With a three-octave vocal range, booming histrionics and the uncanny ability to improvise with her signature scats, Ms. Fitzgerald towers over her contemporaries and remains an inspiration to other singers. As we celebrate the life of Ms. Fitzgerald on this day of her birth, NewsOne takes a look back at the life 59-year career of the late Grammy Award-winning pioneer.
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Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia to parents William and Temperance. After her parents dissolved their common-law marriage, Ella’s mother moved to Yonkers, New York with a boyfriend. As a young girl, Ella had dancing aspirations but enjoyed listening to Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and others. It was the Boswell Sisters, however, she found to be most influential early on in her career. But soon after, tragedy struck and Ella began down a sordid life path.
When her mother passed in 1932, Ella began running numbers, working at a bordello and pursuing other miscellaneous acts. She would become an orphan of the state and eventually ended up homeless for a spell. In 1934, at the age of 17, Ella would debut her vocal talents at the famed Apollo Theater of Harlem. She was going to show off her dancing abilities, but opted instead to sing one of her favorite Boswell Sisters songs and captured the winning prize.
In 1935, Ella caught a break singing with bandleader and drummer Chuck Webb, opening for him and joining his orchestra. When Webb passed in 1939, Ella scored a hit a year prior with the song “A Tisket, A-Tasket,” a song she co-wrote. She was named head of the band, but the group abruptly broke up in 1942, which launched her solo career. She eventually found her way alongside trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and invented her famous “scat-singing” style. She fashioned the vocal technique much in the way Dizzy would go off into improvisational horn riffs.
Fitzgerald went mainstream in the 50s, scoring success with a series of eight “songbooks” that she recorded on famous jazz label, Verve. The albums were a critical and commercial boon for Fitzgerald, cementing her in the annals of Jazz history. This move led the way to several more albums under Verve until she moved on to various record labels over the course of her career.
She would amass 13 Grammy Awards, and received a Lifetime Achievement award in 1967.
Ms. Fitzgerald passed away in June of 1996, leaving behind a rich legacy of recordings and influence over the Jazz landscape. Diabetes would rob the great singer of her life, but a series of her works are enshrined by the Smithsonian’s National Museum Of American History, Library of Congress, Harvard University and UCLA.