Born in Virginia in 1917, she was raised in Yonkers. At 17 she won a contest at the Apollo Theatre which launched her career. Saxophonist Benny Carter and bandleader Chick Webb were both instrumental in helping her establish her career. She would tour with Webb until his death, and then took over as bandleader.
In 1938, at the age of 21, Ella recorded a playful version of the nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” The album sold 1 million copies, hit number one, and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks.
She later toured with Dizzy Gillespie’s band and there met Ray Brown. The two would marry and adopt a son, Ray Jr. Though they divorced in 1952, they remained friends.
In the late 1940s through the 1960s, Ella joined the Philharmonic tour, worked with Louis Armstrong on several albums and began producing her songbook series. From 1956-1964, she recorded covers of other musicians’ albums, including those by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart.
As she moved into the 1970s, Ella kept performing. She also started receiving honors and honorary degrees. She was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1979. In 1987, President Reagan bestowed upon her the National Medal of the Arts. Her final concert was in 1991 at Carnegie Hall. She died in June 1996 in California.