Ella Fitzgerald

     E lla Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1918 in Newport News, Virginia. As a young girl she and her mother, Tempie, moved to Yonkers in order to be near her mother’s sister, Virginia Williams, and while living in Yonkers lived at 2–4 School Street, at the corner of School Street and Nepperhan Avenue. Ella attended P.S.#18 on Park Hill Avenue and Benjamin Franklin Junior High School, formerly on Waverly Street, where she sang in the glee club. Ella’s mother died when Ella was in her teens and Ella went to live at Leake and Watts Home where she became a skilled typist.


As a teenager Ella Fitzgerald and her friends enjoyed visiting Harlem and standing on corners at Seventh Avenue collecting the autographs of celebrities coming to the night spots. One night she and her two friends drew straws to see who would perform at the amateur hour at the Harlem Opera House. In Ella’s words, the night was the “turning point of my life.” She went out on the stage a tap dancer, sang instead and walked away with a twenty–five dollar first prize. She would have tap danced, but her legs would not move, so thinking of her favorite singer, Connee Boswell, sang two of Connee’s hit songs, “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” As she sang she became more confident, her voice got stronger and the audience loved her.

Ella Fitzgerald added a third song, “Believe It Beloved,” to her repertoire and entered other talent shows in Harlem. She performed at the Lafayette Theater located on 132nd Street and Seventh Avenue and also at the Apollo Theater which had been Hurtig and Seaman’s Music Hall, next door to the Harlem Opera House.

Ella made a name for herself in Harlem and was recommended to Chick Webb, a drummer whose band performed regularly at the Savoy Ballroom, the most popular Harlem nightclub located on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Streets. Chick was not in the market for a girl singer but was persuaded to take her along on an appearance at the Yale University prom, where he auditioned her. At the age of seventeen she was hired and when she wasn’t on the band stand singing at the Savoy, she was dancing with the customers. Chick Webb was a phenomenal drummer who held competitions at the Savoy between his band and the top black and white bands in the country. The night he competed against the Benny Goodman band, Chick ended with a drum solo that left Benny Goodman and his drummer, Gene Krupa, shaking their heads in amazement. Literally, Gene Krupa sat at the feet of Chick Webb at the Savoy and considered Chick “the most luminous of all drum stars, the master.” Ella Fitzgerald and Gene Krupa’s paths crossed in 1939 in Baltimore, at Chick Webb’s funeral, and in the 1950’s when both were part of the touring orchestra, Jazz at the Philharmonic. Ironically during parts of their lifetime, Gene Krupa lived off the east end of Park Hill Avenue on Ritchie Drive and Ella Fitzgerald lived off the west end of Park Hill Avenue on School Street, both Yonkers residents.

Leake and Watts Childrens Home, Hawthorne Ave., 1938

In 1939, at the age of twenty–one, Ella Fitzgerald was listed as the Director of the Webb Band because of her popularity. Just before Chick died Ella and Van Alexander turned a nursery rhyme Ella sang as a child into a song to cheer him up. “A–Tisket, A–Tasket,” the nursery rhyme, turned into a song, sold a million copies by the summer of 1938, was listed as number one on the U.S. Hit Parade for nineteen weeks and was eventually rated the fifth most popular hit of the 1930’s. It also gained Ella a Hall of Fame award, given to artists for outstanding hits before the Grammies began to be awarded in 1958. When announcing the ten top hits of 1940, Esquire magazine listed “Gulf Coast Blues,” recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and her famous orchestra, as Number One.

In 1926 Louis Armstrong was recording the song “Heebie Jeebies” when he dropped the music. Rather than pick up the music and start over again, he began to sing nonsense syllables and thus “scat singing” was born. Scat singing became Ella’s trademark and produced a hit for her in October 1936, “If You Can’t Sing It, You’ll Have To Swing It” or “Paganini.”

In 1942 Ella Fitzgerald became a freelance singer and since then has worked with some of the biggest names in jazz and band leading, names like Armstrong, Basie, Priven, Riddle, the Mills Brothers, Ellington, etc. The same year Billboard magazine surveyed the most popular female band vocalists and Ella ranked seventh, but had ranked second in 1939, third in 1940 and sixth in 1941. In 1943 she became the youngest ever to be admitted to membership in the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

Through the years Ella Fitzgerald has received many distinctions and honors. When ranking all of the recording artists whose careers began prior to 1955, with longest careers on the National Singles Charts, Ella ranked sixteenth for having hits on the charts for twenty–seven years, from 1937 to 1964. She has received twelve Grammy awards, the latest in 1984 for recording “The Best Is Yet To Come” with Nelson Riddle.

The University of Maryland named its auditorium the Ella Fitzgerald Auditorium of the Performing Arts. She has received Doctorates of Human Letters from Dartmouth and Talledega Colleges, and a Doctorate of Music from Howard University.

ASCAP has awarded her its highest award, The Pied Piper Award. President Regan awarded her the Honors Medal at the Kennedy Center in 1987 and the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce awarded her the Will Rogers Memorial Award. The City of of Yonkers is going to place a street sign in her honor at School Street.

—Tom Flynn