Fitzgerald, singer's singer, dies at 78 'First Lady of Song' recorded 250 albums and won 13 Grammys

June 16, 1996|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

There was a time, back in the 1970s, when Ella Fitzgerald was almost as well known for her Memorex ads as for her singing. She'd sing a high note and shatter a wineglass. Then a recording of that note would be played and another glass would shatter, at which point an announcer would ask, is the singing real "or is it Memorex?"

It will have to be Memorex now. Ella Fitzgerald died yesterday at age 78.

Dubbed "The First Lady of Song," Fitzgerald had a professional career that spanned some 55 years. In recent years, however, her performances had been curtailed by poor health.

She died at her home surrounded by family and friends, spokeswoman Andrea Hecht said. Fitzgerald suffered from diabetes, but Hecht declined to reveal the cause of her death. "She was a very private person, and her family would want us to respect that," said Hecht.

Miss Fitzgerald was, for a half-century, one of America's most acclaimed singers, recording some 250 albums and winning 13 Grammy awards.

Bing Crosby crowed, "Man, woman and child, Ella Fitzgerald is the greatest," while Frank Sinatra called her "my all-time favorite." Even opera singers like the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau were unabashed fans.

What won them all over? To a large extent, it was the sheer musicality of her performances. As a jazz singer, Fitzgerald would not only swing but solo, and her skill as a scat singer -- using nonsense syllables to flesh out an improvised melody -- ensured that she could hold her own in a jam session against the likes of Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong.

She also could sing it straight, and her interpretations of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, and George and Ira Gershwin -- collected on record in Verve's celebrated "Song Books" series -- are considered by many critics the ne plus ultra of American popular song. And no wonder. As Ira Gershwin once said, "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them."

That voice

Then there was her voice, which by any measure was astonishing. As the critic Henry Pleasants wrote, Fitzgerald's voice stretched two octaves and a sixth, "a greater range, especially in the bottom, than is required or expected of most opera singers."

As great as her bottom range was, though, it was her complete mastery of falsetto that most often dazzled listeners. There was always something girlish about her singing, and it wasn't a matter of her playing cute; unlike other singers, whose sound changed with the shift into falsetto, Fitzgerald maintained a consistent vocal tone throughout, giving her the kind of fluidity up high that grown women rarely manage. As an awed Roberta Flack once put it, "Ella doesn't shift gears. She goes from lower to higher register, the same all the way through."

Born in Newport News, Va., on April 25, 1918, she grew up in Yonkers, N.Y. Amazingly, she never planned to sing. She got her start at age 15 after winning an amateur night competition at New York's Apollo Theater in 1934, though she had walked onstage with the intention of dancing.

"I used to try to do Snake Hips Tucker," she recalled to critic Gene Lees, referring to a then-popular Harlem dance star. Unfortunately, she said, "I lost my nerve. When I walked out, I couldn't believe it. I saw all those people."

A friend backstage called out, "Don't just stand there -- sing something." So she did, and the audience was smitten.

But then, her audiences usually were.

After quickly landing a weeklong booking at the Harlem Opera House, the teen-ager caught the ear of multi-instrumentalist Benny Carter, who introduced the youngster to Chick Webb, the Baltimore-born drummer whose band was famous for "Stompin' at the Savoy." A week with Webb became a permanent place in the band, and after Fitzgerald's mother died, he even became the singer's legal guardian. (It was widely rumored that Webb and his wife actually adopted Fitzgerald, but even Fitzgerald was uncertain if that was the case).

Fitzgerald's first hit with the Chick Webb band was "(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It" in 1936, but it was the nursery-rhyme novelty "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" that really put her on the map. Said to be the biggest-selling record of the '30s, it stayed at No. 1 for 10 straight weeks and made Fitzgerald a star overnight.

She not only stayed with Webb but took over as the band's leader after the drummer's death in 1939.

In 1942, she finally struck out on her own and had no trouble maintaining popular success while strengthening her reputation as a jazz musician. A pair of songs she recorded with the Ink Spots, "I'm Making Believe" and "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall," topped the charts in 1944, and she continued to have Top-10 success through the end of the decade.

At home in jazz

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