Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the 96th birthday of Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996), one of the most popular jazz singers in America who was known as the “First Lady of Song” and the “Queen of Jazz.”
Born in Newport News, Virginia, she was raised in Yonkers, New York, but ran away from home to escape her abusive stepfather after her mother died. To get by, she would sing and dance on the streets of Harlem and warn prostitutes when police were nearby. She got her big break at the age of 16, when she won an amateur night at the Apollo Theater in 1934. That’s when jazz drummer Chick Webb decided to take her under his wing, and she started singing in his Big Band.
Between 1956-1964, she recorded unforgettable covers of songs by “Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart,” according to her official website. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan awarded Fitzgerald the National Medal of Arts.
As TIME described Fitzgerald’s singing in a Nov. 27, 1964, profile:
Her incredible improvising runs are effortless. She can take off from a melody, go over it, around it, through it, under it, moving at twice the speed of nine-to-five Man, tossing in casual doodies in the abstract expressionism of sound. When other singers’ jugulars would be bulging, Ella isn’t even panting. She seems to breathe through her ears. Her range goes from lower owl to upper sparrow. Her voice sounds all of 20 years old. Her manner, for all her speed, is soothing. Just when you think she might be turning into Bonnie Baker, however, she kicks the lid off and begins to scat: ‘Scoodee-oo-da-do-dee-uba-ty-ty-ta-roo.’
She is the chair professor of the art of scat singing, wherein a singer abandons comprehensible lyrics in the middle of a song, and she can scoodee-oo-da for 800 bars without running out of fresh gibberish.
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Although perhaps she summed up her own style best: “I sing how I feel.”
She married and divorced twice — first to shipyard worker Benny Kornegay and then to jazz bassist Ray Brown. The legendary vocalist performed up until 1992, when diabetes took an irreparable toll on her body, and her legs had to be amputated below the knees in 1993. On June 15, 1996, she died at 78 at her home in Beverly Hills.
Here are a few of her best covers:
“A-Tisket, A-Tasket” — she recorded this take on the classic nursery rhyme in 1938, and it went on to sell more than a million copies and hit number one for 17 weeks.
“Dream a Little Dream of Me” with Louis Armstrong
Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”