“Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.”
Born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, singer Ella Fitzgerald was the product of a common-law marriage between William Fitzgerald and Temperance “Tempie” Williams Fitzgerald. Ella experienced a troubled childhood that began with her parents separating shortly after her birth.
With her mother, Fitzgerald moved to Yonkers, New York. They lived there with her mother’s boyfriend, Joseph De Sailva. The family grew in 1923 with the arrival of Fitzgerald’s half-sister Frances. Struggling financially, the young Fitzgerald helped her family out by working as a messenger “running numbers” and acting as a lookout for a brothel. Her first career aspiration was to become a dancer.
After her mother’s death in 1932, Fitzgerald ended up moving in with an aunt. She started skipping school. Fitzgerald was then sent to a special reform school but didn’t stay there long. By 1934, Ella was trying to make it on her own and living on the streets. Still harboring dreams of becoming an entertainer, she entered an amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She sang the Hoagy Carmichael tune “Judy” as well as “The Object of My Affection,” wowing the audience. Fitzgerald went on to win the contest’s $25 first place prize.
That unexpected performance at the Apollo helped set Fitzgerald’s career in motion. She soon met bandleader and drummer Chick Webb and eventually joined his group as a singer. In addition to her work with Webb, Fitzgerald performed and recorded with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. She had her own side project, too, known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight. Following Webb’s death in 1939, Ella became the leader of the band, which was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra.
A truly collaborative soul, Fitzgerald produced great recordings with such artists as Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. She also performed several times with Frank Sinatra over the years as well. In 1960, Fitzgerald broke into the pop charts with her rendition of “Mack the Knife.” She was still going strong well into the ’70s, playing concerts across the globe. One especially memorable concert series from this time was a two-week engagement in New York City in 1974 with Sinatra and Basie. By the 1980s, Fitzgerald experienced serious health problems. She had heart surgery in 1986 and had been suffering from diabetes. The disease left her blind, and she had both legs amputated in 1994. She made her last recording in 1989 and her last public performance in 1991 at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Ella Fitzgerald died on June 15, 1996, at her home in Beverly Hills.