Etta James

Etta James

On April 25, 1917 in Newport News Virginia, proud mother, Temperance, gave birth to her first little girl, who was soon to become one of the most accomplished jazz singers of all time (Verve Music Group). Tempie and Ella’s father William, bound together by common-law marriage, separated soon after she was born. Her mother then moved the two of them to Yonkers, NY where eventually they started a family with Joseph Da Silva, Tempie’s long-term boyfriend. Ella soon became a big sister when Francis was born in 1923.

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To support the family, Jo dug ditches and acted as a part-time chauffer while Tempie labored at a Laundromat. The girls would take on small jobs from time to time to help put food on the table. Growing up, Ella considered herself a tomboy, however desired to be a dancer. Sometimes, instead of their usual game of baseball, Ella and her friends would take the train into Harlem to watch a show at the Apollo Theatre. In 1932 Ella was devastated by the death of her mother due to a sudden heart attack (Verve Music Group).

Coping with the loss, Jo went into depression, neglecting his relationship with his daughters. Ella began rebelling, as her grades dropped dramatically and she began skipping school. Her relationship with her stepfather had diminished and she was sent to live with her Aunt. This living situation didn’t last long when Ella ran away, living homeless and on the streets. She began working as a lookout for a Mafia affiliated gang, and when she got in trouble with the police, was sent to Reform School (ellafitzgerald).

Again, she escaped but eventually found herself in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale, The Bronx. On November 21, 1934 Ella made her debut at the Apollo Theatre after winning an opportunity to compete in “amateur night”(ellafitzgerald). Her original plan was to woo the audience by dancing, but she had a last minute change of heart after seeing the competition. Instead, she asked the band to play Connee Boswell’s “Judy” and sang her way into the hearts of her audience. She did so well, the audience demanded an encore.

She fulfilled their request, singing another Boswell tune, “The Object of My Affection” and won first prize of $25. 00 (ellafitzgerald). This opportunity opened several doors for Ella. A few months later was asked to sing with Chick Webb’s big band. She sang regularly with the band through 1935 (Verve Music Group). In 1936 she recorded her first single “Love and Kisses” under Decca record label (Nicholson). She recorded several hits with the band, including her 1938 version of the nursery rhyme “A-Tistket-A-Tasket”.

The album sold 1 million copies, hit number one, and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks. After Webb’s death in 1939, the band changed their name to “Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra”. The band had great success with Ella as bandleader, recording nearly 150 songs. Big band swing is the only style of jazz that became popular in the masses, which put Ella on top of the world, skyrocketing her reputation as the most talented singer her time. In 1942 Ella left the band to pursue a solo career. She began touring with Dizzy Gillespie, contributing to her change in vocal style.

She was influenced by the “bebop” sound, and began to incorporate scat singing as a part of her repertoire. When asked about her style change, she simply stated, “I just tried to do with my voice what the horns were doing”(Verve Music Group). She demonstrated these new techniques in her 1945 her version of “Flying Home”, which would later be named by the New York Times as “one of the most influential jazz records of all time (Nicholson). Soon to follow she recorded “Lady Be Good” in 1947 that gave her the reputation of one of the top jazz vocalists (Nicholson).

She started working with Norman Granz as her manager with the Philharmonic (ellafitzgerald). She worked with world-renowned musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Ray Brown, and began producing her American Songbook series under Granz’s own label Verve Records (Verve Music Group). The songbook series ended up being the singers’ most successful piece of work. The New York Times stated in 1969 “These albums were among the first pop records to devote such serious attention to individual songwriters, and they were instrumental in establishing the pop album as a vehicle for serious musical exploration. Ella’s popularity was skyrocketing and she became a favorite guest on several programs including “The Bing Crosby Show”, the “Ed Sullivan Show”, and the “Frank Sinatra Show”. Ella became the first African American to perform at Macombo (Nicholson). The booking of this event was extremely controversial and was made into a play by Bonnie Greer in 2005. She was working extremely hard and touring sometimes doing two shows a day that were hundreds of miles apart. In 1974 Ella worked two solid weeks in New York City performing with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie.

Five years later, she was inducted into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame, and received Kennedy Center Honors for her continuing contributions to the arts (ellafitzgerald). In addition to her love of the arts, she also had a deep passion for child welfare. She donated her time and funds to several non-profit organizations for disadvantaged children. In 1987 US president Ronald Regan presented Ella with the National Medal of Arts (ellafitzgerald). Several years later, France awarded her with the Commander of Arts and Letters (ellafitzgerald).

Throughout her lifetime, Ella won fourteen Grammy Awards, including one or Lifetime Achievement in 1967 (Nicholson). In September of 1986 Ella experienced some health problems and underwent coronary bypass surgery (ellafitzgerald). Doctors also replaced a valve in her heart and diagnosed her with diabetes (ellafitzgerald). Rumors emerged that she would never sing again, but she persevered, proving them wrong. By 1990 Ella had recorded over 200 albums and in 1991 she gave her final performance at Carnegie Hall (ellafizgerald).

As Ella got older, her health problems worsened. At 76 years old she experienced circulatory problems and on June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald passed away. Today, modern jazz musicians have invented new ways of communicating to their audiences. Singers have a smooth, sultry tone quality about them now, but you can hear the influence of that classic style of jazz that Ella brought to the table so long ago. Ella will forever be remembered as one of the most renowned jazz vocalists of all time.

With her impeccable stage presence, vocal range, and raw technical quality of her voice notes her as not only a great singer, but also a brilliant musician. She conquered every style of jazz from be-bob improvising scat singing, to tender ballads, to swing and big band jazz. She is a perfect example of someone who was born to do music. Most admirably, she viewed herself not only as a singer, but also as a member of the band; an instrument. Her vocal qualities matched that of the instruments surrounding her, mimicking the sounds of the horns and melody of the piano.

As time moves forward and we see how the evolution of music continues, Ella Fitzgerald’s legacy lives on as the most powerful first lady of song. Works Cited Bailey, Phil. “The Definitive Ella Fitzgerald. ” Verve Music Group. Verve Music Group, 1999. Web. 22 April 2011. <http://easybib. com/cite/form/website>. “Ella Fitzgerald. ” Ella Fitzgerald. Ella Fitzgerald. Web. 22 April 2011. <http://www. ellafitzgerald. com/about/biography. html>. Nicholson, Stuart. Ella Fitzgerald: a Biography of the First Lady of Jazz. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1994. Print.


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