40 million albums.

Over the decades, Fitzgerald performed with big bands, symphony orchestras and small jazz groups.

In a career that spanned six decades, Fitzgerald recorded hundreds of songs, including better versions of many standards.

Ira Gershwin once said, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”

With perfect pitch and impeccable diction, her well-known songs include “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (originally recorded by Ozzie Nelson in 1931 and covered many times throughout the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s); “How High the Moon,” which showcases Fitzgerald’s scat skills; and Fitzgerald’s lovely and sweet interpretation of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Fitzgerald died in 1996 from complications caused by diabetes. She was 79 years old.

Going from last April through April 2018, special celebrations, exhibits, tributes and concerts are being held around the globe to mark the 100th anniversary of Fitzgerald’s birthday.

Her songs — her voice with clarity, depth and warmth — continue to endure and inspire.

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Living

Former Fox 5 anchor Roy Hobbs, 64, has died
Former Fox 5 anchor Roy Hobbs, 64, has died

Roy Hobbs at his last TV job. Posted Sunday, February 18, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog Roy Hobbs , a former WAGA-TV anchor from 1996 to 2003, has died in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was 64. The cause is unknown, according to West Palm Beach authorities. His 22-year-old daughter ...
DL Hughley visits Atlanta, promotes radio show on Classix 102.9
DL Hughley visits Atlanta, promotes radio show on Classix 102.9

DL Hughley in the Classix 102.9 studio Friday reading promos for a Philly station he is on. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com Posted Sunday, February 18, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog DL Hughley will forever be known as part of the groundbreaking Original Kings of Comedy tour...
Concert review: St. Vincent brings pop art performance to The Tabernacle
Concert review: St. Vincent brings pop art performance to The Tabernacle

St. Vincent performs onstage during Spotify and Mastercard present St. Vincent and Maggie Rogers at Mastercard House on January 23, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Mastercard) “The world isn’t sane right now,” St. Vincent told the audience at her sold-out show at the Tabernacle Saturday...
TV best bets with Winter Olympics, ‘The Walking Dead,’ Regina King
TV best bets with Winter Olympics, ‘The Walking Dead,’ Regina King

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, Chandler Riggs as Carl Grimes – The Walking Dead _ Season 8, Episode 8 – Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC Posted Sunday, February 18, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog We not only get to say goodbye to two weeks of Winter Olympics this Sunday but Carl...
Deadly choices: too many black women delaying breast cancer treatment
Deadly choices: too many black women delaying breast cancer treatment

For most Americans, breast cancer is not a death sentence. Over three and a half decades, breast cancer death rates have dropped by almost 40 percent in the United States. But not all women have benefited equally. “When you tell people you have breast cancer the look on their face changes,” Felicia Mahone said. “It’s a look...
More Stories