Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917 in Virginia, but was raised in Yonkers by her mother, Temperance, and her mother’s boyfriend. When “Tempie” died in Hunting Necklace 1932, Ella’s suffered problems at home and eventually wound up living on the streets in the fall of 1934. Her first sign of hope came that November, when she competed at the Apollo and won first prize. Though it took some time because of her dirty, unkempt appearance, this win led her to work with Chick Webb’s big band at the Savoy. Chick slowly groomed Ella for success, she began to experiment with scat singing, and by January, 1937 she was voted Downbeat’s best female vocalist. Ella also began to write music, and by 1943 she became the youngest member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
Ella scored her first hit in 1938 with ‘A Tiskit, A Tasket.’ The song, written by Ella, sold over 1 million copies, stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks, and was ranked #1 on the U.S. Hit Parade. Later that year she recorded her second hit, ‘I Found My Yellow Basket.” A third hit, ‘Undecided,’ followed in 1939. Sadly, tragedy struck when Chick succumbed to tuberculosis that June. The band continued with Ella as leader.
In 1940 Ella and the band toured, covering 18,000 miles and 36 states. Ella was immensely popular; she won Downbeat’s award for the fourth consecutive year, was mobbed by fans in New Orleans, and was given the nickname “the first lady of song.”
Sadly, fans are fickle. Ella’s recording company, Decca, controlled much of her output, and their influences were not always well received by her fans. With the beginning of World War II, all bands became smaller. By the following August, the Chick Webb band was defunct.
After a brief lackluster period Ella returned to success, scoring million-copy hits in 1944 and 1945 with the Ink Blots. It was about this time when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie introduced the world to bop. Ella came to work with Dizzy, wholeheartedly embracing be-bop as she had swing in her earlier years. She also began to employ more scat singing, which became her signature technique.
While with Dizzy, Ella fell for Ray Brown, Dizzy’s bassist. Ray moved on to work with Norman Granz, who produced Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) in Los Angeles. Granz offered Ella a contract, and Ray and Ella married shortly after. Ray and Ella adopted a child, Ray Jr., who was cared for by an Aunt when they were on the road.
In addition to performing with JATP in multi-country tours of Europe, Ella and Ray became members of famed pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio. By 1953, Ella’s marriage with Ray dissolved; regardless, they remained friends and continued to work together.
In 1954, Granz became Ella’s manager. Until this time, Ella had been earning the paltry wages that black musicians typically earned, but Granz, a staunch advocate of equal rights, paid Ella fairly. In 1956, Granz persuaded Decca to release Ella from her contract. Ella Fitzgerald recorded many successful pop albums on Granz’ Verve label from 1956 to 1964, including the immensely popular 11-edition songbook series in which she sang the music of Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, and Irving Berlin, among others