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From the Archives: Ella Fitzgerald, Jazz's First Lady of Song, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Ella Fitzgerald, known to jazz lovers throughout the world as the First Lady of Song, died Saturday at her Beverly Hills home. She was 78.

The cause of death was not released, but Fitzgerald had suffered from heart disease and diabetes for many years. She was surrounded by family and friends as she passed away about 2:30 a.m., said her son Ray Brown, Jr.

Shy and never self-assured despite the flawless talent she possessed through a half-century career, Fitzgerald often asked anxiously as she left the stage, "Did I do all right?"

Millions affirmed that she had. She was one of the rare entertainers whose first name was sufficient identity for fans around the world.

"Male or female, she was the greatest singer on the planet," said singer Mel Torme, a longtime friend. "She was so unique, so original, no one can fill her shoes."

Tony Bennett agreed. "She was my favorite singer," he said Saturday. "Her recordings will live forever. She'll sound as modern 200 years from now, no matter what technique they come up with."

One of the most enduring assessments of Fitzgerald was rendered after the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival by the late L.A. Times jazz critic Leonard Feather:

"If there was one artist whose work stood tall among all these giants, it was Ella Fitzgerald. Never had there been a more moving example of the spirit, beauty, beat and total vocal control of which a jazz singer is capable. Ella can do anything to a melody except damage."

Special tribute was paid Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl, where the Playboy Jazz Festival got underway. The marquee at the entry to the bowl was emblazoned with the words, "Ella We Will Miss You." And Bill Cosby, the master of ceremonies, called for a moment of silence to honor her memory.

Fitzgerald's innate jazz sense, her range and the purity of her tone filled her Beverly Hills home with trophies, awards and the autographed photographs of famous people who admired her--as she admired them in return.

She remained in the jazz spotlight for more than half a century even though her health eventually began to let her down. First, it was her eyes, then breathing problems. She was hospitalized in August 1985 in Washington for treatment of a respiratory ailment, emerging slimmed down and with less certainty in her voice. She was hospitalized in Niagara Falls, N.Y., after a July 1986 concert, for what was diagnosed as congestive heart failure. In 1993, diabetes forced amputation of her legs below the knee.

She endured cataract surgery at least twice to overcome the potential blindness exacerbated by the glare of stage lights and by the intense schedule of concerts that occasionally threatened to tear her apart. In a 1965 interview she recalled what happened to her after doing two concerts a night for several weeks without a break:

"In Munich," she said, "I just went berserk. My drummer had to grab me and take me off. The people guessed something was wrong. But they applauded and wouldn't leave the hall."

After calming down a bit, Ella returned to the stage and sang some more.

The trouble, noted the London Sunday Time writer who got that interview, was that "Ella needs her audience almost as much as they adore her."

The writer quoted the singer as saying, "I love it when those people come up on the stage and kiss me."

Fitzgerald had been known well enough to jazz fans for two decades, but it was not until the mid-1950s, when promoter Norman Granz began to manage her career, that she was a truly popular success, recording on Granz's Verve label a series of highly commercial albums beginning with "The Cole Porter Song Book."

She called that album "the turning point of my life," even though she once admitted that her reaction when Granz suggested it was 'My God, this man is trying to get me out of show business.' "

But after her career was revitalized by the Songbook albums--Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and Harold Arlen--Ella recognized that Granz had known what he was talking about.

Before that, she had developed into a superb scat singer and had taken to the bop style almost exclusively until "it got to the point where I had no place to sing."

She eventually seemed able to please all her listeners. A typical performance would include works from several decades and styles--swing, bop, bossa nova, soul and Broadway show music--as well as composers ranging from Duke Ellington to Burt Bacharach.

"I've heard music critics say I'm not a jazz singer anymore," she said a few years after she came under Granz's guidance. "But we all try to grow and improve. What is jazz, anyhow? I don't know. To me, jazz is music."

She added then, "Anyway . . . I've changed. I sing what the public likes. . . . I try to do a little bit of everything. You get a wonderful release. Even rock 'n' roll. Hillbilly music. Anything, if it's played well."

Stanley Crouch, an African American writer and critic, said Fitzgerald brought unique elements to her performances. "She had that strange combination of a Negro American urban quality crossed with a wide-eyed unpretentious country girl. She could sound like someone who just got off the train with a paper suitcase and a box of chicken walking down Broadway, saying, 'Gee whiz, what tall buildings.' "

Ella Fitzgerald was born April 25, 1918, in Newport News, Va., never knowing her father, who died when she was very young. She moved to Yonkers, N.Y., with her mother, who also died early, leaving Ella an orphan. She moved in with an aunt.

When she was 16, some friends dared her to enter an amateur night contest at the old Apollo Theater in Harlem. She did not think of herself as a singer. Her ambition was to dance like somebody named Snakehips Tucker. When she got on stage, she was struck by the shyness that was to plague her all her life. She couldn't dance.

