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.”
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.
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.