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Ella Fitzgerald (Born: 25 April 1917  Died: 15 June 1996)

Ella Jane Fitzgerald had many epithets: First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz and Lady Ella being among them. She was noted for her purity of tone, impeccable diction and phrasing, as well as her skills in improvisation. As the first successful woman in jazz, she paved the way for future female artists and influenced the entire genre, not only in terms of how it sounded but also in how it was performed. Fitzgerald enjoyed her first musical success with the Chick Webb Orchestra performing around the country, and at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.  When Webb died, she took on the role of bandleader but left in 1942 to start a solo career. Materials from Ella Fitzgerald’s long career are considered so important culturally that they are stored in the Archives Centre at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History while her personal musical arrangements are kept in the Library of Congress. Fitzgerald has influenced a diverse range of artists including Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Pat Boone and Cleo Laine. Bing Crosby summed it up, though: “Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest of them all.”

Peggy Lee (Born: 26 May 1920  Died: 22 January 2002)

Peggy Lee was born Norma Delores Egstrom in North Dakota. Lee started out professionally as a singer with Benny Goodman’s big band. She was unusual in that she possessed a cool detached persona that matched her breathy vocals perhaps most evident in her versions of Fever and Mr Wonderful, both featured in this sampler of her work. Frank Sinatra, Elvis Costello and k.d. lang are all fans of Lee’s work. Lang has said: “The subtlety of Peggy’s delivery is what I long for.”

Shirley Bassey (Born: 8 January 1937)

Dame Shirley Veronica Bassey was born in Cardiff and counts Eartha Kitt as her key musical influence. In 1953, Bassey signed her first professional contract, to sing in a touring variety show. In 1955, she was spotted by theatre impresario Jack Hylton who invited her to feature in a West End show in London. During the show’s run, record producer Johnny Franz saw her and offered her a recording contract. Bassey began recording in 1956, when she was 19, but it would be 1959 that would be her breakthrough year, with her singles As I Love You and Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me reaching the top three in the UK pop chart. As I Love You made it all the way to No. 1 and was the first No. 1 single by a Welsh artist. She continued to have hits throughout the sixties and seventies, including three James Bond theme songs. David Bowie counted her as one of his musical influences, as does Paloma Faith. In 2007 during her performance at the Glastonbury Festival, the Arctic Monkey’s sang to her as a tribute.

Aretha Franklin (Born: 25 March 1942)

Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Tennessee and began her singing career with her minister father’s gospel choir in church. In 1960, at the age of 18, Franklin began recording secular songs for Columbia Records but achieved commercial success after signing with Atlantic in 1967. Her recording of Try A Little Tenderness, included here, inspired Otis Reading’s famous hit version of the song. To date, Franklin is ranked as the number one female vocalist with the most Billboard chart hits in the rock era (1955 to 2012), amounting to some 88 songs. She is estimated to be worth in the region of $68 million. She has influenced artists like Kelly Clarkson and Chaka Khan but Franklin herself says – in true Diva style – she can hear her own influence on the likes of Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson.

Etta James (Born: 25 January 1938  Died: 20 January 2012)

Jamesetta Hawkins better known as Etta James, was born in Los Angeles. As a singer, her repertoire was impressive, spanning blues, jazz, gospel, rock and roll, soul and rhythm and blues. Starting her career in 1954,  she established her own girl group, Etta James and the Creolettes, but it was as a solo artist that she achieved her success. Hits included The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry), At Last, and I Just Want To Make Love To You – all featured in this collection. James is regarded as having bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll, and has been hugely influential to many artists including Christina Aguilera, Pink, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, and Diana Ross. Diva in the making, Adele is also influenced by James and said: “She was the first time a voice made me stop what I was doing and sit down and listen. It took over my mind and body.”

Judy Garland (Born: 10 June 1922 Died: 22 June 1969)

Born Frances Ethel Gumm in Minnesota, Judy Garland’s career spanned more than 40 years in which she excelled as a film actress, a recording artist, and as a concert performer. Garland began performing in Vaudeville with her two sisters before being signed to MGM in her teens. Abused and exploited by studio bosses, her early experiences in the film industry would leave her with many scars and demons for the rest of her life. While at MGM she made over twenty films, including The Wizard of Oz (1939). It was in the Wizard Of Oz that Garland sang Over The Rainbow, which is included in this set of songs. Over The Rainbow is regarded as the Song of the Century topping the list at No.1 in the Recording Industry of America’s Song of the Century list. Other classic recordings included here are the sublime The Man Who Got Away from the film A Star Is Born and The Trolley Song from Meet Me In St Louis. Despite her magnificent career success, Garland’s personal life seemed cursed. She had four unsuccessful marriages, suffered severe financial difficulties, hated her physical appearance and battled addictions to drugs and alcohol. She died from a drugs overdose aged 47. Contemporary stars – from Rufus Wainwright to Lady Gaga – still find inspiration in this powerfully fragile Diva’s work.

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