Ella Jane Fitzgerald (1917–96) was an African-American singer and composer. This “First Lady of Song” is widely considered to be the greatest jazz singer ever, and one of the best singers in all of 20th-century music.
Born in Newport News, Virginia, Fitzgerald was raised in a New York orphanage for blacks. She loved to sing and dance as a child, and at age 16, entered a talent competition at the Apollo Theater, then just a hip local club in Harlem, New York. She had a dance routine practiced, but froze up when she walked on stage. Instead of dancing, she sang Connee Boswell’s “Judy” and received such an ovation that she stayed on to sing “The Object of My Affection” too.
Fitzgerald won the competition and its $25 prize, and soon became a superstar across all of New York. She rose to international stardom in the ’40s, embarked on her solo career, and later joined the Philharmonic tour. She frequently collaborated with such celebrated musicians as Louis Armstrong, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart.
Only Armstrong has succeeded in emerging from jazz to achieve a similar level of global recognition and popularity as Fitzgerald. She remained a major influence on jazz and popular singing throughout her long performing career, which was stopped by declining health in 1992. Her recordings continue to be reissued.
I know I’m no glamour girl, and it’s not easy for me to get up in front of a crowd of people. It used to bother me a lot, but now I’ve got it figured out that God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing.