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ELLA FITZGERALD

The First Lady of Jazz 1917-1996)

In 1934, an awkward sixteen-year old girl made her singing debut at the Harlem Apollo Theatre amateur night in New York City.  She intended to dance, but she lost her nerve when she got on stage.  The man said "do something while you're out there," the singer later recalled.  So she tried to sing "Object of My Affection" and "Judy", and won first prize.  she drew attention of the bandleader, Chick Webb.  After personally coaching the shy performer, Webb introduced her at the Savoy Theatre one evening as his orchestra's singer.  That evening marked the beginning of Ella Fitzerald's singing career. 

One of the great compliments paid to Ella was from Ira Gershwin who said "I didn't realize our songs were so good until Ella sang them,"  Ella's life was marked both by extreme highs and lows.  Born in Newport News, Virginia in 1917, and orphaned at the age of 15, Ella was placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in riverdale, one of the few orphanages at the time that accepted African-American children.  From there, she was transferred to the New York State Training School for Girls, a reformatory at which State Investigations later revealed widespread physical abuse.  Having escaped from the reformatory, Ella was literally living in the streets of Harlem when Webb discovered her. 

She was married twice, the first at the age of 24 to a shady character by the name of Benjamin Kornegay, and then again to bass player Ray Brown at the age of 30.  Both marriages ended in divorce.  A diabetic for many years, the disease compromised her vision as well as her circulatory system before taking her life.  In 1992, both of her legs were amputated below the knee due to diabetes related circulatory problems.  As an artist, however, Ella achieved legendary success in a career that spanned six decades, yielded recordings numbering into the thousands, and earned the singer countless awards including a Kennedy Center Award for her contribution to the performing arts, honorary doctorate degrees from Dartmouth and Yale, and thirteen Grammy Awards.  

Revised: July 18, 2013.