Ella Fitzgerald, whose sweet, silvery voice and endlessly inventive vocal improvisations made her the most celebrated jazz singer of her generation, died Saturday at home in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 79.
She had been suffering from diabetes and its circulatory system complications for many years. In 1993, both of her legs were amputated below the knees.
A pre-eminent singer who brought a classic sense of musical proportion and balance to everything she touched, Fitzgerald won the sobriquet “first lady of song” and earned the unqualified admiration 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.
Across the country, as fans of all backgrounds commiserated over Fitzgerald’s passing, radio stations played her masterpieces - “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Lady, Be Good.”
“There are so many to choose from,” said Mike Oli, who played Fitzgerald tunes on WLIM-AM in New York. “When she sings, she’s painting a portrait with words. It makes me feel dreamy; I can visualize everything in my head.”
Until the 1970s, 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 more than six decades, 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, Fitzgerald communicated a wistful, sweet-natured compassion for the heartache she described.
Where Holiday and Frank Sinatra lived out the dramas they sang about, 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.
Sinatra said she was “my all-time favorite,” though he once criticized her for not paying more attention to the story behind the song.
Over the decades, Fitzgerald performed with big bands, symphony orchestras and small jazz groups. Her repertory encompassed show tunes, jazz songs, novelties, bossa nova, and even opera (“Porgy and Bess” excerpts).
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.
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.”)
During her long career, 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 birthdate 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.
In 1934, she won an amateur contest at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, catching the attention of drummer and bandleader Chick Webb.
He hired her to sing at a 1935 Yale dance, saying, “If the kids like her, she stays.”
The kids loved her. Back at Yale for an honorary degree in 1986, she said, “This is where, you might say, that it all started.”
She amassed countless awards and commendations, including honorary doctorates at Yale and Dartmouth, and 13 Grammy Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement. She won Downbeat magazine’s best female jazz singer poll for 18 consecutive years.
Fitzgerald was married twice, 1941-43 to shipyard worker Benny Kornegay, and 1948-52 to jazz bassist Ray Brown. They had a son, Ray Brown Jr., in 1950. Fitzgerald also raised a niece.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Ella’s Grammy Awards 1958: Best Vocal Performance, Female, “Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Irving Berlin Songbook.” 1958: Best Jazz Performance, Individual, “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook.” 1959: Best Vocal Performance, Female, “But Not for Me.” 1959: Best Jazz Performance, Soloist, “Ella Swings Lightly.” 1960: Best Vocal Performance, Single Record or Track, Female, “Mack the Knife.” 1960: Best Vocal Performance, Album, Female, “Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin.” 1962: Best Solo Vocal Performance, Female, “Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson Riddle.” 1976: Best Jazz Vocal Performance, “Fitzgerald & Pass Again.” 1979: Best Jazz Vocal Performance, “Fine and Mellow.” 1980: Best Jazz Vocal Performance, “A Perfect Match: Ella & Basie.” 1981: Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female, “Digital III at Montreux.” 1983: Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female, “The Best Is Yet to Come.” 1990: Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female, “All That Jazz.”