"The man said since I was up there I had to do something," Ella was to tell columnist Jack Smith in 1966 when she was named a Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year. "So I tried to sing like Connee Boswell." The latter was young Ella's favorite singer. The song she sang in imitation Boswell at the Apollo that night was "The Object of My Affection."

She won first prize and the admiration of a musician who worked for bandleader Chick Webb and who kept raving about her until Webb finally agreed to give her a tryout at a Yale dance. If the college kids liked her, Webb said, "she stays."

They did. She was immediately popular. Webb became a friend and mentor. Three years later, in 1938, she gave Webb his first big hit record, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," which she wrote with band arranger Van Alexander. The song established her as a nationally known singer.

Now 81, Alexander recalled the song's creation in 1938 during an interview Saturday:

"Ella came up to me and said, 'How about doing a song based on the nursery rhyme 'A Tisket A Tasket.' I said I would but I had other songs to do and one day she came up to me and said, 'You never did anything with that song.' I stayed up all night, working on the song.

"I brought it up to Boston. We rehearsed it. She said, 'It's great, but we have to change some of the words.' She changed 'walking' down the avenue to 'trucking' down the avenue. It was a beautiful collaboration," Alexander said. "Ella was a sweet, unassuming young lady. She never changed. I'll miss her terribly, as the world will miss her."

When Webb died in 1939, Ella took over the band as leader, but it was a difficult role for one with her shyness and she gave it up after a couple of years to become a solo performer.

Her career kept climbing. She appeared in major clubs and theaters throughout the United States and Canada, and drew big audiences on tours of Japan and Europe. She learned to sing bop by traveling with the Dizzy Gillespie band.

At the time, there were many places in the United States where Fitzgerald could not perform in front of blacks and whites at the same time. Nonetheless, writer Crouch said that in one key respect Ella benefited from the segregated world of the 1930s.

"Her race put her in the most innovative arts community in the U.S. in the 1930s," Crouch said. "When she was coming up in New York, Harlem was the capital of American musical innovation. Duke Ellington was there, Count Basie was there, everyone was there. . . . She was in the richest musical circumstances she could have been in America."

Fitzgerald also appeared in several movies, including "St. Louis Blues," "Let No Man Write My Epitaph" and "Pete Kelly's Blues."

But it took Granz to put her on the road to acceptance by a wider public with the Songbooks.

Granz subsequently admitted that when he first heard Ella he had not thought much of her. "I used only Billie Holiday in my jam sessions," he said. "I must have been deaf."

One of her more successful associations was with Duke Ellington. She sang with his orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1958 and toured Europe with him in the mid-60s.

Among other groups with which she toured was the Oscar Peterson Trio. She married Peterson's bassist Ray Brown in 1949. It was her second marriage. The first was to musician Bernie Kornegay in 1941, something she later conceded she did on a bet. That one was quickly annulled.

She and Brown were divorced in 1952. "It was a good marriage," she was to tell Feather 30 years later. "But it's hard for two people in show business. You have to learn to really understand somebody."

Their son, Ray Jr., became a drummer and guitar player in Seattle.

It was in 1970 that eye problems caught up with the singer, threatening to end her career. "I guess 30 years of facing those powerful lights did it," she said. "It got to where I had to keep closing my eyes all the time. I was very nervous. Finally I canceled all my bookings and went in the hospital."

In 1971, the trouble was still there. She broke off a series of concerts in France, flew to the United States with a hemorrhage in one eye and a cataract in the other. Once again, she underwent surgery.

She began wearing thick, horn-rimmed glasses and fretting over how audiences would react to her changed appearance. "They were fine," she said later. "My performance was better because I didn't have to worry about the lights. I was able to look at them (the people) and that's very important to me."

After turning out more than 100 albums and selling more than 25 million records, Ella was named in 1979 as a Kennedy Center Honoree for lifetime achievement in the performing arts, sharing that year's distinction with composer Aaron Copland, actor Henry Fonda, dancer Martha Graham and playwright Tennessee Williams.

She was given numerous Grammys and other awards, and was picked as the top female jazz singer in polls by Metronome and Down Beat magazines in various years.

She also became known to some Americans in the 1970s by virtue of the Memorex recording tape commercials on television, in which her voice--live or recorded, one didn't know which--allegedly could shatter a wine glass. She was fond of telling about her performance for young children in Columbia, S.C., where a television reporter then asked some of the youngsters what they thought of her.

"Some of them had never heard of me, of course," Ella told Feather later. "And one little boy said, 'Well, I liked her singing all right, but she didn't break no glass.' "

For years, Fitzgerald helped retarded children. She also began to show great concern for the victims of child abuse and spent some of her time and money on the Ella Fitzgerald Child Care Center in South-Central Los Angeles.

The funeral will be private. The family requests donations to the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, or any charity the entertainer might have supported, such as the Society of Singers.

news.obits@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jeff Brazil contributed to this story.

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