Elisabeth Welch Biography
Father Walked Out on Family, Moved to London, Still Brought Down the House, Selected works
Elisabeth Welch enjoyed a long and esteemed career as a cabaret singer and London stage star over several decades of the mid-twentieth century. A New York City native, Welch had her earliest successes in the all-black musical revues on Broadway in the 1920s. After a hiatus of nearly fifty years, she returned to perform in her hometown in a 1980 jazz festival tribute to that earlier era. Later that decade, she had a one-woman show in New York, but retired to London once again, where she died in 2003 at the age of 99. "She belonged to an elite group of singers who gave definitive shape to the works of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Noel Coward, and the other songwriters of the golden age," asserted the writer of her Daily Telegraph obituary. "Her style was poised, her voice mellow and dignified. … Her art was classic."
For many years, Welch gave her birthdate as February 27, 1908, but her brother later revealed she was actually born in 1904. She was born at home near 63rd St. and Amsterdam Avenue, in an area of Manhattan known as San Juan Hill at the time and later cleared to make way for the performing-arts landmark of Lincoln Center. Her mother, Elizabeth, was from Edinburgh, Scotland, and of mixed Scottish and Irish ancestry. Welch's father, John, was part African American and part Native American, with roots going back to the Lenape tribe in Delaware. Several years older than Welch's mother, John Welch worked as a gardener on an estate in Englewood, New Jersey, where he met his future wife when she came from Scotland to work as an aide to the family's nanny. The couple would have three children in all, with one of Welch's brothers also proving musically inclined and becoming a classical musician as an adult.
Though her mother often played records from such popular Scottish crooners of the day as Harry Lauder and Will Fyffe, Welch was also the daughter of a strict Baptist father, who disapproved even of her habit of whistling. He did have a taste for the musicals of Gilbert and Sullivan, and it was in a production of their classic HMS Pinafore that Welch made her stage debut at the age of eight. As a youngster, she attended Public School 69, and sang in the choir of St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church, where her booming notes earned her the tag, "the loud alto." Her mixed-race heritage seemed to present few challenges for her during World War I-era New York City, and she later noted there were many other such families in her neighborhood. She attended Julia Richards High School and planned to become a social worker, but was cast in a 1921-22 musical titled Liza, with a score by Maceo Pinkard, who had a later hit with "Sweet Georgia Brown." In the show, which ran for five months, Welch debuted the Charleston—a massive dance craze later that decade-before New York audiences, but Liza closed in April of 1922 and the fad failed to catch on at the time.
Father Walked Out on Family
When Welch's father learned of her new job, he strenuously objected, especially when he realized that his wife had known of it and kept it from him. Using the nickname for their daughter, as well as the slang term for dancing on the stage, he reportedly exclaimed, "'Girlie's on the boards. She's lost!'" Welch's Times of London obituary reported, for a stage career was considered somewhat disreputable for a young woman of the era. Her father abandoned his family not long afterward. Welch held herself personally responsible for the loss, once telling an interviewer, "He associated show business with low life, and he thought I would become a whore," according to the Daily Telegraph. She made the financial support of her mother a priority for many years thereafter.
Liza was part of a new wave of black-oriented musicals to hit Broadway, spurred by the success of Shuffle Along in 1921, the creation of ragtime pianist Eubie Blake and a musical that featured Broadway's first all-black cast. Welch found work in another early black Broadway show, Runnin' Wild, as a chorus dancer in 1923, and this one also featured the Charleston dance. She was also tapped to sing the accompanying tune, "The Charleston," which she later dismissed as a throwaway composed merely to help popularize the dance, which it did. She went on to appear in another Eubie Blake show, Chocolate Dandies, in 1924, alongside Josephine Baker.
Still in school for her social-worker's certification, Welch abandoned that plan altogether when she was cast in the revue Blackbirds of 1928, a tremendous success on Broadway and one in which she earned good reviews for her bit in a comedy sketch. The show went on to Paris in 1929, and Welch went with it. She stayed in the Montmartre section, the less-affluent artists' quarter of the city, and found singing jobs in nightclubs there. She returned to New York City in 1930 when she was invited to open a new nightclub, the Royal Box, as its headliner.
For her repertoire, Welch included a new song from sophisticated hit songwriter Cole Porter, "Love for Sale." The tune had been written for a Broadway revue, The New Yorkers, and its veiled reference to the world's oldest profession caused it to be banned from radio airplay for a number of years. Not surprisingly, The New Yorkers caused somewhat of a scandal when it opened on Broadway, for the young blonde actress who performed that song was dressed as a schoolgirl and sang it on a set built to resemble Park Avenue. The conservative newspaper columnists had a field day, and Porter was so miffed by the puritanical hysteria that he left the country. But the show's producers knew that Welch also sang the song in her nightclub routine, and offered her the chance to do double-duty and sing it in The New Yorkers. The stage props were changed to look like Harlem, with Welch dressed in a more soignée costume, and her performance regularly brought down the house during her run in the first months of 1931.
