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Ella Fitzgerald dies at age 78

Ella Fitzgerald

'First Lady of Song' passes peacefully, surrounded by family

June 15, 1996
Web posted at: 1:00 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Jim Moret

BEVERLY HILLS, California (CNN) -- Singer Ella Fitzgerald died early Saturday, surrounded by family and friends in her home. She was 78.

A spokeswoman did not reveal the cause of death, but "the First Lady of Song" had suffered from complications of diabetes for years.

Link to special tribute section

"She passed away during the night," attorney Richard Rosman said. "Her fans will remember her and love her. That's what's important."

From Harlem to Hamburg, Fitzgerald thrilled her audiences with a crystal clear voice, gliding effortlessly from low notes to high, from be-bop to ballads.

Fitzgerald performing

Born in Virginia and raised in New York, Fitzgerald began her professional career at the age of 16. She intended to dance at amateur night at the Harlem Opera House, but she lost her nerve when she got on stage.

"The man said, 'do something while you're out there,' the singer later recalled. "So I tried to sing 'Object of My Affection' and 'Judy,' and I won first prize."

For the victory, Fitzgerald took home $25, and soon signed with Chick Webb and his band, shooting to fame in 1938 with "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."

While jamming with Dizzy Gillespie, the singer was encouraged to improvise.

"I just tried to do what I heard the horns in the band doing," she said -- and playing with words and musical notes, "scat" singing became her signature. (156K AIFF or WAV sound)

Over the years, Fitzgerald won dozens of awards. She dominated the early Grammy ceremonies, winning best female vocal performance three years in a row. In all, she won 13 Grammy awards -- more than any other jazz musician.

But she maintained always an aura of graciousness -- she was at a loss for words when the Society of Singers named an award after her.

"I don't want to say the wrong thing, which I always do," she said. "I think I do better when I sing."

Friends did the talking for her at her many tributes.

"Women like Ella make you feel things that you didn't know were missing in your life," said singer Melissa Manchester.


And Dionne Warwick said Fitzgerald "made the mark for all female singers, especially black female singers, in our industry."

"She is our treasure," said Lena Horne. "We're proud of her. We love her."

Composer Quincy Jones said that Fitzgerald was a major influence not only on his career, but on American music. (194K AIFF or WAV sound)

In her later years, diabetes took a toll on Fitzgerald's life. In 1993, her legs were amputated as a result of the disease. But recent compilations of her work on compact discs have introduced her trademark sound to a whole new generation of listeners.

"Coming through the years, and finding that I not only have just the fans of my day, but the young ones of today -- that's what it means," she once said. "It means it was worth all of it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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