Remembering Ella Fitzgerald, Who Made Great Songs Greater On her 100th birthday, Tony Bennett, Cécile McLorin Salvant and others pay tribute to the woman whose voice and vivacity redefined the Great American Songbook.

Remembering Ella Fitzgerald, Who Made Great Songs Greater

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Ella Fitzgerald was one of the most beloved and versatile singers of the 20th century. In a career that spanned six decades, she recorded hundreds of songs, including definitive versions of many standards. Ella Fitzgerald would have turned 100 years old today. Tom Vitale has this tribute to the First Lady of Song.


ELLA FITZGERALD: (Vocalizing).

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: That voice, it's the first thing that strikes you about Ella Fitzgerald.


FITZGERALD: (Singing) Blue skies, smiling at me. Nothing but blue skies do I see.

CECILE MCLORIN SALVANT: When you hear the tone of her voice, which has kind of a brightness, it has a breathiness, but it also has this really great depth and kind of a laser-like really clear quality to it. It hits you.

VITALE: Twenty-seven-year-old Cecile McLorin Salvant won a Grammy last year for best jazz vocal album. Salvant says she learned to sing standards by listening to Fitzgerald sing them.

SALVANT: I remember being 17 and living in France and feeling really homesick, wanting to go back to Miami and listening to Ella Fitzgerald singing "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," and I would listen to that all day, all day for, like, weeks. And it felt - it created a home for me.


FITZGERALD: (Singing) Once I was young, yesterday perhaps, danced with Jim and Paul and kissed some other chaps. Once I was young, but never was naive. I thought I had a trick or two up my imaginary sleeve. And now I know I was naive.

VITALE: Fitzgerald had perfect pitch, impeccable diction and a remarkable sense of rhythm. And it all came naturally to her, as she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1974.


FITZGERALD: What I sing is only what I feel. I had some lady ask me the other day about music lessons, and I've never, except what I had to learn from my half-credit in school, you know - I've never given it a thought. I never have taken breathing lessons. I had to go for myself, and that's how, I guess, I got a style.

VITALE: Fitzgerald's style was an immediate hit. She was discovered at an amateur contest and began her professional career when she was only 16, singing with the Chick Webb orchestra at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. When she was 21, she became internationally famous with a hit record based on a nursery rhyme.


FITZGERALD: (Singing) A-tisket, a-tasket, I lost my yellow basket. Won't someone help me find my basket and make me happy again - again?

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Was it green?

FITZGERALD: (Singing) No, no, no, no.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Was it red?

FITZGERALD: (Singing) No, no, no, no.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Was it blue?

FITZGERALD: (Singing) No, no, no, no. Just a little yellow basket.

TONY BENNETT: She was a complete swinger. She just understood the whole art of jazz phrasing.

VITALE: Tony Bennett says when he was starting out as a young singer, Ella Fitzgerald was his idol. Now he's 90 years old, and she's still his idol. Bennett painted a portrait of Fitzgerald singing that hangs in the Smithsonian. He says Ella was the quintessential performer.

BENNETT: She loved performing. She loved it. And the audience knew it right away, you know? Just the minute she walked out on that stage, they knew that she was ready to give them the best she could ever imagine for them. She couldn't wait to get on that stage and hit the back of the house and have them react to her right away.


FITZGERALD: (Singing) Grab your coat and get your hat.


FITZGERALD: (Singing) Leave your worries on the doorstep. Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street. Can't you hear the pitter-patter? And that happy tune is your step 'cause life could be so sweet on a sunny side of the street.

VITALE: In the 1940s, Fitzgerald took part in late-night Harlem jam sessions with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie that gave rise to a new type of jazz. She embraced bebop scat singing, using her voice like a horn, says Tony Bennett.

BENNETT: She knew how to improvise better than anybody I ever listened to. She was able - just like an instrumentalist would take a jazz solo, she would do that vocally, and it would be perfection.


FITZGERALD: (Scat singing).

VITALE: Ella Fitzgerald toured and recorded constantly, producing one hit record after another. Music publishers wanted her to be the first to record their new songs. And she became known as the First Lady of Song.

In the 1950s, Fitzgerald embarked on an ambitious recording project, eight albums of standards written by prominent American composers, including Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern and George and Ira Gershwin.


FITZGERALD: (Singing) Summertime and the living is easy. Fish are jumping, and the cotton is high.

VITALE: Many of Fitzgerald's recordings of the musical canon known as "The Great American Songbook" are considered definitive versions. Ira Gershwin once said, I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them. Director emeritus of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, Dan Morgenstern, says this is what Fitzgerald will be remembered for.

DAN MORGENSTERN: She could take a great song and make it even greater. She had a wonderful sense of melody. She had that beautiful voice. She had that perfect intonation, and she put so much feeling into what she did.


FITZGERALD: (Singing) I want something to live for.

VITALE: Ella Fitzgerald lived for her career, and her personal life suffered. She fell in love with good-looking, younger men who turned out to be scam artists. Her marriage to bebop bass player Ray Brown lasted only six years. She was insecure and nervous before performances. She cried if she got a bad review, and she was overweight, says Cecile McLorin Salvant.

SALVANT: She was not a sex symbol. I'm sure she would have enjoyed being a sex symbol, maybe. But she wasn't, and yet she was very successful. It's a testament to both the audience and, most of all, her artistry. And we're not even talking about racism, that a black woman could be so popular across the board with both black and white audiences is - that's a beautiful thing.

VITALE: Ella Fitzgerald sold 40 million records in her lifetime. She died in 1996 from complications caused by diabetes. She was 79 years old.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.


FITZGERALD: (Singing) Sweet, lovely lady, be good. Oh, lady, be good to me 'cause I'm so awfully misunderstood. Oh, lady, oh, lady, oh, lady, be good to me. See I'm all alone in this big city of New York. Won't...

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.