Moved to London
Porter invited Welch to England to appear in a London show, Dark Doings, which marked her London stage debut. In this one, she sang another showstopper, "Stormy Weather," from songwriter Harold Arlen, who would later pen "Somewhere over the Rainbow," the theme song to The Wizard of Oz. Dark Doings ran in London during the summer of 1933, during an unusual London heat wave that served to boost the haunting song's popularity. For Welch, Porter wrote the song "Solomon" specifically for her, and she sang it in his Nymph Errant onstage in a Turkish harem setting during the show's 1933 run. "It is a blackly humorous piece with a tortuously difficult line," noted Welch's Daily Telegraph obituary writer. "No one ever sang it better, and it was firmly associated with her for the rest of her life."
Welch's star continued to rise in London, and in 1934 she shared billing alongside scat singer Cab Calloway and his band in an engagement at the London Palladium. Another leading figure of the London musical stage was Ivan Novello, and he penned "Shanty Town" for Welch, which she sang in his new musical, Glamorous Night, in the spring of 1935. She also had a regular radio engagement by then as well, and began taking roles in British films, beginning with Murder at Broadcasting House in 1934. She also appeared with noted actor Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom, from 1937 and 1938's Big Fella, both of which were also British-made movies. She and Robeson "broke new ground for black actors, who hitherto had been cast for the most part as comic servants," noted her Daily Telegraph obituary, which had been done "to please distributors in the southern states who threatened to boycott anything featuring a black person in a non-servile role."
Welch went on to make a few more films in England, but was usually cast as the featured cabaret act. She stayed in England and entertained British troops during World War II on wartime-service missions with a roster of top British stars. After the war's end, she appeared in several more London stage musicals, scoring another hit with her interpretation of the Edith Piaf classic, "La Vie en Rose," in Tuppence Colored in 1947. Her star faded a bit as musical tastes changed in the 1950s and 1960s, but she had her first one-woman show, A Marvelous Party, in 1969, in which she reprised all her classics.
Still Brought Down the House
In her later years, Welch was debilitated by arthritis, but Broadway director and choreographer Bob Fosse cast her in his musical 1973 Pippin for its London premiere, and she took the one-song job just to earn enough money to pay for double hip-replacement surgery. She could barely walk at the time, but Fosse worked with her to get her on stage easily for her show-stopping number for this musical story of Charlemagne's son. The operation helped immensely, and Welch was able to return to the stage. Another noted director, Derek Jarman, cast her in his 1979 adaptation of the Shakespeare classic The Tempest, and as "the Goddess" she delivered yet another show-stopping moment, this one with her signature tune, "Stormy Weather" at the finale, surrounded by dancing sailors.
A year later, Welch finally returned to the American stage when she was invited to take part in the "Newport in New York" jazz festival in its tribute segment to black Broadway musicals of the 1920s. She had not performed before an American audience in 49 years at that point, but earned excellent reviews. Back in London, she had another one-woman show, and continued to appear in theaters and supper clubs; one night in 1985, she was mugged on a London street and assaulted to the point of unconsciousness, but still performed the next day. In early 1986, she returned to New York City again, this time to appear in the Broadway revue, Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood, for which she earned her first Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award nomination. She stayed in town for another solo show, this one titled Time to Start Living, which also ran in 1986. Reviewing it for the New York Times, journalist Stephen Holden called her "a one-of-a-kind cultural hybrid. While her singing contains elements of the blues, her style is more that of an expatriate bohemian in the parlor tradition of Mabel Mercer." For that show she won an Obie Award, the honor for shows that are staged "off Broadway."
Welch's inimitable voice survives in a handful of recordings she made during the 1980s and 1990s, which include Elisabeth Welch Sings Irving Berlin and Live in New York. She lived in the same elegant flat she had moved into in the 1930s, near the London landmark of Harrod's department store, but spent her last four years in a west London retirement home. She died on July 15, 2003, at the age of 99. She once told an interviewer that her only regret was that her career seemed to have prevented her from becoming a mother. She was married just once, to a musician, when she was eighteen years old, but the union lasted less than a year. Her lengthy career, she once reflected, had occurred entirely by accident, not by design, nor ambition. "I've never made any effort to do anything," she joked with New York Times writer John S. Wilson in 1980. "It's disgraceful."
Where Have You Been, DRG, 1986.
Elisabeth Welch Sings Irving Berlin, Verve, 1988.
This Thing Called Love, That's Entertainment!, 1989.
Elisabeth Welch Sings Jerome Kern, RCA, 1990.
Irving Berlin Songbook, That's Entertainment!, 1995.
Live in New York, That's Entertainment!, 1995.
Murder at Broadcasting House, 1934.
Song of Freedom, 1937.
Big Fella, 1938.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), July 16, 2003, p. 1.
Independent (London, England), July 16, 2003, p. 16.
New York Times, May 16, 1980, p. C5; March 21, 1986, p. C5; July 18, 2003, p. C11.
Times (London, England), May 2, 1996, p. 21; December 17, 1987; July 16, 2003, p. 27.
"Elisabeth Welch," Contemporary Musicians Online, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (March 17, 2005).
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