Still the best-known and most universally revered of the black female jazz singers, for more than half a century Ella inspired the great popular songsmiths of Tin Pan Alley to write for her. Others, already more established, were proud to have their songs revived by her talent, notably Gershwin who reputedly confessed he never found his own songs outstanding until Ella sang them. Elegant, yet spontaneous and improvisational in performance, she befitted the classification of jazz-singer to perfection, although viewing herself in the much broader role of "singer of popular songs" she predictably demurred whenever so restricting a label was applied to her.
Ella was born Ella Jane Fitzgerald in Newport News City, Warwick County, Virginia on 25th April, 1917. During her early childhood her father William, a truck-driver, abandoned her and her siblings to the devices of their laundress mother Tempie. Despite poverty and hardship, however, the outgoing Ella sang in her schools glee club and in the Bethany African Methodist Episcopal Church Choir, quickly learned piano and listened avidly to the radio where she heard and studied all the latest records by her hero Louis Armstrong and the Boswell Sisters. In 1932 Tempie died suddenly from a heart-attack and Ella was assigned to the care of her aunt in New York. There, the rebellious and impressionable teenager proved impossible to manage and was remanded to the New York State Training School, a kind of girls reformatory, in Yonkers.
By 1934, however, already aspiring to a career in show-business, Ella quit the school and began to haunt the Black Broadway zone around 7th Avenue. After attempting various talent contests, she won first prize in a Radio WMCA competition. The prize, non-monetary, consisted of air-time and a stage début at Harlems Apollo Theatre on 253 West 125th Street. Her backing orchestra on that auspicious occasion was led by Benny Carter (b.1907) who, impressed by Ellas talent recommended her to his former boss Fletcher Henderson to no avail. Ella, meanwhile, had won a prize in another Apollo contest: $25 expenses plus a weeks work with the band of drummer-vocalist Tiny Bradshaw (1905-1958) at the Harlem Opera House. Her appearances there caused a stir and at last earned her true recognition and an introduction to bandleader Chick Webb (1910-1939).
The Baltimore-born drummer and songwriter Webb had fronted his own bands in New York from 1926, notably at the Black Bottom and Paddock Clubs and from 1929 until his premature death from tuberculosis was resident conductor at the Savoy Ballroom.
In spite of the ill-health which plagued the last years of his short life, he also appeared regularly in variety in both Boston and New York where his was the first black outfit to play at the Central Park Hotel. His first records (1931, for Brunswick) were followed by further sessions, from December 1933, for Columbia. Signed by Decca in July 1934, Webb made his radio début later that year and in 1935 was contracted by Radio WJZ and also broadcast on Radio City and Moe Gales NBC Good Time Society programme.
Effectively "adopted" by Webb and his wife, Ella shared credits with Charles Linton and ad hoc guest vocalists and by June 1935 had cut her first discs with the Webb band. Their first US hit, "Sing Me A Swing Song", charted at No.18 in July 1936. Ella, meanwhile, had been freelancing and recording elsewhere (notably with the Mills Brothers and pianist Teddy Wilson) and, early in 1937, while Webb was out on tour, she also appeared with saxophonist Teddy Hill (1909-1978) at the Savoy. Returning to Webb in March, she went on to record further hits with him, including Jack Lawrences All Over Nothing At All and Sam Coslows (If You Cant Sing It) Youll Have To Swing It (Mr. Paganini) (both US No.20s).
The following year they cut their first No.1 "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" (this charted for 19 consecutive weeks) and its sequel I Found My Yellow Basket (US No.3). Other Webb and Ellas hits during 1938 included Rock It For Me (at No.19), I Got A Guy (at No.18), "MacPherson Is Rehearsin To Swing" (at No.14) and Wacky Dust (at No.13) and in 1939, the year of Webbs premature demise, apart from Undecided (which clocked in at No.8) their list featured Taint What You Do (Its The Way That You Do It) (at No.19) and another Fitzgerald (words) Webb (music) novelty entitled Chew Chew Chew Chew (Your Bubble Gum) at No.14.