Article abstract: Described as having perhaps the most extraordinary jazz voice in the world, Fitzgerald was a musical innovator as well as a pioneer in American jazz and popular music.
Ella Fitzgerald’s reluctance to discuss family, friends, and personal history makes it almost impossible to give a definitive account of her early life, which has become the stuff of American myth. Although the place of Fitzgerald’s birth is not disputed, the date of her birth has been the subject of some controversy. It has been argued that she was actually born in 1920 (a claim she neither confirmed nor denied) and thus was two years younger than is usually reported, the reason for this being the child labor laws that were in force when she began her professional career. Her early relationship with her mother has also been disputed: In some accounts, she is described as having been orphaned as a young child and reared by her aunt. Fitzgerald’s own account disputes this rendition of her early life, however, and she indicated that her mother was a powerful force in her childhood.
Nevertheless, it is known that her father died when Ella was an infant and that her mother took her to Yonkers, New York. Her mother worked as a cook and in a laundry. Fitzgerald described her aunt, Virginia Williams, as a second mother. It was in New York that Fitzgerald developed an interest in music and in performing. The Boswell Sisters were Fitzgerald’s favorite group, and she expressed an interest in emulating their success.
Fitzgerald’s musical career began when she entered a talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1934. She entered, on a dare, as a dancer, but because she was too frightened to dance, she chose to sing instead. The song she sang in this contest has been the object of dispute, but in an interview Fitzgerald said it was “The Object of My Affection” (a song popularized by Connee Boswell). The early laughter of the audience turned into applause, and her march to stardom had begun. She continued to enter and win amateur contests throughout Harlem (the center of the city’s music scene). It was at this time that her high school education came to an end, and with it, her stated ambition to become a physician. An abortive attempt to be a featured performer on CBS radio in 1934 ended with the death of her mother. Fitzgerald was too young to work legally.
In 1935, Ella Fitzgerald’s early successes led to an audition with Chick Webb, a popular bandleader. After giving a warmly received performance at Yale University, Fitzgerald entered the ranks of professional singers. Webb was not only her band leader but also her legal guardian and chief adviser. She rose to national attention while the vocalist of the Chick Webb band. Live radio broadcasts and popular recordings on the Decca label made her known across America. Some of her earliest recordings (1935-1938) were “Love and Kisses” (her first song, recorded June 12, 1935), “Sing Me a Swing Song,” “Rock It for Me,” and “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” Singing was not her only talent; she also began to write lyrics. The singer Billie Holiday recorded one of Fitzgerald’s first efforts as a lyricist, “You Showed Me the Way.” Another early songwriting effort (cowritten with Webb), “A Tisket, a Tasket” (1938), became Fitzgerald’s first major hit as a recording artist. Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington both had lyrics written for their music by the young writer.
In 1939, Webb died and Fitzgerald became the leader of his band. She continued to record popular songs for Decca, including “Cabin in the Sky” and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” After the band disintegrated in 1941 (as a result of the military inductions of most of the band members), she struck out on her own and sang with a number of bands, including the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, and the Delta Rhythm Boys. She also appeared in the motion picture Ride ‘Em Cowboy (1942). She continued to record and write music. While generally known only as a vocalist, Fitzgerald was inducted (the youngest person to ever have this honor) into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1943, thus demonstrating her significance as a lyricist.
It was while performing in the early 1940’s that Fitzgerald perfected the style of singing that was to become her signature: scat singing. This technique, which involves using the voice as a musical instrument and emphasizing the quality of the sound...
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