Dubbed "The First Lady of Swing", Ella Fitzgerald, like Billie Holiday ad Nina Simone before her, embodies the legend of the great Black American jazz singer. Her capacity for improvisation and especially her use of scat gave her an immediately-recognisable style.
Ella Fitzgerald came from an underprivileged background. She started to sing professionally after her mother's death. In 1934, she entered an amateur singing contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and won first prize. After musician and arranger Benny Carter spotted her talent, Ella performed in a number of venues, including the Harlem Opera House. There she met Chick Webb, who engaged her as singer in his orchestra. With Webb's orchestra, she soon recorded several tracks, including the famous If You Can't Sing It, along with the children's song A-Tisket, A-Tasket, which sold over a million copies. On Chick Webb's death in 1939, the orchestra continued to perform under the name "Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra".
In 1942, she embarked on a solo career, singing with a variety of jazz musicians, such as Dizzy Gillespie. Around this time, she started incorporating scat, a form of improvised jazz singing that uses onomatopoeic, nonsense syllables instead of words. In the late 1940s, she worked with the manager and producer Norman Granz, and left her recording company for Verve Records, a label that Norman Granz set up for her. With Verve, Ella Fitzgerald recorded three albums with the trumpet player Louis Armstrong, as well as several anthologies dedicated to the repertoire of leading names in American music, such as Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Jonny Mercer.
In the 1970s, as jazz was losing ground to rock'n'roll and pop music, Elle recorded the live album Jazz at Santa Monica Civic and gave a series of concerts at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. She was still as popular as ever, but her health was gradually declining. She nevertheless continued to perform on stage up until 1991, when she sang at New York's Carnegie Hall for the 26th time. That was her last public performance.
Six landmark dates in the life of Ella Fitzgerald:
1936: Cut her first recording, Loves and Kisses, released under the Decca label.
1942: Made an appearance in the film by the comedy duo Abbott and Costello, Ride 'Em Cowboy, directed by Arthur Lubin.
1955: Left Decca for the Verve label set up for her by her manager Norman Granz.
1959: Won the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. She won the award again in 1960, 1961 and 1963.
1981: Performed at the White House for President Ronald Reagan.
1987: Received the National Medal of Arts in the United States and was made a Commander of the Arts and Letters in France.
Six key recordings by Ella Fitzgerald:
1950: Ella Sings Gershwin (Decca)
1956: Ella and Louis (Verve)
1960: Hello, Love (Verve)
1964: Hello, Dolly! (Verve)
1973: Newport Jazz Festival: Live at Carnegie Hall (Columbia Records)
1989: All That Jazz (Pablo Records)
Biography compiled from Radio France Documentation, November 2014.