Ella Fitzgerald was dubbed “The First Lady of Song.” She was the most entertaining and popular African-American female jazz singer in the United States for than a half a century. She won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums. Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Va. On April 25, 1917. Her mother and father parted ways shortly after her birth. She moved with her mother (Tempie) to Yonkers, N.Y, to live with her mother’s longtime boyfriend Joseph Da Silva. After her half-sister was born, Fitzgerald began calling Joseph her stepfather. Her stepfather was a hard worker taking on different odd and end jobs.
Fitzgerald, eventually took on small jobs to help contribute to the family. She was probably a little young and naïve at the time, Fitzgerald worked as a runner for local gamblers, picking up bets and dropping off money. Fitzgerald’s mother died in 1932 from a serious injury due to a car accident. Fitzgerald went to live with her mother’s sister, and shortly after Joe suffered a heart attack and died. Fitzgerald’s little sister Frances moved in with her aunt as well. Fitzgerald took the loss hard of her parents hard and began acting out. It was not long before she got into trouble with the police and was sent to reformatory. She later escaped and found herself broke and living on the streets in the great depression.
In 1934 Fitzgerald’s name was pulled in a weekly drawing at the Apollo and she won the opportunity to compete in Amateur Night. She went to the theater that night planning to dance, but when the frenzied Edwards Sisters closed the main show, she changed her mind. According to the Biography of Fitzgerald she said, “They were the dancing’est sisters around.” She was persuaded by excited fan support, Fitzgerald began entering, and winning, every talent show she could find. In January 1935 she won the chance to perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House.
In mid-1936, she made her first recording. “Love and Kisses” the song was released under the Decca label, with good success. By this time she was performing with Chick’s band at the prestigious Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, often referred to as “The World’s Most Famous Ballroom.” On the touring it was well-known that Fitzgerald’s manager felt very strongly about civil rights and required equal treatment for his musicians, regardless of their color. He refused to accept any type of discrimination at hotels, restaurants or concert halls, even when they traveled to the Deep South.
By 1974 Fitzgerald was inducted into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame, and received Kennedy Center Honors for her continuing contributions to the arts. In 1987, United States President Ronald Reagan awarded Fitzgerald the National Medal of Arts. It was one of her most prized moments. It was not long before France followed behind. Years later, they presented her with their Commander of Arts and Letters award. It was then Yale, Dartmouth and several other universities gave her with honorary doctorates. By the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums. In 1991, she gave her final concert at New York’s renowned Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she performed there. Read more about Fitzgerald’s life here.