Of all the critiques that have been written about Ella Fitzgerald, East Coast music critic Tony Mastrianni’s perhaps best defined her very special song stylings. “In the case of Ella Fitzgerald you have something unique. There continues to be no one like her, no one who uses a voice so completely like a musical instrument. . . . She can stray from the melody, sing around it, and over and under it, yet never lose it and then. . . find her way unerringly back to it.”
The renowned British music critic Benny Green said of Ella, “She is the best equipped vocalist ever to grace the jazz scene, having an acutely sensitive ear for harmonic ranges. There is to her voice a lilting lullaby quality which renders even commonplace material moving.”
Ella has done almost everything almost everywhere: from the ballrooms of Harlem to the Hollywood Bowl; from the Feather Theatre to London’s famous Royal Festival Hall; to the most glittering concert halls in Europe. There’s hardly a country in the world where Ella isn’t known, or a continent where she hasn’t appeared.
Ella’s beginnings as a performer are a part of the annals of popular music. Her professional singing career began in the heyday of the big bands, when she joined the very popular Chick Webb Orchestra. Chick became Ella’s mentor and confidant when she was in her early teens, and he nurtured and coached her exceptional singing talent. Although at first skeptical of the young singer (and wary of taking such a young girl on the road), Webb became sufficiently won over to become her legal guardian, and for a time Ella lived with Chick and his wife. Ella recalls, “Chick gave me the confidence I needed. He taught me what he knew would be of lasting importance in my musical career.” The tried and true “A Tisket, A Tasket,” which was a million-seller, was written while Ella was singing with Chick’s band (the lyrics are hers). After she’d won all the singing contests in New York City, this affiliation was the first step in her fabulous career. Ella always acknowledged Chick’s influence on her singing technique (“Always be with the beat!”).
Much of the credit for Ella’s success goes to renowned jazz impresario Norman Granz. Granz became her personal manager and exclusive record producer in 1954 after he bought out her long-term contract from Decca Records. He subsequently began to record her on Verve, his own label (1956-60). After 1972 she recorded exclusively for Pablo, Granz’s classic jazz label which was acquired by Fantasy, Inc. in 1986.
Among the most valuable of the Verve recordings under Granz’s aegis are the Songbooks which have become the definitive version in the pop/jazz category. Ella’s magnificent talent shines brightly in these collections which pay tribute to the work of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser, and Rodgers & Hart, in addition to the Gershwin albums. A number of Ella’s Grammys were awarded for her Songbooks.
It was another of Granz’s ideas to capitalize on Ella’s many concerts by recording her “live”; in fact, he was the first to attempt this recording feat. Among the works in this category are Ella in Berlin, Ella & Duke at the , and Ella Fitzgerald/Newport Jazz Festival Live at Carnegie Hall. Her Pablo live albums include Jazz at the Santa Monica Civic 1972, Ella in London, and Ella à Nice.
Other outstanding Pablo recordings by Ella include collaborations with Joe Pass (Take Love Easy, Easy Living, Speak Love, Fitzgerald & Pass . . . Again), Count Basie (A Perfect Match, A Classy Pair), Oscar Peterson (Ella and Oscar), and Nelson Riddle (Dream Dancing).
Instrumental in Ella’s media fame was her TV exposure. Her two appearances with the inimitable Sinatra are television classics which have been repeated because of popular demand. Also unforgettable were the Duke Ellington/Ella Special for Screen Gems Productions and her Special with André Previn which aired on PBS.
Over the course of her lifetime, Ella won 13 Grammys. The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts bestowed their Honors Medal on her and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) presented her with their highest honor, the coveted Pied Piper Award, in a star-studded ceremony at Lincoln Center in New York City.
She was 1984’s winner of the esteemed Whitney Young Award, sponsored by the Urban League. On April 28, 1989, she was awarded the first Society of Singers Lifetime Achievement Award, named the “Ella” in her honor. The following night, she received the prestigious George & Ira Gershwin Award for Outstanding Achievement.
Other honors are legion: the dedication at the University of Maryland of the Ella Fitzgerald Auditorium of Performing Arts, an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Dartmouth College, a Doctorate of Music from Howard University, and a Doctorate of Humane Letters from Talladega College in Alabama, among others.
Ella was noted for her love of children; a child care center in the Lynwood section of Los Angeles bears her name. As observed by one jazz historian, “Perhaps Ella’s greatest triumph has been her ability to sustain a style all her own; in fact, become instantly recognizable wherever she goes simply by that name—Ella.”
Ella Fitzgerald died June 15, 1996.
Bio courtesy of Concord Muscic Group
Photo Courtesy of the Verve Music Group
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