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Who is Ella Fitzgerald?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Ella Fitzgerald is largely regarded as one of the finest American singers of the 20th century. During her lifetime, Ella Fitzgerald won 13 Grammy Awards, and was honored with a National Medal of Art by President Ronald Reagan. She also recorded hundreds of records, performed with numerous famous musicians in a wide range of genres, and contributed generously to causes dedicated to children's welfare.

Fitzgerald was born into poverty in 1917. She had a tumultuous childhood before performing in a singing concert at the Apollo Theatre in New York. She won the contest, which turned out to be her lucky break; shortly afterwards, Ella Fitzgerald joined the Webb Orchestra. By 1938, Ella Fitzgerald had sung her first hit, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” an interpretation of the classic 19th century nursery rhyme.

The early part of Ella Fitzgerald's career featured a great deal of pop and swing, but the singer branched into jazz as well. Fitzgerald is well remembered for her incredibly varied singing skills, as well as her perfect pitch and vocal clarity. Ella Fitzgerald was also a superb improvisational singer, and she is sometimes credited with refining the art of scatting, or singing nonsense syllables, to a new level.

Some critics claim that the singing of Ella Fitzgerald lacked emotional depth, and it is true that her performances of classically down-beat songs are surprisingly cheerful. The “First Lady of Song” hopped between several record labels, including Decca and Verve, and her following only grew over time despite these criticisms of her work. In her later recordings, a marked maturity emerges, and it is possible that Ella Fitzgerald sung better when she had better material to work with.

One of Fitzgerald's more well known projects is a series of recordings focusing on famous composers and lyricists, known collectively as the Great American Songbook. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington were among the artists featured in Ella's songbooks. The songbooks displayed Ella's formidable range, from pop to jazz, and they are highly valued by musical historians and fans of 20th century American music.

The life and career of Ella Fitzgerald demonstrate remarkable accomplishments for an African-American who often dealt with discrimination and racism, even at the height of her fame. In 1996, Ella Fitzgerald succumbed to the complications of diabetes, and was buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery. Many of her personal papers were donated to historical archives around the United States. Her music lives on, and most of her albums continue to be readily available.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By MrSmirnov — On Oct 18, 2011

@lonelygod - The "Ella Fitzgerald Sings" Songbook series is probably a good place to start; many people seem to point to these as the definitive recordings of these classic songs. I would also recommend you check out some of her live work, as I think she was truly in her element in front of an audience and very dynamic.

"Ella in Hollywood" from 1961 would be one such Ella Fitzgerald CD but the same series of concerts have been re-released in other formats over the years. I would probably agree that her cheerful and upbeat songs are her best because her voice had such an infectious sweetness to it.

By lonelygod — On Oct 17, 2011

Ella Fitzgerald is one of those names I've heard before but can't say much about. I have to admit I don't really know that much about this kind of music, but I'm willing to learn more.

I see her career spanned seven decades from the 1930s through the 1990s, and there are so many Ella Fitzgerald CDs for sale that I'm not even sure where to start. I suppose this is a good thing - many artists lack good representation on CD but many Ella Fitzgerald albums are out there for our enjoyment.

Can anybody recommend a good starting point as far as Ella Fitzgerald's music is concerned?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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