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Ella Fitzgerald, Jazz's First Lady of Song, Dies

Music: The shy entertainer with flawless talent held spotlight for decades until struck by ailments. She was 78.

June 16, 1996|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ella Fitzgerald, known to jazz lovers throughout the world as the First Lady of Song, died Saturday at her Beverly Hills home. She was 78.

The cause of death was not released, but Fitzgerald had suffered from heart disease and diabetes for many years. She was surrounded by family and friends as she passed away about 2:30 a.m., said her son Ray Brown, Jr.

Shy and never self-assured despite the flawless talent she possessed through a half-century career, Fitzgerald often asked anxiously as she left the stage, "Did I do all right?"

Millions affirmed that she had. She was one of the rare entertainers whose first name was sufficient identity for fans around the world.

"Male or female, she was the greatest singer on the planet," said singer Mel Torme, a longtime friend. "She was so unique, so original, no one can fill her shoes."

Tony Bennett agreed. "She was my favorite singer," he said Saturday. "Her recordings will live forever. She'll sound as modern 200 years from now, no matter what technique they come up with."

One of the most enduring assessments of Fitzgerald was rendered after the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival by the late L.A. Times jazz critic Leonard Feather:

"If there was one artist whose work stood tall among all these giants, it was Ella Fitzgerald. Never had there been a more moving example of the spirit, beauty, beat and total vocal control of which a jazz singer is capable. Ella can do anything to a melody except damage."

Special tribute was paid Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl, where the Playboy Jazz Festival got underway. The marquee at the entry to the bowl was emblazoned with the words, "Ella We Will Miss You." And Bill Cosby, the master of ceremonies, called for a moment of silence to honor her memory.

Fitzgerald's innate jazz sense, her range and the purity of her tone filled her Beverly Hills home with trophies, awards and the autographed photographs of famous people who admired her--as she admired them in return.

She remained in the jazz spotlight for more than half a century even though her health eventually began to let her down. First, it was her eyes, then breathing problems. She was hospitalized in August 1985 in Washington for treatment of a respiratory ailment, emerging slimmed down and with less certainty in her voice. She was hospitalized in Niagara Falls, N.Y., after a July 1986 concert, for what was diagnosed as congestive heart failure. In 1993, diabetes forced amputation of her legs below the knee.

She endured cataract surgery at least twice to overcome the potential blindness exacerbated by the glare of stage lights and by the intense schedule of concerts that occasionally threatened to tear her apart. In a 1965 interview she recalled what happened to her after doing two concerts a night for several weeks without a break:

"In Munich," she said, "I just went berserk. My drummer had to grab me and take me off. The people guessed something was wrong. But they applauded and wouldn't leave the hall."

After calming down a bit, Ella returned to the stage and sang some more.

The trouble, noted the London Sunday Time writer who got that interview, was that "Ella needs her audience almost as much as they adore her."

The writer quoted the singer as saying, "I love it when those people come up on the stage and kiss me."

Fitzgerald had been known well enough to jazz fans for two decades, but it was not until the mid-1950s, when promoter Norman Granz began to manage her career, that she was a truly popular success, recording on Granz's Verve label a series of highly commercial albums beginning with "The Cole Porter Song Book."

She called that album "the turning point of my life," even though she once admitted that her reaction when Granz suggested it was 'My God, this man is trying to get me out of show business.' "

But after her career was revitalized by the Songbook albums--Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and Harold Arlen--Ella recognized that Granz had known what he was talking about.

Before that, she had developed into a superb scat singer and had taken to the bop style almost exclusively until "it got to the point where I had no place to sing."

She eventually seemed able to please all her listeners. A typical performance would include works from several decades and styles--swing, bop, bossa nova, soul and Broadway show music--as well as composers ranging from Duke Ellington to Burt Bacharach.

"I've heard music critics say I'm not a jazz singer anymore," she said a few years after she came under Granz's guidance. "But we all try to grow and improve. What is jazz, anyhow? I don't know. To me, jazz is music."

She added then, "Anyway . . . I've changed. I sing what the public likes. . . . I try to do a little bit of everything. You get a wonderful release. Even rock 'n' roll. Hillbilly music. Anything, if it's played well."

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