Singer Ella Fitzgerald: a snapshot biography

Ella Fitzgerald was sensitive, sincere, shy, and modest. And she loved to dance. But most of all, she loved to sing. “The only thing better than singing is more singing,” she would say.

Ella was born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1917 to unmarried parents who separated about two years after her birth. She grew up without her birth father, as her mother married another man and moved to Yonkers, New York.

While her family didn’t have much wealth, Ella spoke positively of her childhood years. “We had love and we had hope,” she said. And from her mother, Ella had a number of life lessons, including the importance of humility.

But when Ella was fifteen, her mother passed away. Ella’s stepfather took care of her. But he neglected and abused her before he too soon passed away.

The period after her mother’s passing was of much struggle for Ella. She dropped out of school, was arrested, and sent to reform school, where there, too, she was abused. She ran away from the school, living anywhere she could find shelter in Harlem.

Then, almost by chance, life took a shift. In Ella’s words,

“I really wanted to be a dancer, not a singer. One day two girlfriends and I made a bet – a dare. We all wanted to get on the stage, and we drew straws to see which of us would go on the amateur hour. I drew the short straw, and that’s how I got started.”

The amateur competition was at the Apollo. As Ella waited to take the stage, she watched the act before hers, which was a dance performance. That group finished with loud applause from the audience. Ella, already nervous to perform, felt even more anxiety. “My legs turned to water and a million butterflies played tag in my stomach. They had to shove me onstage, and when I looked where I thought the audience should be, all I saw was a big blur.” Unable to move her body, Ella changed her performance to another talent and joy: singing. As she began singing, people in the audience began smiling.

Ella won that competition. “It was the hardest money I ever earned,” she would say.

This performance started her singing career. “The turning point of my life. Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from the audience – I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life,” Ella would say.

Black and white photograph of Ella Fitzgerald, smiling broadly. She has her hair styled in an elegant updo and is wearing a dress with ornate, buttoned shoulder embellishments. A small crown-shaped brooch adorns the front of her dress.
Ella Fitzgerald

 

“I’m always nervous when I sing.” – Ella Fitzgerald

Shortly after that first performance, Ella met Chick Webb, a musician and music band leader. After hearing Ella sing, he offered her a chance to perform with the group at an upcoming concert at Yale University. “If she goes over with the college kids, she stays,” he said. Ella stayed.

By 17, Ella’s singing career was beginning to flourish. Soon, she was a star and then a jazz legend. Among her many career accomplishments, Ella sold over 40 million albums and won thirteen Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award, and a National Medal of Honor. But more than the awards, she was beloved by fans and other artists. A fellow singer remarked about Ella, “She was the best. She was the best there ever was.”

Ella passed away in 1996.

Black and white photo capturing a moment of Ella Fitzgerald singing into a microphone, eyes closed, expressing deep emotion in song. She wears a glittering dress and a large, fluffy, decorative headpiece. In the background, a man is seen appreciating the performance with a smile, leaning on an upright bass, surrounded by an audience in a dimly lit jazz club.
Ella Fitzgerald, 1947

Notes

Click here to read a snapshot biography of another singer, Billie Holiday.

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Sources

  • Gourse, Leslie. “The Ella Fitzgerald companion : seven decades of commentary.” Omnibus, 1998

  • Kliment, Bud. “Ella Fitzgerald.” Holloway House Publishing, 1989 

  • “Ella Fitzgerald.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ella_Fitzgerald