Birthplace: Newport News, VA
Ella Fitzgerald is considered one of the greatest singers in jazz history. She was born in Newport News, VA, and after her father died, she moved to Yonkers, NY, with her mother. Tragically, her mother died and she was sent to an orphanage until she moved to New York City to live with her aunt. She wanted to become a dancer and loved singing. When she was 16, she won talent contests in Harlem and began singing with Chick Webb and his band at the Savoy Ballroom. The band's music director recalled, "In those days, the recording company didn't want Negroes to sing ballads...this lady opened the door for everybody else."
In 1938, she co-wrote and recorded "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," which hit the top of the charts. Her specialty, scat (singing nonsense syllables instead of words), inspired many singers. "I try to do what I think a horn would play," Fitzgerald explained. In the 1940s, Ella made the transition from swing to bebop. She began a series of songbook recordings based on classic songs by Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter. She also made movies including Pete Kelly's Blues (1955) and St. Louis Blues (1958). By the 1950s, she had become an international star and collaborated with bandleaders Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie.
Ella was forced to retire because of diabetes. She earned 14 Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967), the Kennedy Center Honor (1979), the National Medal of Arts (1987), and France's Commander of Arts and Letters (1990). She received many other prizes including honorary doctorates from Yale and Dartmouth. She also contributed to many charities and humanitarian causes.
Ella Fitzgerald died at the age of 78 at her home in Beverly Hills, CA, on June 15, 1996.
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of Prominent African Americans.