This Day in Music, June 15: The First Lady of Song

By , Contributor

On this day in 1996, American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald died in Beverly Hills, California, aged 79. The singer, who had been battling illness for some time, was already blind from the effects of diabetes, and had had both legs amputated in 1993.

The notoriously shy singer was the winner of 13 Grammy awards during a recording career that lasted 59 years. Three times married (once to a convicted drug dealer), the "First Lady of Song" was also awarded the National Medal of Art by Ronald Reagan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush.

If you are too young or have never had the pleasure to hear them, you must take a moment and listen to the 1956 album Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook which was the first of eight Songbook sets. They are pure magic.

Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, her parents separating soon after her birth, after which she and her mother went to Yonkers, New York. Growing up, Ella wanted to be a dancer, although she loved listening to jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and The Boswell Sisters. She idolised their lead singer Connee Boswell, later saying, "My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it....I tried so hard to sound just like her."

In 1932 her mother died from a heart attack, which affected the young Ella badly; her grades dropped dramatically and she skipped school frequently. Abused by her stepfather, she was first taken in by an aunt and later placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale, the Bronx. However, when the orphanage proved too crowded she was moved to the New York Training School for Girls in Hudson, New York, a state reformatory. Eventually she escaped and for a time was homeless, living rough on the dangerous streets of New York.

She made her singing debut in 1934 aged 17 at the now world famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York and started to pull in a weekly audience for her shows, where she won the opportunity to compete in one of the earliest of its famous "Amateur Nights." She had originally intended to go on stage and dance but, intimidated by the Edwards Sisters, a local dance duo, she opted to sing instead, in the style of Connee Boswell. She sang Boswell's "Judy" and "The Object of My Affection," a song recorded by the Boswell Sisters, and won the first prize of $25.00.

Ella became known for her incredible, unique voice, its vocal range spanning three octaves, and was noted for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing, and intonation, and a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing.

She appeared in TV commercials for Memorex, in which she sang a note that shattered a glass while being recorded on a Memorex cassette tape. The tape was played back and the recording duly broke the glass, prompting the question: "Is it live, or is it Memorex?"

On January 10, 2007, the United States Postal Service announced that Fitzgerald would be honoured with her own 39-cent postage stamp: the stamp was released in April 2007 as part of the Postal Service's Black Heritage series.

She is buried in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. For those wishing to explore more of her stellar life and art, the career history and archival material from Ella's long career are housed in the Archives Center at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, while her personal music arrangements reside at The Library of Congress, both in Washington, DC. 

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A former musician, Neil was in the 80's group The Cheaters who were once signed to EMI's Parlophone label, and released three albums. He was also a radio presenter and is still a regular music pundit on various BBC stations. Neil is the founder of the award winning web site This Day in Music which is…

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