Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 25 April 1917, Newport News VA; d 15 June 1996) Singer, one of the best-loved of the 20th century. An orphan, she lived in NYC with an aunt; she won amateur contests, joined the Chick Webb band '34 and it was widely believed that Webb and his wife had adopted her, but that was apparently just for the press. Her hit record 'A-Tisket A-Tasket' '38 brought her to a wider public (co-adapted with Al Feldman from the 1879 nursery rhyme; revived '44 in film Two Girls And A Sailor; Ella sang it in an Abbott & Costello western Ride 'Em Cowboy '42). She fronted the band after Webb died '39; went solo '42; recorded for U.S. Decca, toured with JATP from '46 and became a favourite female singer: she swung, her scat-singing was without equal and she had the great singer's instinctive understanding of harmony; her clear, accurate, flexible voice combined with warm vocal colour and sympathetic phrasing made her a nonpareil interpreter of American songs. The question of whether she was a 'jazz' singer is pointless; for her fans she transcended category. Webb had always given ballads to his male vocalists and Ella was best known for rhythm tunes, but she recorded a set of Gershwin songs for Decca '50 with solo piano accompaniment by Ellis Larkins (b 15 May 1923, Baltimore, often described as the greatest accompanist of all). Her hits in the Billboard charts on Decca '40-51 included three with the Ink Spots, one with Louis Jordan and calypso-flavoured solo hit 'Stone Cold Dead In The Market' '46. Of several films, the best-known is Pete Kelly's Blues (the Decca soundtrack album shared with Peggy Lee charted '55).

Her greatest stardom began on Norman Granz's Verve label. It was rare for two-LP albums to chart in the '50s, but Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook was no. 15 '56, Rodgers And Hart Songbook no. 11 '57, both arranged and conducted by Buddy Bregman (b 9 July 1930, Chicago; d 8 January 2017, Los Angeles); George And Ira Gershwin Songbooks recorded '58-9 (with Nelson Riddle) charted '64 when issued in a set; there were five Granz LPs of Gershwin songs altogether. She also made Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern songbooks (the latter with Riddle), all two-disc sets; a Duke Ellington songbook with Duke in two two-disc sets was disappointing because Duke didn't bother to rise to the occasion by writing new arrangements. Ira Gershwin said that he didn't know how good the Gershwin songs were until he heard Ella sing them; Irving Berlin called Granz and begged him to make a Berlin songbook album because his grandchildren kept playing the Porter one and chiding him. Jo Stafford's husband, Paul Weston, arranged and conducted the Irving Berlin set '58; at the recording session Ella said she was nervous, because 'If I sing out of tune you'll go home and tell your old lady!'

Other Verve hit LPs: ballad set Ella And Louis with Louis Armstrong '56, no. 12 (later combined with Vol. 2 in a two-disc set; she also recorded two-disc Porgy And Bess with Louis); live LPs Ella In Berlin--Mack The Knife, Ella In Hollywood, Ella And Basie!, Hello, Dolly! '60-4. Four singles on Verve made Hot 100 '56-63 included 'Mack The Knife', which was also no. 6 R&B '60. Other Verve LPs included Like Someone In Love, Swings Brightly With Nelson (Riddle), Songs In A Mellow Mood (solo with Larkins again), Rhythm Is My Business, In Hollywood '61, On The Sunny Side Of The Street '63 with Basie, Whisper Not '65 with Marty Paich; with Ellington: Ella At Duke's Place, Cote d'Azur. On Capitol: Brighten The Corner '67 (sacred songs); on Reprise: Ella '69; on Columbia: two-disc Live At Carnegie Hall '73.

Eye surgery early '70s slowed her down a bit, but she started all over again with Granz on Pablo: Embraces Antonio Carlos Jobim (yet another two-disc songbook); In London; Dream Dancing with Riddle; Ella Fitzgerald And Oscar Peterson with Ray Brown; A Classy Pair with Basie; Fine And Mellow '74; Montreux '75; Montreux '76 with Tommy Flanagan; Lady Time '78; Take Love Easy, Again, Speak Love, Easy Living, all with Joe Pass; With The Tommy Flanagan Trio '82; Nice Work If You Can Get It '83 (Gershwin duets with André Previn). With airchecks, reissues, compilations etc her recordings over 50 years would fill pages. Among bits and pieces, 'Party Blues' '56 with Basie has Ella and Joe Williams scatting at each other: exciting, joyful swing. By '94 her diabetes/circulation problems had caught up with her and she was a double amputee; reissues had come out in what was supposed to be her 75th year, but Stuart Nicholson's biography '93 established that she was actually 76. Married once briefly on a bet, then to bassist Ray Brown, she had one son and brought up two nieces, but never married again after '53. She was always a private person, granting few interviews, but her shyness combined with musical exuberance made her that much more appealing on stage. Describing singing a song she said, 'You tell it like a beautiful story, and it's always a story that happened to somebody else.'

Her accompanist from the late 1950s through the early 1990s was Paul Smith (b 17 April 1922, San Diego CA; d 29 July 2013, Torrence CA). He was in the rhythm section on most of her Songbook albums. He was quoted in Tad Hershorn's biography of Norman Granz: 'Ella would complain that she was working too hard, and he would not book her for about two weeks, then she would say, after about the first week, "Why aren't I working? Don't people want to see me?" Norman was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. Ella didn't really have much of a home life. Her home was the stage. When she was onstage, she was loving it."


Norman Granz was good at producing recording sessions and treated his artists well, but he sometimes fell down when it came to putting together an album. Ella In Berlin was a huge hit and a classic at the height of the Cold War, but the next album, Ella in Hollywood, was a flop. Granz had recorded 12 nights at the Crescendo in May 1961, often three shows a night, as well as two more nights the following year, with Lou Levy on piano, Gus Johnson on drums, guitarist Herb Ellis and Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass. The released tracks were not well chosen, and audience noise was dubbed in to made it sound like the venue was bigger, though the point should have been that the group was relaxed and loose, and glad to be playing for 200 people instead of 2,000. Instead of the same set lists every night, they performed over 70 songs, and Ella was at the top of her game: if she stumbled on a lyric or was otherwise discommoded, she and the group would save the situation with more improvising than usual. A four-CD boxed set, Twelve Nights In Hollywood, released on Hip-O Select late 2009, celebrated the occasion properly, and immediately became tops on any fan's shopping list.