Our ‘First Lady Of Song’ : NPR

Listen To An Audio Documentary About One Of America’s Greatest Voices

Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald during a 1958 visit to London.

John Downing/Getty Images


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Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald during a 1958 visit to London.

John Downing/Getty Images

Her voice is instantly recognizable. Her youthful exuberance, pure sound and positive energy just make you feel good. Her incredible technical abilities were self-evident, but when she sang, she radiated a joy consistent with her own character both on and off the bandstand.

Ella Fitzgerald was the undisputed queen of jazz singing and American popular song. She demonstrated extraordinary talent as a young teen, winning an amateur singing contest at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. Initially, she was going to dance, but a case of stage fright inspired her to sing “Object of My Affection.”

Singer Ella Fitzgerald during her performance at the Bal Pare in the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, Munich.

Keystone/Getty Images/Hulton Archive


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Singer Ella Fitzgerald during her performance at the Bal Pare in the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, Munich.

Keystone/Getty Images/Hulton Archive

Soon after her Apollo Theater stint, drummer and bandleader Chick Webb asked the shy 16-year-old Fitzgerald to join his orchestra. At first, Webb was hesitant to bring her in because she didn’t have the standard good looks of a singing diva. Luckily, Fitzgerald had a voice that no one could match.

The Chick Webb Orchestra reigned supreme at New York City’s Savoy Ballroom, also performing live on the city’s numerous radio programs. He featured Fitzgerald on half of the selections, but after they hit it big in 1938 with the novelty smash “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” Fitzgerald was never absent from the bandstand.

Ella Fitzgerald’s rare combination of confidence and innocence reflected the spirit of mid-20th century America. Despite her popularity, she never deviated from her commitment to jazz as an art form. She could improvise right next to saxophonists like Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, then turn around and perform a classic American ballad while infusing it with…

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