05/15/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
She walks with a cane now and, standing to sing, she leaned on emcee Bill Cosby for support. But when that crystalline voice kissed an old "Honeysuckle Rose," no star in the room—and there were a bunch—could match the ageless magic of Ella Fitzgerald. On the occasion of her 71st birthday, the Queen of Scat was honored by the Society of Singers as the first recipient of a new lifetime achievement award: the Ella. Besides the tribute to Fitzgerald, the L.A. charity benefit, organized by composer Henry Mancini's wife, Ginny, herself a former Big Band singer, helped those for whom the melody has not lingered on. More than $500,000 was raised for singers down on their luck. "Composers get royalties," Ginny explained. "Not singers."
An unprecedented assembly of Big Band stars—including Fran Warren, Helen Forrest, Kitty Kallen and "Liltin' " Martha Tilton—nuzzled up to the Beverly Hilton Hotel mike, some performing for the first time in decades. But the night belonged to Ella. "I'm feeling pretty good," said the guest of honor, who underwent quintuple bypass heart surgery in 1986. Though she had spent her actual birthday, three days earlier, sitting at home, there were so many well-wishers, "I couldn't get off the phone." The night after collecting her award she was back where she belongs—behind a microphone—and singing her heart out for an audience of students at UCLA.