Born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1917, Ella Fitzgerald never knew her father – he left the family while she was an infant – and her mother died when Ella was a teenager.
Ella was abused by her stepfather following her mother’s death and, at age 15, was given refuge by an aunt in Harlem, New York. There, Ella scavenged the neighbourhood for money, running numbers and helping prostitutes avoid police searches.
Eventually, she ended up in a reformatory, the New York State Training School For Girls, where – like many of the other young girls crowded into the school’s decaying cottages and dark basements – she was subject to frequent beatings by male staff members.
But Ella found a way to transcend some of the torment. She developed a love of pop singing and show dancing, and aspired to dance professionally.
In 1934 she went onstage as a dancer at an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, but when her moment in the spotlight came, she froze, too frightened to dance. Instead, she opened her mouth and sang The Object Of My Affection in the style of her idol, Connee Boswell, and won first prize.
After that, Ella was brought to the attention of bandleader Chick Webb, who arranged for her parole from the upstate New York reformatory.
Ella became Webb’s star attraction and co-wrote the band’s biggest hit, A-Tisket, A-Tasket.
When Webb died in 1939, Ella became the orchestra’s leader for a time and further developed her elegant swing sensibility and remarkably lucid talent as a balladeer.
In 1942 she went solo, and as jazz music changed over the years – from the fluid rhythms of swing to the complex melodic and rhythmic permutations of bop – so did Ella’s style.
She was one of the first singers to take the innovations of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and apply their bebop methods to vocal improvisation.
She developed a wild, gliding style of melodic extemporization and phonetic phrasing that was known as scat singing, and it established her as the most influential and admired vocalist in jazz next to Billie Holiday.
Jazz producer Norman Granz took 28-year-old Ella under his wing in 1946, enlisting the singer to take part in his Jazz At The Philharmonic all-star concert series.
However, it was not until Granz signed Fitzgerald to his new Verve label, and set her working on a series of albums, each devoted to the works of the great American songwriters – Richard Rodgers and Duke Ellington among them – that her reputation became unassailable.
While a little of Cole Porter’s archness was lost in Ella’s translation, and not every Rodgers and Hart song proved worthy of her attention, her easygoing voice and Gershwin’s unmatchable melodies were simply made for each other.
Cultured, athletic and warmly melodic, her voice exuded jazzy sophistication without scaring off the wider public.
In her later years, Ella was beset by increasingly debilitating physical problems, including cataracts, heart trouble and diabetes. She kept performing until 1992 when her diabetes became incapacitating.
The following year her worsening condition led to the amputation of her legs below the knee.
After that, Ella stayed close to her home in Beverly Hills, California. She never sang in public again.
Ella Fitzgerald passed away on 15 June 1996, aged 79.