American jazz legend, 1917-1996

By Will Friedwald
July 12, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT
Anthony Bruno/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

This article was originally published in the July 12, 1996 issue of Entertainment Weekly.

The problem with thinking of Ella Fitzgerald as dead is that it’s impossible to believe she was mortal to begin with. Billed as the First Lady of Swing while still a teenager, Fitzgerald was later redubbed the First Lady of Song by nightclub owners. In the early ’70s, Mel Torme rechristened her the High Priestess of Song, and by the time of her death, on June 15, 1996, she had achieved the status of an immortal.

Fitzgerald personified jazz for more than 60 years. More significantly, she earned the undying affection of a mass audience comparable to that of any pop icon — it’s hard to imagine any other jazz artist being asked to endorse Memorex or American Express. She transcended the big-band and prerock eras, continuing to top the jazz charts into the ’90s by offering her uncompromised mixture of swing and standards.

Fitzgerald’s nimble, ebullient voice first slipped into the American consciousness in 1935, when she sang for hard-swinging Chick Webb and his orchestra and soon landed her biggest hit, ”A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” In addition to releasing some 250 albums, an output far surpassing any other female performer’s, Fitzgerald made films and hundreds of TV appearances (including the Ed Sullivan Show and the Kennedy Center Honors). Along the way, she married twice, the second time to jazz bass virtuoso Ray Brown, with whom she adopted her only child, Ray Brown Jr.

”There’s a breeze blowing across this land now that she’s gone,” mourns vocalist Jon Hendricks. But Fitzgerald herself would never conclude a show, let alone her life, on such a somber note. As she ended one 1974 concert: ”I want to leave you happy/Don’t want to leave you sad.”

The Essential CDs

Ella: The Legendary Decca Recordings and The 75th Birthday Collection: While there is no complete collection of the First Lady’s first 20 years with Decca Records (1935-1955), MCA has issued two worthwhile samplers — the four-CD Ella and the double disc 75th Birthday. Both cover her career from her timid teenage Chick Webb days up through her first flowering, including her inspired meetings with Louis Jordan, the Mills Brothers, and others.

Pure Ella and The Intimate Ella: These sumptuous ballad albums provide the direct inverse of the extroverted scat numbers scattered throughout the Decca collections. Fitzgerald, at her most vulnerable and accompanied only by a pianist (Ellis Larkins on the first, Paul Smith on the second), reveals her heart, her soul, and for once, her vibrato.

The Songbooks: No two projects ever lived up to the potential of the Fitzgerald songbook series more than two triple-disc sets on Verve, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George & Ira Gershwin Songbook and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook. The formula was simple: the greatest singer, the best songs, and, on these two packages in particular, the most appropriate accompaniment. Gershwin teams Lady Fitz with adult-pop genius orchestrator Nelson Riddle. Ellington posits her in two contexts inspired by the great composer-bandleader, a Duke-ish small band and the full orchestra. For well-heeled listeners, there’s the 16-CD box, The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks.

The Louis Armstrong Collaborations: Along with Connee Boswell (Fitzgerald’s girlhood idol and the star singer of the Boswell Sisters vocal trio), the Mighty Satchmo served as Fitzgerald’s primary early influence — he invented scat singing and she perfected it. On a series of ’40s and ’50s singles for Decca and three albums for Verve — Ella and Louis, Ella and Louis Again, and their reworking of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess — Fitzgerald and Armstrong became a team made in heaven.

Mack the Knife: The Complete Ella in Berlin: This 1960 LP put the concept of the live album on the map by documenting the brilliance Fitzgerald reached in two shows a night, on the road across the globe. Her extemporaneous lyrics to the title song (the result of her forgetting the original) are alone worth the price of admission.

The First Lady of Song: Issued in honor of Fitzgerald’s 75th birthday in 1993 (which actually was her 76th), this highly recommended three-CD set samples Ella’s entire Verve experience, with highlights from all her albums of that incredibly fruitful decade (1956-1966), including the live sets, the songbooks, and those amazing collaborations.

The Concert Years: Spanning four CDs and 30 years (1953-1983), this superlative live collection doubles as a primer of the Lady’s great later years, with guest appearances by Duke Ellington and Count Basie, as well as her most rewarding collaborator of the ’70s and ’80s, supersensitive guitarist Joe Pass. It’s the only time that five hours of a single voice has left a listener wanting so much more.

Essential Ella Albums Not on CD: Miss Ella Fitzgerald and Mr. Gordon Jenkins Invite You to Listen and Relax, her all-time finest collection of ”big” ballads with strings; Whisper Not, a stunning cool jazz set from 1964; JATP: The Ella Fitzgerald Set, stellar concerts from 1949 to 1954; and Lullabies of Birdland, an authoritative assemblage of Fitzgerald’s scat masterpieces, including ”Flying Home,” and ”Lady Be Good.” Four decades later, Birdland remains the greatest collection of vocal improvisation ever compiled.

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