Ella was born April 25,1917. She was orphaned and actually lived in an orphanage (the Colored Orphan Asylum) at age 15. She then lived at the New York State Training School for Girls, a physically abusive reformatory. She left the reformatory opting instead for being homeless on Harlem streets.
Ella aspired to be a dancer but at age 16 she won the Apollo Theater amateur contest not by dancing but with her voice. She drew the attention and coaching of bandleader Chick Webb who introduced her at The Savoy beginning her professional singing career.
Despite never having received formal vocal training, Ella's technique and range rivaled that of the conservatory trained singer. She had a three-octave vocal range that remained uniform throughout in its clarity and timbre. Her diction was unfailingly crisp, and her phrasing, pitch, intonation and timing was and still is unsurpassed.
Along with her perfect technique, Ella had an improvisational talent on par with that of the best jazz instrumentalists. Her spontaneous, often pyrotechnic scat vocalizations, in fact, were a trademark of her style.
Ella had a distinctive voice: flexible, shaded, bright but with a gritty edge. She brought to jazz singing the glowing bounce of her rhythm and the infectious good cheer of a voice that sounded buoyantly girlish in its natural range.
Ella achieved legendary success in a career that spanned six decades, yielded recordings numbering into the thousands, and earned the singer countless awards including a Kennedy Center Award for her contributions to the performing arts, honorary doctorate degrees from Dartmouth and Yale, and thirteen Grammy Awards.
Ella also gave her style to contemporary songs into the 90's.
Nancy Wilson, a guest performer on the Ella Special, said:
"When I was first starting out I listened to everybody trying to find my own voice. Ella was the best. 55 years later nothing has changed."
As amazing as Ella's musical talents were, equally amazing was the fact that she managed not to fall through the cracks of the segregated child welfare system of the 1930's. A victim of poverty and abuse, Ella was able to transcend circumstance and develop into one of the greatest singers that America produced. Ella died on June 15, 1996 of complications associated with diabetes. She was 79 years old. Despite suffering poor health Ella remained an active performer until 1992.
Youtube has videos of several of Ella's signature songs, Lullaby of Birdland, Mack the Knife, How High the Moon, and one of my favorites, Mr. Paganini.
In college I took a fine arts music class in which one of the artist studied was Niccolò Paganini (October 27, 1782 – May 27, 1840) who was an Italian violinist and composer widely considered to be one of, if not the greatest violinist who ever lived. I immediatly thought of the Ella song my mother played at home. I asked the prof if she had ever heard Ella's song, Mr. Paganini? She actually acted insulted that I would suggest that a jazz singer referred to this great violinist and inferred that I had the name wrong. Of course, I brought in the cut and she not only learned something she enjoyed it.
Thanks absolutely goes to my mom for instilling in me an appreciation for the great jazz performers. I'll always hear her scatting along with Ella.