Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song

Ella FitzgeraldFebruary is African American Heritage Month and WERS AT NIGHT is honoring one artist or one song every day this month that helped contribute to social consciousness, political responsibility, or civil rights. At WERS, we believe that these songs are always bigger than just entertainment; music can be used to drive a movement or even motivate a nation.

Ella Fitzgerald, also known as the First Lady of Song, Lady Ella and the Queen of Jazz was an American jazz singer noted for her purity of tone and “horn like” improvisational ability. Fitzgerald was born April 25, 1917 and died June 15, 1996. During her 59-year recording career Fitzgerald was awarded 14 Grammy Awards, and was the first African-American woman to receive a Grammy.

In 1958 Fitzgerald received the coveted award for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for her album Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook. Fitzgerald was also awarded the National Medal of Arts by Ronald Reagan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush. On November 21, 1934 Fitzgerald made her singing debut at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York.

A few weeks later she won an opportunity to compete in one of the earliest “Amateur Nights” where she won first prize of $25. Soon Fitzgerald began singing regularly with Chick Webb’s Orchestra at Harlem’s Savory Ballroom. In 1938 a version of a nursery rhyme “A Tisket, A Tasket” which Fitzgerald co-wrote brought her wide public acclaim. When Chick Webb died in 1939 his band was renamed “Ella and her Famous Orchestra”.

Fitzgerald recorded nearly 150 songs with the orchestra before it broke up in 1942 when she began her solo career. Fitzgerald was signed to the Decca recording label and recorded several hits with artists such as The Ink Sports, Louis Jordan and Delta Rhythm Boys. She appeared regularly at Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic and Granz soon became her manager. The advent of bebop put Fitzgerald in a new arena this style highly influenced her work with Dizzy Gillespie’s band.

During this time Fitzgerald started including scat singing as part of her performances. Her 1945 scat recording of “Flying Home” was described by The New York Times as “one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade.” Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook was released in 1956 and was the first of the eight multi-album Songbook sets Fitzgerald would record. A few days after her death, the New York Times wrote that in the Songbook series Fitzgerald “performed a cultural transaction as extraordinary as Elvis’s contemporaneous integration of white and African-American soul.

Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians.” In 1967 Fitzgerald added the Lifetime Achievement award to her collection of Grammys. Miss Fitzgerald’s unique vocals and elegance continue to inspire artists today.

By McKenna Stephens

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