Issue 14: Ella Fitzgerald

by Melanie Gasmen-Fleck

Ella Fitzgerald

Grab your mic and hit the stage! Our next issue features legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, known as the “First Lady of Song.” For nearly 60 years, Ella drew huge crowds worldwide with her high notes, low notes, and innovative scat singing.

Packed with music and melody know-how, this jazz-filled issue inspires kids to have command-the-stage confidence just like Ella. The Ella Fitzgerald issue releases Feb. 22. Want it delivered to your mailbox first? Sign up for a subscription.

In the meantime, learn more about Ella’s iconic career, how her barrier-breaking voice influenced civil rights, and how she became the most popular female jazz singer for over half a century.

Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. After her parents separated, Ella and her mother moved to Yonkers, New York, where her mother’s new boyfriend lived. She grew up in a low-income household, with her mom and stepfather working multiple jobs to support the family. 

Even as a little girl, Ella loved to dance and sing and dreamed of becoming a dancer. She did well in school and memorized things quickly—a gift she would use throughout her life. 

At age 15, Ella’s mother died from car accident injuries, and Ella’s life took a devastating turn. Her stepfather became abusive, so her aunt took her in. Unable to cope with her sadness, Ella started to skip school, went in and out of foster care, and got into trouble. She was then sent to a reform school, where she endured more mistreatment. But Ella eventually escaped. 

In spite of living during the Great Depression, homeless and alone, Ella still didn’t give up hope. She used her performing skills to her advantage and began to dance and sing on the streets for whatever cents she could earn. 

In 1934, the Apollo Theater in Harlem randomly picked her to perform during their Amateur Night. She originally planned to dance but changed her mind at the last minute after watching outstanding dance performances before her set. 

While she was painfully shy offstage, Ella felt exceptionally comfortable onstage. The crowd loved her! She won more talent shows and soon became the Chick Webb band’s lead singer at 17 years old. Several years later, Ella’s stardom skyrocketed when her version of the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” sold one million copies and topped pop charts for 17 weeks straight.

After Chick Webb’s passing, Ella led the band and toured with them all over the country. Meanwhile, she recorded several albums with Louis Armstrong and performed on popular television variety shows, like “The Frank Sinatra Show” and “The Tonight Show.” Her unique and impromptu scat singing soon became just as popular as her heartfelt ballads.

Touring brought Ella and her band to segregated areas during the height of the civil rights movement. Ella’s manager, Norman Granz, required equal treatment for Ella and her band. Ella refused to play at venues or stay at hotels that showed discrimination, leading to more integrated audiences around the U.S.

Ella continued to travel and perform nonstop, serenading fans across different countries, including Japan and Germany. In 1958, she became the first Black woman to win a Grammy Award and the first woman to win multiple Grammys. She would go on to win 13 Grammys throughout her career and sell over 40 million albums.

Among her many awards, Ella received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Presidential National Medal of Arts, the NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement, and honorary doctorate degrees from many universities, including Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth.

Throughout her career, Ella donated to many nonprofits that supported underserved youth. In 1993, she founded the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, an organization that helps at-risk individuals and families. The group’s work includes fostering education, music opportunities, and health care for children.

Despite a decade of health issues, including heart surgeries, diabetes, and weakening eyesight, Ella continued to perform tirelessly. With her health declining and her circulatory problems worsening, Ella died on June 15, 1996 in her Beverly Hills home.

Ella paved the way with her perfect pitch, inspiring other Black singers to follow in her footsteps. Her unmatched talent, passion for music, and empathy for the welfare of others will keep her legacy shining brightly for generations to come.