Elizabeth Welch

[b.1904 – d.2003]

As a member of her church choir she found herself drawn into musical theatre and throughout the 1920s appeared in a succession of Black Broadway shows at the height of the jazz age. In 1923 she was pulled out of the choir to sing ‘Charleston’ in Runnin’ Wild, thus launching the famous dance craze. In 1929 the hit Broadway revue Blackbirds, starring Adelaide Hall, took her to Paris, where the show Blackbirds became a hit at the Moulin Rouge.

In Paris, Welch launched her cabaret career. In 1931 she was asked to replace the singer of Cole Porter’s ‘Love for Sale’ in the Broadway revue The New Yorkers. Porter then cast her in Nymph Errant, the show that brought her to London in 1933. Welch stopped the show with ‘Solomon’, and made London her home. That same year she introduced ‘Stormy Weather’ to Britain. Other career highlights of the 1930s included seasons at the London Palladium and Café de Paris; a role in Ivor Novello’s Glamorous Night at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane; her own series on BBC radio, Soft Lights and Sweet Music; and co-starring roles in films with Paul Robeson. She recalled: ‘Paul tried to persuade me to do something for our people. I had to answer. I’m of mixed blood—African, American Indian, Scots, and Irish. So I said: “Paul, I belong to four peoples! I can’t make a stand for all of them. You must excuse me!”’

When the Second World War broke out, Welch stayed in London. In addition to stage, film and radio work, she entertained the troops at army and Royal Air Force camps all over the country. In 1942 she travelled to Gibraltar to entertain the forces with an all-star company that included John Gielgud, Edith Evans, and Beatrice Lillie. After the war, Welch reigned supreme in London’s West End in revues: Tuppence Coloured (1947); Oranges and Lemons (1949); and Penny Plain (1951). Other post-war West End triumphs included the musicals The Crooked Mile (1959), Cindy-Ella (1962) with Cleo Laine, Pippin (1973), and a revival of Cindy-Ella in 1976 with Linda Lewis. In 1964 The Rise and Fall of Nellie Brown, an enchanting television musical, specially created for her, teamed her with the Jamaican chart-topper Millie Small. In 1970 she began a long succession of one-woman shows with A Marvellous Party at the Hampstead Theatre Club, which continued into the 1990s. When she appeared as a Goddess in Derek Jarman’s imaginative 1979 screen version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – singing ‘Stormy Weather’ to a group of handsome young sailors – the writer and jazz singer George Melly described it as ‘arguably the campest, most sparkling moment in the history of cinema’.

In 1985 Welch won rave reviews and a nomination for a Laurence Olivier Award for her performance in the revue Jerome Goes to Hollywood, a celebration of the work of the composer Jerome Kern, at the Donmar Warehouse. She received more praise from the critics, as well as a Tony nomination, when the renamed Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood transferred to Broadway in 1986. Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times: ‘We must write letters to our Congressmen demanding that Elisabeth Welch be detained in the United States forthwith as a national resource too rare and precious for export.’

In 1987 a documentary film, Keeping Love Alive, captured her live performance at London’s Almeida Theatre. Perhaps the crowning achievement of her long and illustrious career was the 1992 all-star tribute concert, A Time to Start Living: A Celebration of the Great Elisabeth Welch, a World AIDS Day gala in her honour, at the Lyric Theatre, featuring the cream of British show business. Welch made her final professional appearance in 1996, in the Channel 4 television documentary Black Divas, singing ‘Stormy Weather’ publicly for the last time. By the time she made this appearance, Welch had retired and, when a journalist inquired about the singing technique she had sustained for over eighty years, her simple, direct reply was: ‘I have no technique. No art, no training. Nothing! Just myself. I describe myself as a singer of popular songs.’ Welch died at the age of 99yrs in 2003 at Denville Hall, the retirement home for actors and entertainers, in Northwood, London, where she had lived since 1995.

‘Elisabeth Welch: Soft Lights and Sweet Music’ by Stephen Bourne

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