Ella Fitzgerald Cause Of Death, Ella Fitzgerald, whose sweet, silvery voice and endlessly inventive vocal improvisations made her the most celebrated jazz singer of her generation, died yesterday at home in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 79.
She had been suffering from diabetes and its eyesight and circulatory system complications for many years. In 1993, both of her legs were amputated below the knees.
A pre-eminent American singer who brought a classic sense of musical proportion and balance to everything she touched, Miss Fitzgerald won the sobriquet “first lady of song” and earned the unqualified admiration of most of her peers. Musicians from Bing Crosby to Benny Goodman, when asked to name their favorite singer, cited Ella Fitzgerald.
“Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest,” Crosby once said. Mel Torme hailed her as having “the best ear of any singer ever.” Until the 1970’s, when physical problems began to impinge on her perfect technique, this hefty, unglamorous woman seemed to loom as an immutable creative force in a musical world where everything else was crumbling.
In a career that spanned six decades, Miss Fitzgerald stood above the emotional fray of the scores of popular standards she performed. Stylistically she was the polar opposite of her equally legendary peer, Billie Holiday, who conveyed a wounded vulnerability. Even when handed a sad song, Miss Fitzgerald communicated a wistful, sweet-natured compassion for the heartache she described.
Where Holiday and Frank Sinatra lived out the dramas they sang about, Miss Fitzgerald, viewing them from afar, seemed to understand and forgive all. Her apparent equanimity and her clear pronunciation, which transcended race, ethnicity, class and age, made her a voice of profound reassurance and hope.
Over the decades, Miss Fitzgerald performed with big bands, symphony orchestras and small jazz groups. Her repertory encompassed show tunes, jazz songs, novelties (like her first major hit, “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” recorded in 1938), bossa nova, and even opera (“Porgy and Bess” excerpts, recorded with Louis Armstrong). At her jazziest, her material became a springboard for ever-changing, ebullient vocal inventions, delivered in a sweet, girlish voice that could leap, slide or growl anywhere within a range of nearly three octaves.
Great Diction And Vocal Agility
Miss Fitzgerald was renowned both for her delicately rendered ballads and her pyrotechnical displays of scat improvisation. (The jazz historian Barry Ulanov traced the term be-bop to her spontaneous interpolation of the word “re-bop” in her 1939 recording of “T’Ain’t What You Do, It’s the Way That You Do It.”) She was sometimes criticized for a lack of bluesiness and emotional depth. But her perfect intonation, vocal acrobatics, clear diction and endless store of melodic improvisations — all driven by powerful rhythmic undercurrents — brought her nearly universal acclaim.
During her long career, Miss Fitzgerald recorded with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong. Her series of “Songbook” albums, celebrating such songwriters as Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart and Duke Ellington, helped to elevate the work of the best American songwriters to a stature widely recognized as art song.
“I never knew how good our songs were,” Ira Gershwin once said, “until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”
Although most biographies give her birth date as 1918, her birth certificate and school records show her to have been born a year earlier, on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Va. She was the product of a common-law marriage between William Fitzgerald and Temperance Williams Fitzgerald. The couple separated within a year of her birth, and with her mother and a Portuguese immigrant named Joseph Da Silva, she moved to Yonkers.
As a child, Miss Fitzgerald dreamed of being a dancer. But she also sang and was attracted to the recordings of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and the Boswell Sisters, in particular the group’s lead singer, Connee Boswell.
“My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it,” she recalled many years later. “I tried so hard to sound just like her.”
As a teen-ager, Miss Fitzgerald developed a dance routine with a friend, Charles Gulliver, which they performed in local clubs. Then in 1932, her mother died suddenly, and she went to live with an aunt in Harlem.
On Nov. 21, 1934, she made her stage debut in an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater, singing two songs, “The Object of My Affection” and “Judy,” in the style of Connee Boswell. She won first prize.
Around this time, she also caught the attention of Chick Webb, the band leader and drummer, who was reluctant to sign her to a contract because she was gawky and unkempt, a “diamond in the rough,” as the band leader Mario Bauza later remembered. But the audience’s reaction to her performances persuaded him to offer her a job, and during the Webb band’s residency at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem her reputation blossomed.
“I thought my singing was pretty much hollering,” she recalled many years later, “but Webb didn’t.”
A Novelty Song Made Her a Star
Miss Fitzgerald made her first recording in 1935 (“Love and Kisses,” with Chick Webb), and had her first hit with “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” a song she helped write, adapting the lyric, she later explained, from “that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up.” The record became a popular sensation and made her a star. After Webb died in 1939, the young singer was the band’s nominal leader until mid-1942, when it broke up. Between her recording debut in 1935 and the demise of the band seven years later, Miss Fitzgerald recorded almost 150 sides, the majority of them novelties and disposable pop fluff.
During this period, she married Benjamin Kornegay, a shipyard worker and petty thief with a criminal record. The marriage ended in annulment after two years. The singer was 30 when she fell in love with the bassist Ray Brown while they were on tour with Dizzy Gillespie’s band. They were married in December 1947, set up housekeeping in East Elmhurst, Queens, and adopted the son of Miss Fitzgerald’s half-sister, Frances. They named the boy Ray Jr. While Miss Fitzgerald concentrated on her career, her son was cared for by her aunt Virginia.
