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Ella Fitzgerald: 10 Greatest Hits From ‘The First Lady of Song’

From "Dream a Little Dream of Me" to "Summertime," sing along to all the jazz classics!

Affectionately dubbed as “The First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald’s amazing voice thrilled music fans for decades during her impeccable live performances. Even following her death in 1996 at age 79, Ella Fitzgerald songs continue to live on in such hits as “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got that Swing” and “Flying Home.”

A native of Newport News, VA, Fitzgerald first began singing in church. She loved music and was influenced early on by Louis Armstrong, The Boswell Sisters and Bing Crosby. She got her big break at 17 when she competed in one of the earliest Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theater and won first prize by singing “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.”

Fitzgerald began to build her reputation performing with Chick Webb’s Orchestra at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. When Webb died the band was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra and she took over the role of band leader. Fitzgerald and the band signed a deal with Decca Records and also gained fame performing at the Roseland Ballroom, which was broadcast over NBC radio.

Ella Fitzgerald performs with Benny Goodman and his orchestra, 1950s
Ella Fitzgerald performs with Benny Goodman and his orchestra, 1950sGetty

Fitzgerald also performed with the legendary Benny Goodman Orchestra and also fronted Ella Fitzgerald and the Savoy Eight. As the swing era ended and big bands weren’t as in vogue, Fitzgerald reinvented herself and emerged as one of the most acclaimed and inventive jazz artists in America. While working with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, she developed her unique style of scat singing. She once commented, “I just tried to do [with my voice] what I heard the horns in the band doing.”

During her tenure on Verve Records, Fitzgerald reinvented her career by recording Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, thus starting a series of Songbook albums that featured her interpretations of the works of great composers of the day. Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook is among the highlights of the series, and the only Songbook that featured the composer performing on the album with Fitzgerald.

Over the course of her six-decade career, Fitzgerald toured the world and appeared on numerous TV shows. She won 14 Grammy Awards and was a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, the NAACP’s inaugural President’s Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Here we take a look at some of her most memorable recordings.

Ella Fitzgerald songs: Her top 10 greatest hits

1. “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)” (1936)

Written by songwriter Sam Coslow, Fitzgerald recorded this song October 29, 1936 and over the years it became a favorite during her live performances. On a 2007 tribute album, We All Love Ella: Celebrating the First Lady of Song, which recognized Fitzgerald’s 90th birthday, the song was recorded by Chaka Khan and Natalie Cole.

2. “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” (1938)

Based on an old nursery rhyme, Fitzgerald co-wrote this song with Al Feldman and it became her breakthrough hit during her time performing with the Chick Webb Orchestra. The song was a hit during the pre-chart era and was actually listed as No. 1 on Billboard’s sheet music and record buying guide. Over the years, the song was also recorded by Hayley Mills, Bing Crosby and others and was featured in movies and TV shows.

3. “Flying Home” (1945)

Written by Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Sid Robin, “Flying Home” was originally recorded by the Benny Goodman Sextet, but Fitzgerald’s version has become known as one of the most influential vocal jazz records of that era. In 1996 it received a Grammy Hall of Fame award.

4. “Oh, Lady Be Good!” (1947)

Written by George and Ira Gershwin, this song was first heard in  the Broadway musical Lady, Be Good!, but Fitzgerald put her unique stamp on it in 1947 in a memorable recording that featured an impressive scat solo.

5. “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (1950)

This beloved classic was first recorded by Ozzie Nelson and his orchestra in 1931, but when Fitzgerald teamed with her pal vocalist and trumpet player extraordinaire Louis Armstrong, their jazzy rendition captured the public’s ears and has remained a beloved entry in the Great American Songbook.

(Check out the 10 best songs from Great American Songbook honoree Frank Sinatra!)

6. “Anything Goes” (1956)

In her first album for the newly created Verve Records, which was founded by her manager Norman Granz, Fitzgerald recorded a tribute to legendary songwriter Cole Porter. Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook became a hit that expanded her audience beyond just jazz lovers and paved the way for eight albums she recorded, each celebrating a different composer.

7. “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” (1957)

Written by Duke Ellington and Irving Mills, Fitzgerald recorded this song on her landmark album Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook and it’s just one of the Duke’s songs that the First Lady of Song brings to life with her distinctive voice. Fitzgerald won the Grammy for Best Jazz Performance, Individual at the very first Grammy Awards. Ellington and Fitzgerald’s collaboration on this album was the beginning of a long and fruitful musical partnership.

8. “They Can’t Take that Away from Me” (1959)

This George and Ira Gershwin classic was first introduced in the 1937 Fred Astaire film Shall We Dance. Fitzgerald recorded it on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook and it became a fan favorite during her live shows.

9. “Mack the Knife” (1960)

This song has been recorded many times over the years but Fitzgerald’s jazzy version is a stand out. In fact, she won a Grammy for her interpretation of the Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht classic.

(Read here for 15 of the most beloved songs from 20 time Grammy winner Tony Bennett)

10. “Summertime” (1967)

This Ella Fitzgerald song was written by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. Frequent collaborators Fitzgerald and Armstrong first recorded it together for their 1959 album Porgy and Bess. The song became a fan favorite during Fitzgerald’s live shows and always showcased the strength of her voice and the gentle nuances she brought to a lyric.

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