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Ella Fitzgerald, woman of letters

The late singer is being honored with a new postage stamp in the Black Heritage series.

January 10, 2007|Randolph E. Schmid | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Ella Fitzgerald, the first lady of song, is being honored on a new postage stamp.

The 39-cent stamp will be released today at ceremonies at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and will be on sale across the country. It's the 30th stamp in the U.S. Postal Service's Black Heritage series.

"She would be very honored, very pleased and a little surprised," said Ray Brown Jr., Fitzgerald's son. "She didn't go through life expecting all the accolades that she got. She was just happy to do her thing and be the best that she could be."

People who don't know about her will see the stamp and think: "What makes this person special? And perhaps find out about the person and about the music," he added.

Phoebe Jacobs, executive vice president of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation and a longtime friend of Fitzgerald, described the singer as "a very private lady, very humble."

Recalling meeting Fitzgerald for coffee at an Automat in 1954, Jacobs said: "She was a star right then, but she was not comfortable thinking of herself as a celebrity."

After Fitzgerald confided in 1961 that she had never had a birthday party, Jacobs was able to gather a star-studded collection of people for the special event.

The party was a secret, so Fitzgerald was told to dress up because there was a television interview.

"When the lights came on she took her pocketbook and hit me on the shoulder," Jacobs recalled. "She was like a little kid, she was so happy."

Fitzgerald was a baseball fan, and the guests included her favorite player, Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle. They embraced and traded autographs.

Fitzgerald's appearance on a stamp comes less than a year after Mantle was featured among baseball sluggers.

Fitzgerald was never one to stand on formality, Jacobs said. Once the two pulled on raincoats over their pajamas, piled into Fitzgerald's Rolls-Royce and went to breakfast at a McDonald's.

In addition to a passion for baseball, Fitzgerald loved watching soap operas and collected cookbooks, Jacobs said. While she didn't actually cook much, she felt you could learn a lot about people through what they ate.

Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Va., in 1917, and moved with her mother to Yonkers, N.Y., as a youngster. She began to sing and dance at an early age and won talent competitions in the early 1930s, when she was hired to sing with Chick Webb's band.

They scored a No. 1 hit in 1938 with "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," a novelty song Fitzgerald co-wrote with Van Alexander based on a child's rope-skipping rhyme.

She later became famous as a scat singer, vocalizing nonsense syllables, and performed with most of the great musicians of the time.

She recorded the songbooks of such composers as Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart and Johnny Mercer.

Over the years, Fitzgerald won 13 Grammy Awards and many other honors, including the National Medal of Arts, presented to her in 1987 by President Reagan. She was one of five artists awarded Kennedy Center Honors in 1979. In 1989, the Society of Singers created an award for lifetime achievement, called it the "Ella" and made her its first recipient. In 2005, Jazz at Lincoln Center inducted Fitzgerald into its Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame.

Fitzgerald, who died in 1996, also is remembered for her "Is it live or is it Memorex?" commercials of the early 1970s, in which she sang a high note to break a wine glass.

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