Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald dies aged 78

Saturday 15 June 1996 23:02

LOS ANGELES (Reuter) - The jazz singing legend Ella Fitzgerald died yesterday at her Beverly Hills home. She was 78. A spokeswoman said she died peacefully, surrounded by family and friends. Fitzgerald had been in poor health in recent years, and in 1993 diabetes led to the amputation of both her legs below the knee.

Technical brilliance, perfect pitch and imaginative musicianship made Ella Fitzgerald one of the century's most successful jazz singers. In a career spanning nearly 60 years, America's "First Lady of Song" built a reputation among musicians and singers for her clarity of tone, her rhythmic perfection and a range that ran from sombre lows to tinkling highs.

Frank Sinatra once hailed her as the best singer in the world.

Fitzgerald's first break in show business came almost by accident. Born on 25 April 1918, in Newport News, Virginia, she had only a rudimentary musical education.

A scrawny 15-year-old with what she later called "the skinniest legs you've ever seen" she went on stage for amateur night at the Apollo Theatre on New York's 125th Street with dreams of dancing her way to stardom.

But she was so nervous her legs would not move. Knowing she had to do something, she opened her mouth to sing the songs she had learned from her mother's recordings of Connee Boswell.

She won the $25 first prize. And her impromptu performance was heard by a member of the orchestra of Chick Webb, one of the major swing bandleaders of the period.

Pressed to hire her, at first Webb flatly refused. "We'll take her to Yale tomorrow night," he said. "And if she goes over with the college kids, she stays." She passed the test.

Fitzgerald soon began making recordings with the band. Some early ones rank among the classics of jazz. But in May 1938, she recorded the song that would gain her world fame, a novelty ditty called "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" that one of Webb's arrangers based on a nursery rhyme.

During the 1940s Fitzgerald developed a style of vocal virtuosity known as scat singing, in which she improvised wordlessly with her voice to give the effect of an instrumental soloist. While the technique in itself was not new, she perfected it. She also became known for her renderings of ballads.

After 1955, under imprersario Norman Granz's direction, she recorded a long series of "Songbook" albums, each featuring the work of a composer such as Duke Ellington and Cole Porter.

Critics disagreed about Fitzgerald's place in history as jazz singer and creator. Nat Hentoff called her a "peerless popular singer" rather than a great artist.

But there was seldom any doubt about her place in the public mind. Since her early days, she was consistently rated top female vocalist in a variety of polls, including an 18-year streak in Down Beat magazine's annual poll. She won 10 Grammy awards for her performances.

An early marriage to musician Ray Brown, produced a son but ended in divorce. Fitzgerald later married Thor Einar Larsen, a Dane.

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