This Day In History: May 4

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Called the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald becomes the first Black woman to win a Grammy at the Recording Academy’s inaugural awards show on May 4, 1959.

During the event at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, Fitzgerald took home two of 28 awards for best jazz and female vocal performances. “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book” bested performances by Doris Day, Eydie Gorme, Peggy Lee and Keely Smith for best female vocal performance. In contrast “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book” won for jazz performance.

That year, Count Basie became the first Black man to win a Grammy, also taking home two awards, for best jazz group performance and best performance by a dance band.

Born on April 25, 1917, Fitzgerald’s first stage performance was at the Apollo Theater in 1934, when she won first prize in an amateur singing competition. A year later, her song “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” became a hit and her career soared. Over the course of her career, Fitzgerald sold more than 40 million albums, won 13 Grammys (and was the first woman to receive the Grammy’s lifetime achievement award in 1967), received the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award in 1979, and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992. She died in 1996 at the age of 79.

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