The Jazz Singer
07/01/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
MUSIC LOVERS GATHERED FOR THE PLAYBOY JAZZ Festival on June 15 at the Hollywood Bowl didn't know it, but they had come together for a moment of tribute. Before the show could begin, the news began filtering through the crowd: After six decades, the reign of First Lady of Song Ella Fitzgerald had come to an end. Emcee Bill Cosby requested a moment of silence, musicians revised their sets, fans wept, and the Bowl's marquee announced simply, "Ella, we will miss you."
As will the world. Long before Fitzgerald died of complications from diabetes at 79, she had elevated jazz riffs and classic American standards into an international art form. "She established a style that spread like a forest blaze," says author Norma Miller, 76, who performed with Fitzgerald at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom when both were teenagers. If, as Miller says, "Frank Sinatra was the epitome of the male American singer," then Ella, she adds, "was the female side." Sinatra himself recalls that "Ella was a sweet, shy girl when we met, and she never lost that innocence." Backstage the shy girl loved playing hearts; at home she was addicted to TV soaps and enjoyed being surrounded by her family. Married twice—first, briefly, in the early '40s, and then, from 1947 to 1953, to bassist Ray Brown—Fitzgerald adopted her half sister's son in the late '40s and named him Ray Jr.
Her nature was as sweet and as all-embracing as her three-octave voice. Onstage, and in the studio, Fitzgerald "sang every song as if it were the first time," says Rosemary Clooney. "She was the last of the first team," composer-producer Quincy Jones told PEOPLE. "I'm talking about Ellington, Basie, the ones who invented this music."
Born in Newport News, Va. (her parents' common-law marriage dissolved before her first birthday), Fitzgerald grew up with her mother in Yonkers, N.Y., and found her calling by mimicking singer Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. Winning a 1934 amateur contest at the Apollo quickly led the unglamorous teen with the silvery voice to a job singing with Chick Webb's big band and, by age 20, to stardom. Her first hit: 1938's "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."
"She knew the essence of jazz," Tony Bennett says. "It was in her bones." Among the high points were her 1947 bebop rendition of "Lady Be Good," and her Songbook anthologies of Porter, Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart. After a final 1994 performance in West Palm Beach, she lost ground to the diabetes that had impaired her circulation (her legs were amputated below the knee in 1993) and nearly blinded her. Suffering a stroke two weeks ago, the singer died in her sleep at her 13-room Beverly Hills house, which she shared with Ray Jr., himself a musician, and his wife, Margaret.
"Ella never complained," says Mel Tormé. Her joy was in finding the new: Just a few years ago she confided to Quincy Jones that she "always wanted to be a rapper." And though her death leaves "a big hole in the 20th century," says Jones, "people like her never go away because they leave too much here. That sound—it engulfs the planet."