On this day in 1996, singer Ella Fitzgerald dies at the age of 79. One of the most influential singers of the big band swing era, Fitzgerald enjoyed five decades of popularity and continued performing until her death.
Orphaned at an early age, Fitzgerald was raised by an aunt in New York. She won several amateur contests, including the high-profile talent night at the Apollo Theater. Just months after winning at the Apollo in 1934, she signed to sing with Chick Webb’s band and became a national favorite in 1938 with her hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” When Webb died in 1939, she took over the band for three years, then went solo in 1942. She toured with producer Norman Granz’ concert series, “Jazz at the Philharmonic,” starting in 1948. Granz and Fitzgerald broke down racial boundaries by demanding that Fitzgerald be paid the same as her white colleagues for appearances.
Known for her improvisational “scat” style, she became one of the best-selling singers of all time, hitting the Billboard charts numerous times in the 1940s and early ’50s. She rose to greater heights when she signed with the Verve record label in 1956. With Verve, she released a series of more than a dozen “songbooks”-recordings of songs by particular composers-starting with Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, which rose to No. 15 on the charts. Her songbook series included some 250 songs by composers like Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin.
Fitzgerald continued to release hit albums throughout the 1970s and early ’80s. Although circulation problems caused by diabetes slowed her performance schedule later in life, she continued performing into her 70s. Among her many awards were the National Medal of Arts and the Lincoln Center Medallion. She won many Grammies and honorary doctorates. In 1994, her circulation problems led to the amputation of both her legs. She died in 1996.