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Ella Fitzgerald Biography

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Ella Jane Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996), also known as Lady Ella (the First Lady of Song), was considered one of the most influential jazz vocalists of the 20th Century .

With a vocal range spanning three octaves, she was noted for her purity of tone, near faultless phrasing and intonation, and a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing. She is widely considered to have been one of the supreme interpreters of the Great American Songbook .

Over a recording career that lasted fifty seven years, she was the winner of thirteen Grammy Awards, and was awarded the National Medal of Art by President Ronald Reagan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H. W. Bush, .

Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, USA on April, 25, 1917.

Her father, William Fitzgerald, and mother, Temperance, or Tempie, Fitzgerald separated soon after her birth. Ella and her mother, moved to Yonkers, New York, moving in with Tempie's boyfriend Joseph Da Silva.

Ella's half-sister, Frances Fitzgerald, was born in 1923.

In 1932, Ella's mother died from serious injuries received in a car accident. After staying with Da Silva for a short time, Tempie's sister Virginia took Ella in. Shortly afterward, Da Silva suffered a heart attack and died, and her sister Frances joined Ella with Virginia.

Following these dramatic events, Ella's academic grades dropped dramatically, and she frequently skipped school. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school.

Eventually Ella escaped from the reformatory, and for a time was homeless.

She made her singing debut at age 17 on November 21, 1934 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. Ella's name pulled in a weekly drawing at the Apollo and she won the opportunity to compete in one of the earliest of its famous "Amateur Nights". She had originally intended to go on stage and dance, but intimidated by the 'Edwards Sisters', a local dance duo, she opted to sing in the style of her idol, Connie Boswell. She sang Hoagy Carmichael's 'Judy', and 'The Object of My Affections', another song by the Boswell Sisters, that night.

In January 1935 she won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. Ella met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb here for the first time. Webb had already hired male singer Charlie Linton to work with the band, but he offered Ella the opportunity to test with his band when they played a dance at Yale University. Despite the tough crowd, Ella was a great success, and Webb hired her to travel with the band for $12.50 a week.

She started singing regularly with Webb's Orchestra through 1935, at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. Fitzgerald recorded several hit songs with them, including "(If You Can't Sing It), You'll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)", and "Love and Kisses" (her first recording) but it was her 1938 version of the nursery rhyme, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" that brought her wide public acclaim.

Chick Webb died on June 16, 1939, and his band was renamed "Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra" with Ella taking the role of bandleader.

Fitzgerald's most famous collaborations were with the trumpeter Louis Armstrong, the guitarist Joe Pass, and the bandleaders Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Fitzgerald appeared alongside Peggy Lee as an actress and singer in Jack Webb's jazz film Pete Kelly's Blues. She also appeared in the Abbot and Costello film Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942), St. Louis Blues (1958), and Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960).

She made a cameo appearance in the 1980's television drama The White Shadow.

Fitzgerald made numerous guest appearances on television shows, singing alongside Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Mel Torme and many others.

Perhaps her most unusual and intriguing performance was of the 'Three Little Maids' song from Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operetta The Mikado alongside Dame Joan Sutherland and Dinah Shore for a 1968 TV special.

Fitzgerald starred in a number of television commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken, singing and scatting to the fast-food chain's longtime slogan, "We do chicken right!" Co-starring and singing with her in one 1983 commercial was future R&B star Shanice.

Some people have commented upon the irony of Ella's romantic life, that she sang about perfect romances, but then never seemed to live the dreams that she sang about. Ella's almost constant touring and recording from the mid 1930s till the early 1990s made sustaining any relationship difficult.

Fitzgerald married twice, though there is evidence that she may have married a third time. In 1941 she married Benny Kornegay, a convicted drug dealer and hustler. The marriage was quickly annulled.

Fitzgerald married for the second time in 1947 to the famous bass player Ray Brown, whom she had met whilst on tour with Dizzy Gillespie's band in 1946. Together they adopted a child born to Fitzgerald's half-sister, Francis Fitzgerald, whom they christened Ray Brown, Jr. Fitzgerald and Brown divorced in 1952, most likely due to the various career pressures they were both experiencing at the time.