The marriage eventually became a casualty of conflicting career schedules, and the couple were divorced in 1953, although they continued to work together. In 1957, there were reports in the Scandinavian press that she had secretly married Thor Einar Larsen, a Norwegian impresario. Miss Fitzgerald is survived by Ray Brown Jr. and a grandchild.
As early as 1942 and 43, Miss Fitzgerald began to be influenced by the experiments of such be-bop instrumentalists as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. She incorporated elements of be-bop rhythm and harmony into her singing, and while on tour with the Gillespie band in 1946 she embraced the music wholeheartedly.
A year earlier, she had recorded what would become one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade, a version of “Flying Home” in which she indulged extensively in the phonetic improvisation known as scat. Where other singers, most notably Louis Armstrong, had tried similar improvisation, no one before Miss Fitzgerald employed the technique with such dazzling inventiveness.
Two years later, when Decca released her sensational be-bop version of “Lady Be Good,” Downbeat magazine proclaimed her “as great a master of bop as she has been of swing.”
These achievements were among the high points of a recording career that found Miss Fitzgerald recording in all manner of pop settings. Between 1935 and 1955 she recorded for Decca Records. Under the commercially astute supervision of the producer Milt Gabler, she was teamed with the vocal group the Ink Spots for several hits, including the million-selling “I’m Making Believe” and “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall.” She also scored commercially with novelty duets recorded with Louis Jordan, the most popular of which was “Stone Cold Dead in the Market.”
A Huge Change Of Direction
Dictated largely by the fads of the moment, Miss Fitzgerald’s pre-1955 pop recording career was an artistically mixed bag and stood distinct from her work as a swing and jazz singer in nightclubs. One of the artistic high points of the Decca years was a 10-inch long-playing record, “Ella Sings Gershwin,” which she recorded with the pianist Ellis Larkins in 1950.
Miss Fitzgerald’s life changed when Norman Granz, the impresario of the popular Jazz at the Philharmonic series, invited her to join the touring jam sessions in 1949 and later became her manager. One of her most popular numbers, “How High the Moon,” evolved into the unofficial signature tune of the series.
Their relationship quickly developed into one of the most productive artist-manager partnerships in the history of jazz. When Miss Fitzgerald’s contract with Decca expired, she became the first artist Mr. Granz signed to his new Verve label. It was under his supervision that she undertook the series of landmark “Songbook” albums that brought her voice to a large nonjazz audience.
“I had gotten to the point where I was only singing be-bop,” she later recalled. “I thought be-bop was ‘it,’ and that all I had to do was go someplace and sing bop. But it finally got to the point where I had no place to sing. I realized then that there was more to music than bop. Norman came along, and he felt that I should do other things, so he produced ‘The Cole Porter Songbook’ with me. It was a turning point in my life.”
“Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook” became the prototype for a series of anthologies recorded over more than a decade and focusing on individual composers or composing teams, blending familiar standards and lesser-known, usually first-rate songs.
Backed by various studio orchestras, she also interpreted the work of Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer and Rodgers and Hart. “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook,” a 53-song, 5-LP collection recorded with the arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle in 1959, is widely regarded as the greatest of the collections.
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.
From 1956 through the mid-1960’s, Miss Fitzgerald concentrated on material that was almost consistently commensurate with her artistry, and her career soared. She made her first feature-film appearance in “Pete Kelly’s Blues,” in 1955, and in 1957 presented her own concert at the Hollywood Bowl. In April 1958 she gave a Carnegie Hall concert with Duke Ellington to celebrate the release of her four-disk set, “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook.”
A workhorse who toured from 40 to 45 weeks of each year, Miss Fitzgerald showed the first signs of fatigue when she nearly collapsed on the stage during a concert in Munich in 1965. Five years earlier, Mr. Granz had sold Verve records to MGM, and when her contract came up for renewal in 1966, she was not re-signed to the label, but Mr. Granz moved her to Capitol, where her producer, Dave Dexter, promised to give her “a totally different sound.” These albums, which included a religious record, an album of country music and a Christmas collection, found her groping insecurely for a new pop identity.
Signed briefly to Reprise Records, Miss Fitzgerald tried singing contemporary hits by the Beatles, Burt Bacharach and Marvin Gaye, but rock and soul proved almost as uncongenial to her style as had country.
Basie, Sinatra And Symphonies
She returned to jazz full time when Mr. Granz founded his label Pablo in 1973. Among her many Pablo recordings are four duet albums with the guitarist Joe Pass, made from 1973 to 1986, and another songbook album devoted to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim. She also began performing regularly with symphony orchestras, and in 1974 she teamed with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie for a two-week concert engagement at the Uris Theater in New York that grossed more than a million dollars.
From the early 1970’s, Miss Fitzgerald began to have eyesight problems complicated by diabetes, and in 1986 she had heart surgery, but she returned to the concert stage the next year. Despite ill health, she continued to perform at least once month into the early 1990’s. Although her quality of voice slowly deteriorated from the early 1970’s, even at the end of her career, her singing retained a remarkable rhythmic acuity.
Offstage, Miss Fitzgerald lived a quiet, self-protective life in a 13-room house in Beverly Hills. Her social life involved a small circle of old friends, including members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras, and other singers, including over the years Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan and Peggy Lee.