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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

In 1971, the trouble was still there. She broke off a series of concerts in France, flew to the United States with a hemorrhage in one eye and a cataract in the other. Once again, she underwent surgery.

She began wearing thick, horn-rimmed glasses and fretting over how audiences would react to her changed appearance. "They were fine," she said later. "My performance was better because I didn't have to worry about the lights. I was able to look at them (the people) and that's very important to me."

After turning out more than 100 albums and selling more than 25 million records, Ella was named in 1979 as a Kennedy Center Honoree for lifetime achievement in the performing arts, sharing that year's distinction with composer Aaron Copland, actor Henry Fonda, dancer Martha Graham and playwright Tennessee Williams.

She was given numerous Grammys and other awards, and was picked as the top female jazz singer in polls by Metronome and Down Beat magazines in various years.

She also became known to some Americans in the 1970s by virtue of the Memorex recording tape commercials on television, in which her voice--live or recorded, one didn't know which--allegedly could shatter a wine glass. She was fond of telling about her performance for young children in Columbia, S.C., where a television reporter then asked some of the youngsters what they thought of her.

"Some of them had never heard of me, of course," Ella told Feather later. "And one little boy said, 'Well, I liked her singing all right, but she didn't break no glass.' "

For years, Fitzgerald helped retarded children. She also began to show great concern for the victims of child abuse and spent some of her time and money on the Ella Fitzgerald Child Care Center in South-Central Los Angeles.

The funeral will be private. The family requests donations to the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, or any charity the entertainer might have supported, such as the Society of Singers.

Times staff writer Jeff Brazil contributed to this story.

* TRIBUTE TO A LEGEND: Her voice was--and undoubtedly will always be--the very definition of jazz singing. A27

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