In the American sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, Sally Solomon orders a pizza with extra 'Mozzarella Fitzgerald'.

In the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will's grandmother is mistaken for Ella Fitzgerald by an over-eager photographer.

In the cartoon comedy Family Guy, "Ella Fitzgerald Griffin" (an African-American, female version of the show's main character, Peter Griffin) appears in a short scene where she sings accompanied by a young, sighted Ray Charles. As "Ella" sings, a wine glass sitting on the piano shatters, and pieces of glass are projected into Ray Charles' eyes (as if this incident caused his blindness). The shattering of the wine glass references Fitzgerald's own attempts at this in a commercial for Memorex. That episode was, in turn, inspired by an earlier Saturday Night Live skit in which the real Ray Charles' glasses were shattered by the voice of Fitzgerald, played by Garrett Morris in drag.

The Memorex commercial was also referenced in the episode "Mixed Blessings" from the 1987-1988 season of The Golden Girls, in which Dorothy's (Bea Arthur) son Michael (Scott Jacoby) becomes engaged to an older, African-American woman named Lorraine (Rosalind Cash). The initial meeting between Dorothy and Lorraine's mother Greta (Virginia Capers) goes badly. Dorothy invites Greta and her sisters to settle their differences over cheesecake. When Dorothy asks her if she likes cheesecake, Greta replies, "Can Ella shatter glass?"

In the The Simpsons episode "Simple Simpson", Lisa Simpson enters a place setting competition at the Springfield county fair. Her concept is related to music, featuring tuning forks, champagne flutes, chopsticks, and, for dessert, "Ella Fitzgello".

The female jazz singers Dee Dee Bridgewater, Patti Austin and Ann Hampton Callaway have all recorded albums in tribute to Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald is also referred to on the 1987 song "Ella, elle l'a" by French singer France Gall, the 1976 Stevie Wonder hit, Sir Duke from his album Songs in the Key of Life, and the song 'I Love Being Here With You', written by Peggy Lee and Bill Schluger. Additionally, when Frank Sinatra finally recorded Mack the Knife on his 1984 album L.A. Is My Lady, he included a homage to some of the song's previous performers, along the lines dreamt up on by Ella on her 1960 album Ella in Berlin, he naturally included 'Lady Ella' herself.

Ann Hampton Callaway's 1996 album To Ella with Love features 14 jazz standards made popular by Fitzgerald, and the album also features the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Bridgewater's 1997 album, Dear Ella featured many musicians that were closely associated with Fitzgerald during her career, including the pianist Lou Levy, the trumpeter Benny Powell, and Fitzgerald's second husband, the bassist Ray Brown. Bridgewater's next album, Live at Yoshi's was recorded live on April 25th 1998, Fitzgerald's 81st birthday.

The folk singer Odetta's 1998 album To Ella is dedicated to Fitzgerald, but features no songs associated with her, and Fitzgerald's long serving accompanist Tommy Flanagan affectionately remembered Fitzgerald on his 1994 album Lady be Good...For Ella.

Patti Austin's 2002 album, For Ella features 11 songs most immediately associated with Fitzgerald, and a 12th song, 'Hearing Ella Sing' is Austin's tribute to Fitzgerald. The album was nominated for a Grammy.

Although not necessarily a tribute, after Fitzgerald's original single of the 1969 Burt Bacharach/Hal David song "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" failed to chart, Dionne Warwick covered it. Warwick's version became a Top 10 hit.

There is a statue of Ella Fitzgerald in Yonkers, the city in which she grew up. It is located south of the main entrance to the Amtrak/Metro-North Railroad station.

For a listing of Fitzgerald's albums and singles, see Ella Fitzgerald discography.

For a listing of Fitzgerald's awards and accolades, please see List of Ella Fitzgerald's awards and accolades.
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