Even if you’ve never listened to jazz music, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. She was one of the most popular jazz singers of the 20th century and a role model for many.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Ella Fitzgerald, aside from her silky-smooth voice, is her strength of character. After all, Fitzgerald was born during the First World War and grew up through the Great Depression.
Her story is inspirational, but it’s also a testament to her everlasting impact on American music and culture.
The Queen of Jazz (also called the First Lady of Song) was born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1917. She was born during the First World War, a time of stress of rapid change for most coastal US cities.
During this period, Newport News was transforming. Once a quiet farming community, it was now a growing city and one tasked heavily to assist in the war effort. And it wouldn’t remain Ella’s home for very long.
William Fitzgerald and his wife Temperance parted ways soon after Ella’s birth. The young mother and her tiny babe left Newport News behind and moved in with family members in Yonkers, New York.
Temperance and young Ella would later move in with Joseph Da Silva. When Ella turned six, Temperance and Joseph welcomed a baby girl into the world, giving Ella a half-sister, Frances.
However, the new child put extra strain on the Fitzgerald family’s finances. Little Ella found herself working odd jobs to help her family make ends meet.
A Great Depression
Despite the hard conditions, Ella seemed upbeat and full of hope for the future. During her free time, she’d often go with friends to watch shows or practice dancing. At this time in her life, she dreamed of becoming a dancer.
But the Great Depression brought unexpected changes and trials. In 1932, when Ella was only 15, Temperance passed away. She’d been in a serious car accident and didn’t recover from her injuries.
From that point forward, Ella’s personality and decisions changed. She actively skipped school, acted out, and got into trouble. Her aunt, who’d taken up custody after Temperance’s death, had enough of it.
Within the same year, Ella was sent away to a reform school. Not very long afterward, she escaped and began living on the streets. For two long, hard years, she struggled to survive.
Debuts and Hit Records
In 1934, everything changed for Ella. Her name was drawn as part of an audition lottery for the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She finally had the chance to dance in front of an audience during Amateur Night.
But at the last minute, Ella changed her mind. She took to the stage and sang one of her mother’s favorite songs, “Judy,” as sung by Connee Boswell. By the time she finished, the crowd was crying out for more.
This moment would mark a new period of Ella’s life, one that was filled with opportunities and opportunistic characters. She entered and won contests, won singing spots at local ballrooms, and began to gain notice.
Her recording of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” hit number one in the pop charts and sold more than a million records. This was at the very tail end of the Great Depression, making such sales a staggeringly impressive feat!
Aside from a brief (and quickly annulled) marriage, things were going well for the young singer. Ella was quickly gaining notoriety around the world for her powerful and unique vocalizations.
Rise to Stardom and Success
After her initial commercial success in 1938, Ella took on a variety of roles and positions. She worked as a bandleader, toured with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, and worked with Louis Armstrong.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ella recorded cover songs of other famous jazz musicians. This time was a period of massive record sales for the jazz crooner.
Television was beginning to come into its own at this time, and the Queen of Jazz didn’t miss a beat. She began making appearances on various shows, including late-night talk shows and variety programs.
Marilyn Monroe, one of her biggest fans, booked the front-row table of her local performances, helping to spread greater awareness of Ella’s voice and talents. There are Ella Fitzgerald quotes describing their friendship.
The Death of a Jazz Legend
Sadly, Ella Fitzgerald spent the last few decades of her life battling poor health. She struggled with diabetes, multiple amputations, and other health problems.
However, considering the major world events she survived, it’s amazing to think that the Queen of Jazz lived to be nearly 80 years old. And during her life, she sold more than 40 million records.
She passed away in 1996, but her spirit lives on in her music and legacy. Ella Fitzgerald earned her place among fellow jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Cole Porter, and her music continues to captivate listeners today.
A Life Lived Curiously by Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald was and is a jazz icon. Despite her humble beginnings, she managed to become one of the most well-known American jazz singers.
The Queen of Jazz released hundreds of albums and worked with some of the most notable names in the music industry. By the time of her death in 1996, she was 79 years old and known worldwide for her marvelous voice.
Ella Fitzgerald lived a unique life led by a passion and curiosity for the world around her. If you’re curious to learn more, be sure to check out our other articles!