Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia. She was one of the leading jazz singers of all time. In her lifetime, she won thirteen Grammys—two from the first Grammy Awards in 1958 (best jazz individual and best female pop vocal performer). Her recordings have sold more than 40 million albums.
Fitzgerald’s career began on Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She soon went on to sing with the Chick Webb orchestra and made her first recordings in 1935. After Webb’s death in 1939, she led the band for about three years before launching out on her own.
From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s her career was managed by jazz impresario Norman Granz. During this time Fitzgerald recorded a series of nineteen albums and her inimitable style became nationally recognized. Granz also arranged for her to tour extensively and to work closely with the Oscar Peterson Trio.
Fitzgerald’s mastery of “scat,” in which the singer improvises nonsense syllables to imitate a musical instrument, is heard throughout her recordings. Although the history of scatting may date back to West Africa, trumpeter Louis Armstrong made it popular in the U.S. When he accompanied blues singer Bessie Smith, for example, Armstrong used his trumpet to sound out vocalizations; conversely, Fitzgerald likened her voice to a musical instrument, a saxophone. Through recordings, concerts, and television appearances, both figures brought scat to a broad public audience.
Fitzgerald recorded hundreds of songs composed by great American lyricists such as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rogers. She performed with many great musical talents of her day including Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Dizzy Gillespie.
- To locate more photographs of famous singers and other persons prominent in the arts, browse the Occupational Index in the Van Vechten Collection.
- The William P. Gottlieb Collection, comprising over 1,600 photographs of celebrated jazz artists, documents the jazz scene from 1938 to 1948, primarily in New York City and Washington, D.C. Search on the names of a favorite jazz artist to find portraits of such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Benny Carter. This online collection also presents Gottlieb’s 1946-47 articles from Down Beat magazine and interviews recorded during a visit to the Library in 1997.
- Search Today in History on the terms singer or jazz to find more material on musical legends like Jelly Roll Morton, W.C. Handy, George Gershwin and Frank Sinatra.
- The Library’s Music Division has custody of the Ella Fitzgerald Collection, donated to the Library of Congress by the Fitzgerald 1989 Trust in 1997. Contact the Performing Arts Reading Room for more information.
- To learn more about the early history of the art form, or listen to sound recordings of jazz and ragtime browse the following resources: Ragtime; the National Jukebox; and The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.