One of the most-loved jazz performers of all time, Ella Fitzgerald had a prolific career, recording over 200 albums. We look at the nine defining moments which shaped her career
New York’s Apollo Theatre, 1934
Until this point, Ella’s performing experience had been limited to tap-dancing on street corners. A difficult childhood—including losing her mother two years previously—had found her living with her aunty, in an orphanage, and on the streets in a matter of years. A friend convinced Ella to dance at a talent show at the Apollo Theatre in 1934—and the rest, as they say, is history. But she almost didn’t perform. Nerves got the better of her, and at the last minute she decided to sing rather than dance. She amazed the crowd with her rendition of “Judy,” a recently released Hoagy Carmichael song, and came first place, scooping up the $25-dollar prize.
Chick Webb Meeting
Not long after her Apollo debut, Ella happened to meet popular band leader and drummer, Chick Webb. Webb reluctantly gave Ella a trial with his then-band (he had just hired a lead male vocalist, plus he didn’t feel Ella looked the part). Unsurprisingly, her unfaltering voice impressed and she landed a regular slot singing with the Chick Webb Orchestra at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. Following Webb’s death in 1938, Ella went on to lead the band until she focused on her solo career from 1942.
Ella enjoyed her first major hit in 1938, at the tender age of 21, with “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” an infectious ditty based on a nursery rhyme, which she co-wrote. It topped the Billboards for 19 weeks, granting her international success.
The Rise of Bebop
On top of wowing audiences worldwide with her uplifting and impressive vocal range, Ella is applauded for ability to transcend musical genres. She also created a brand-new style of music in the process. As well as being adored for her scat singing, which was encouraged by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie whom she was performing with in Harlem in 1943, Ella also developed a signature style which became known as “bebop”—otherwise known as modern jazz. This was later encapsulated in the recording of “How High the Moon” (1947).
The Great American Songbook
In 1954 Ella appointed Norman Granz, a lover of jazz, founder of Verve records and a big supporter of racial equality, as her manager. Under his direction she created what’s seen to be some of the best jazz recordings of all time: The Great American Songbook series. Recorded at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, she explored the work of some of America’s greatest songwriters, including Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and Duke Ellington.
In 1958 Ella Fitzgerald became the first African-American woman to win a Grammy, securing one for best individual jazz performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook and another for best female vocal performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.
Mocambo and Marilyn
Ella had many fans around the world, but it was Marilyn Monroe who she said she was indebted to. Marilyn famously called the owner of Mocambo’s in Hollywood (one of the most popular venues at the time, and one where Ella had not been able to perform at because of her race) insisting they booked her. “The press went overboard” Ella later explained. “I never had to play a small jazz venue again.”
Louis Armstrong Collaborations
As well as embarking upon numerous tours and a series of stand-out concerts at the Hollywood Bowl together, Ella and Louis paired up on a series of career-defining recordings including Ella and Louis (1956), Ella and Louis Again (1957) and Porgy and Bess (1959), with music critics at the time lauding the releases as a “match made in heaven”. Ella also went on to perform with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie for a two-week stint in New York in 1974.
One of Ella’s last public performances, before her passing in 1996, was at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1991 (her 26th performance there) in spite of battling diabetes and other severe and debilitating health problems.
True to her word, Ella most certainly gave it her all: “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.”
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