Happy Wednesday! I hope you had a safe and happy kick off to the new year. Sorry I didn’t post last week like I said I would – it seems old habits die hard. Our Woman in History Crush this week is the amazing Ella Fitzgerald.
Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25th, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. Soon after her birth, her parents separated and Fitzgerald moved to New York with her mother. To help support the family, Fitzgerald acted as a look out for a local gambling ring. In 1932, Fitzgerald moved in with her aunt after her mother died, and for a short time attended a reform school before moving out to live on her own in 1934. During this time, Fitzgerald spent lots of time with friends watching the dance performances at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. One night, the theater was holding an amateur talent show; most of the acts were dancing and although she dreamed of being a dancer, Fitzgerald sang the songs “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” She won first prize in the contest and began her fifty-year career as a vocalist.
After that fateful night, Fitzgerald continued singing at the Apollo and other theaters around town. While performing at the Savoy ballroom, Fitzgerald befriended drummer Chick Webb and joined his band. She recorded her first hits in the late 1930s, including “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and “Love and Kisses.” When Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald become the leader of his band and renamed the group Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra. On top of leading this band, Fitzgerald also worked with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, the Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight group, the Ink Spots, Dizzy Gillespie, and Louis Jordan throughout the 1940s. After touring with Gillespie’s band in the early 1940s, Fitzgerald married bass player Ray Brown, and the couple adopted a son from Fitzgerald’s half-sister. Her marriage to Brown ended in 1952. Fitzgerald had her film debut in the same year in the movie Ride ‘Em Cowboy, and had several other cameos on both television and film over the course of her life.
In 1946, Fitzgerald began working with Norman Granz, who later founded Verve Records and recorded many albums for her. Granz acted as a tour manager for Fitzgerald starting in the 1940s, and the two acted against racial barriers and tensions in the United States by refusing to perform in segregated venues and demanding that Fitzgerald receive fair pay. Fitzgerald produced some of her most popular work between the 1950s and 70s, and worked with such talents as Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, and Count Basie. What made Fitzgerald so unique as vocalist was her two and a half octave range, mastery of scat, and perfect pitch. Fitzgerald produced and was featured on over two hundred albums, and was awarded thirteen Grammys (she was also the first African American woman to win a Grammy), the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement, Downbeat Jazz Awards, Kennedy Center Honors, and the National Medal of the Arts among numerous other prestigious accolades.
In the 1980s, Fitzgerald started suffering from complications from diabetes. She had heart surgery in 1986, had both legs amputated in 1994, and soon became blind. On June 15th, 1996, Fitzgerald died in Beverly Hills, California. Her work as a civil rights activist, her endless talent, the way she built herself and her career from nothing, and the dedication she showed to every project she was involved in are nothing short of inspiring. Anyone with a need for encouragement to work towards their dreams should look first to Ella Fitzgerald.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays!