clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

ELLA FITZGERALD DIES AFTER A CAREER AS THE WORLD'S `FIRST LADY OF SONG'

Ella Fitzgerald, the world's "first lady of song" whose vocals ranged from deepest blues to bebop fancies, from mellow musings to a soaring soprano that could shatter crystal, died Saturday at 78.

During a five-decade career, she recorded some 250 albums and won 13 Grammy Awards.She also fought prejudice, winning a lawsuit against an airline that had bumped her and two assistants from a flight to make room for three white passengers.

In recent years, Miss Fitzgerald was virtually bedridden with complications of diabetes. In 1993, her legs were amputated below the knees.

She died peacefully at her home, surrounded by family and friends, spokeswoman Andrea Hecht said. She 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.

"Her fans will remember her and love her, that's what's important," said her attorney, Richard Rosman.

Colleague Mel Torme called Miss Fitzgerald "the best singer on the planet."

"Her loss is irreplaceable."

Tony Bennett told Los Angeles television station KNBC, "She was the lady who taught us all how to sing, you know."

Said jazz pianist Dick Hyman, "We'll all miss her. She created most of the pop singing tradition that has been around ever since."

At the Hollywood Bowl where the annual Playboy Jazz Festival got under way Saturday, the marquee read: "Ella, we'll miss you."

"If you listen to anything that Ella has recorded . . . you'll hear happiness. And that's a wonderful, wonderful gift to have left all of us," Bill Cosby, the festival's emcee, said in an interview.

Cosby asked for a brief moment of silence at the jazz festival to mark the legendary singer's passing.

Born in Newport News, Va., on April 25, 1918, the untrained Miss Fitzgerald overcame shyness to start singing in public at age 16.

Through her career, she kept at a distance in her music; her songs were melodic adventures, not miniature autobiographies.

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."

Her new fans included Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

In 1942, she started a solo career including movies such as 1955's "Pete Kelly's Blues." In "Ride 'em Cowboy," with Abbott and Costello in 1941, she played a maid.

In 1946, she joined the worldwide Jazz at the Philharmonic tours. New manager Norman Granz wanted to upgrade her material and had her do a series of albums, each featuring one great American songwriter.

No matter the material: ballads, blues, scat or mellow, Miss Fitzgerald varied her delivery in concert to keep songs fresh.

"If you don't learn new songs, you're lost," she said in 1967. "No matter where we play, we have some of the younger generation coming to the club. It's a drag if you don't have anything to offer them."

Generation after generation gave Miss Fitzgerald its awards. There were 18 major honors in 1954 alone. She won Downbeat magazine's best female jazz singer poll for 18 consecutive years.