There was a time, back in the 1970s, when Ella Fitzgerald was almost as well known for her Memorex ads as for her singing. She'd sing a high note and shatter a wineglass. Then a recording of that note would be played and another glass would shatter, at which point an announcer would ask, is the singing real "or is it Memorex?"
It will have to be Memorex now. Ella Fitzgerald died yesterday at age 78.
Dubbed "The First Lady of Song," Fitzgerald had a professional career that spanned some 55 years. In recent years, however, her performances had been curtailed by poor health.
She died at her home surrounded by family and friends, spokeswoman Andrea Hecht said. Fitzgerald suffered from diabetes, but Hecht declined to reveal the cause of her death. "She was a very private person, and her family would want us to respect that," said Hecht.
Miss Fitzgerald was, for a half-century, one of America's most acclaimed singers, recording some 250 albums and winning 13 Grammy awards.
Bing Crosby crowed, "Man, woman and child, Ella Fitzgerald is the greatest," while Frank Sinatra called her "my all-time favorite." Even opera singers like the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau were unabashed fans.
What won them all over? To a large extent, it was the sheer musicality of her performances. As a jazz singer, Fitzgerald would not only swing but solo, and her skill as a scat singer -- using nonsense syllables to flesh out an improvised melody -- ensured that she could hold her own in a jam session against the likes of Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong.
She also could sing it straight, and her interpretations of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, and George and Ira Gershwin -- collected on record in Verve's celebrated "Song Books" series -- are considered by many critics the ne plus ultra of American popular song. And no wonder. As Ira Gershwin once said, "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them."
Then there was her voice, which by any measure was astonishing. As the critic Henry Pleasants wrote, Fitzgerald's voice stretched two octaves and a sixth, "a greater range, especially in the bottom, than is required or expected of most opera singers."
As great as her bottom range was, though, it was her complete mastery of falsetto that most often dazzled listeners. There was always something girlish about her singing, and it wasn't a matter of her playing cute; unlike other singers, whose sound changed with the shift into falsetto, Fitzgerald maintained a consistent vocal tone throughout, giving her the kind of fluidity up high that grown women rarely manage. As an awed Roberta Flack once put it, "Ella doesn't shift gears. She goes from lower to higher register, the same all the way through."
Born in Newport News, Va., on April 25, 1918, she grew up in Yonkers, N.Y. Amazingly, she never planned to sing. She got her start at age 15 after winning an amateur night competition at New York's Apollo Theater in 1934, though she had walked onstage with the intention of dancing.
"I used to try to do Snake Hips Tucker," she recalled to critic Gene Lees, referring to a then-popular Harlem dance star. Unfortunately, she said, "I lost my nerve. When I walked out, I couldn't believe it. I saw all those people."
A friend backstage called out, "Don't just stand there -- sing something." So she did, and the audience was smitten.
But then, her audiences usually were.
After quickly landing a weeklong booking at the Harlem Opera House, the teen-ager caught the ear of multi-instrumentalist Benny Carter, who introduced the youngster to Chick Webb, the Baltimore-born drummer whose band was famous for "Stompin' at the Savoy." A week with Webb became a permanent place in the band, and after Fitzgerald's mother died, he even became the singer's legal guardian. (It was widely rumored that Webb and his wife actually adopted Fitzgerald, but even Fitzgerald was uncertain if that was the case).
Fitzgerald's first hit with the Chick Webb band was "(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It" in 1936, but it was the nursery-rhyme novelty "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" that really put her on the map. Said to be the biggest-selling record of the '30s, it stayed at No. 1 for 10 straight weeks and made Fitzgerald a star overnight.
She not only stayed with Webb but took over as the band's leader after the drummer's death in 1939.
In 1942, she finally struck out on her own and had no trouble maintaining popular success while strengthening her reputation as a jazz musician. A pair of songs she recorded with the Ink Spots, "I'm Making Believe" and "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall," topped the charts in 1944, and she continued to have Top-10 success through the end of the decade.
At home in jazz
At the same time, though, her relationship with jazz impresario Norman Granz had her playing numerous Jazz at the Philharmonic shows, which found her rubbing shoulders with such luminaries as Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and Buddy Rich. Fitzgerald was at home in either milieu but seemed on her strongest footing when working with musicians whose range, both musical and stylistic, most closely matched hers, such as Louis Armstrong, who joined her for the 1946 hit "You Won't Be Satisfied Until You Break My Heart," and Louis Jordan, with whom she recorded "Baby, It's Cold Outside" in 1949.
Her pop success continued into the '60s, thanks to such hits as her version of "Mack the Knife" (a Top-30 hit in 1960) and the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love" (a British hit in 1964).
But it was her work on the "Song Books" series that cemented her reputation. Begun in 1956 with "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book," the series was brilliant in its simplicity: Fitzgerald would sing the greatest songs of America's greatest songwriters, including Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer.
Fitzgerald kept singing, too, touring and recording until poor health made it impossible for her to continue. She had trouble with her lungs in 1985 and underwent heart bypass surgery two years later. In 1990, a European tour was halted after she was hospitalized for exhaustion, and in 1993, complications from diabetes led to amputation of both of her legs below the knees.
She was married twice, first to shipyard worker Benny Kornegay and later to jazz bassist Ray Brown from 1947 to 1953. Brown and Fitzgerald had an adopted son, Ray Brown Jr. Fitzgerald also raised a niece.
She is survived most memorably by her recordings, and through them leaves a legacy few singers could ever hope to match.
Among her best
Some of Ella Fitzgerald's top singles:
"(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It" (with Chick Webb), 1936
"Dedicated to You" (with the Mills Brothers), 1937
"If You Ever Should Leave," 1937
"A-Tisket, A-Tasket" (with Chick Webb), 1938
"I Found My Yellow Basket" (with Chick Webb), 1938
"F.D.R. Jones" (with Chick Webb), 1938
"Undecided" (with Chick Webb), 1939
"Five O'Clock Whistle," 1940
"Cow Cow Boogie" (with the Ink Spots), 1944
"I'm Making Believe" (with the Ink Spots), 1944
"It's Only a Papermoon," 1945
"You Won't Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart)" (with Louis ** Armstrong), 1946
"Stone Cold Dead in the Market" (with Louis Jordan), 1945
L "For Sentimental Reasons" (with the Delta Rhythm Boys), 1946
"My Happiness," 1948
"Baby, It's Cold Outside" (with Louis Jordan), 1949
"Crying in the Chapel," 1953
"Mack the Knife," 1960
Her 13 Grammy Awards:
1958: Best Vocal Performance, Female, "The Irving Berlin Songbook."
1958: Best Jazz Performance, Individual, "The Duke Ellington Songbook."
1959: Best Vocal Performance, Female, "But Not for Me."
L 1959: Best Jazz Performance, Soloist, "Ella Swings Lightly."
1960: Best Vocal Performance, Single Record or Track, Female, "Mack the Knife."
1960: Best Vocal Performance, Album, Female, "Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin."
1962: Best Solo Vocal Performance, Female, "Ella Swings Brightly With Nelson Riddle."
1976: Best Jazz Vocal Performance, "Fitzgerald and Pass Again."
1979: Best Jazz Vocal Performance, "Fine and Mellow."
1980: Best Jazz Vocal Performance, "A Perfect Match: Ella and ** Basie."
1981: Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female, "Digital III at Montreux."
1983: Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female, "The Best Is Yet to Come."
K? 1990: Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female, "All That Jazz."
Pub Date: 6/16/96