A masterful cabaret singer and stage performer, Elisabeth Welch was one of the African Americans born near the turn of the twentieth century who made their careers abroad. In her case, this decision to work overseas seems not to have been so much a deliberate choice as it was a matter of the availability of work. Until the 1980s many Americans were only partially aware of her work, knowing her as a singer in shows and cabarets in the United States in the 1920s and early 1930s. However, she later became a genuine star in England with a substantial career. Only when she returned to New York in 1980 to begin performing again in this country did Americans become really aware of the quality of her work and discover a living link with some of the great names in American musical theater—a link, moreover, whose performing abilities were still substantially intact at an advanced age.
Elisabeth Welch was born on February 27, 1908, in New York City and raised at Sixty-third and Amsterdam, in the old San Juan Hill area, the neighborhood of the present-day Lincoln Center. Her mother was a Scot from Leith, and she grew up hearing the recordings of the Scottish entertainers Harry Lauder and Will Fyffe. Her father, whom she described in a May 16, 1980, New York Times interview as "Negro and red Indian from a tribe in the Wilmington section of Delaware," was a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan. She has a younger brother who became a classical musician. In a June 18, 1983, interview for the London Times, Welch said that her father was a strict Baptist who frowned upon girls who whistled and who reproved her constant whistling with, "Whistling girls and crowing hens never come to good ends." However, he approved of her first stage appearance in HMS Pinafore at the age of eight. She later sang in the choir of Saint Cyprian's Episcopal Church, and she attended Julia Richards High School.
Even before she graduated from high school, Welch was singing in the choruses of shows. In the London Times interview, Welch said that when her father discovered that she was participating in real stage shows with the silent support of her mother, he walked out on the family, saying, "Girlie's [Welch's nickname] on the boards—she's lost." Her first appearance was in a short-lived musical called Liza in 1922. It introduced the Charleston to New York when it opened on November 27, but the dance made little impression at the time. In 1923 Welch won a spot in the chorus of Runnin' Wild, which made the Charleston into a craze. Welch was picked out of the chorus to sing "The Charleston." However, as she pointed out in the 1980 New York Times article, "Singing 'Charleston' meant nothing to me. It's really a dance. It's not a song you can get up and sing." She continued to work in choruses of shows, including Chocolate Dandies and Velvet Brown Babies of 1924.
Welch was studying social work when she landed a job in Blackbirds of 1928, which she counts as her real professional debut. She sang with the chorus in a scene adapted from the novel Porgy and played in a sketch with comedian Johnny Hudgins, whose persona was always mute. In their routine, Welch was in bed with Hudgins when she answered the phone. All she said was "Yes, Mose" and "No, Mose" in varying inflections while Hudgins reacted to the tone of her voice. Her final line, after she hung up, was, "That was Mose." When the play went to Paris, Welch received some press notice for the first time and decided that her vocation lay in the field of entertainment.
In Paris Welch soon was singing at some notable cabarets, such as the Moulin Rouge and Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit. She followed Mabel Mercer at Chez Florence. In the summer of 1930 she returned to New York to open a new club, the Royal Box. Peggy Joyce Hopkins, a café habitué celebrated for her many marriages, had obtained a copy of Cole Porter's "Love for Sale," and Welch added it to her repertoire as soon as the revue The New Yorkers opened in December. The song, as it was originally presented on stage in the revue, was roundly condemned by the critics as scandalous. The show's producer, Ray Goetz, co-producer Monty Woolley, and Irving Berlin heard Welch sing it and chose her to replace the original singer, changing the production to accommodate her. She continued her nightclub performances and sang "Love for Sale" in the show from January 1931 until the show closed in May. Welch brought the house down with one song, and she would eventually call herself "One-song Welch," a reflection of the number of times she appeared in shows singing only one song, but one that was a showstopper.
Welch then returned to England at the invitation of Cole Porter to appear in the show he was putting on in London. It was in England she made the rest of her career. This was not part of a plan. She explained to David Lida for Women's Wear Daily, January 28, 1986, "I never intended anything in my life. People don't understand that, but I've just drifted in and out, in and out. I had no star that I looked for or followed. My whole life has been—an event." In London Welch was first principal singer in Dark Doings in June 1933, a show she performed in while waiting for Porter's show to open. She stopped the show four times a day with "Stormy Weather," introducing the song in England just a week before Duke Ellington's first appearance there. That same year Cole Porter wrote the song "Solomon" for her. She performed it in his Nymph Errant, starring Gertrude Lawrence, to such success that the song became identified with her and was played for her wherever she went.
Ivan Novello, the great star of prewar London musicals, wrote "Shanty Town" for her in Glamorous Night, and she continued a brilliant career on the London musical stage. Some shows were successes, like Happy and Glorious, which ran for twenty months, and there were a few flops, like Arc de Triomphe. During the war she entertained British troops in various capacities, once with Sir John Gielgud's theatrical company. After the war she appeared in a famous series of revues produced by Laurier Lister, Tuppence Colored, Oranges and Lemons, and Penny Plain. In 1976 she appeared in I Gotta Shoe. She performed her first one-person show, A Marvelous Party, in 1969.
Before the war Welch appeared regularly in a series of mediocre British films, beginning with Death at Broadcasting House of 1934. She was usually called upon to enliven the proceedings with a song. She told David Robinson for the London Times, June 18, 1983, "I'd do a number while the rest of them would be rushing about getting murdered and detecting and things." She also appeared in two British-made films with the famous American actor and singer Paul Robeson, Song of Freedom (1937) and Big Fella (1938). Welch remembers refusing to discuss politics with him on the set of the first picture and being quite puzzled about his reason for agreeing to appear in such a poor film as the second. She suspects part of the reason may have been the desire of Robeson's wife, Eslanda, to play the role offered her by the producers. Welch was also active on the radio, being, for example, a principal singer on the series Soft Lights and Sweet Music, which began in 1935.
Welch appeared in the movie Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) and in Derek Jarman's strange film The Tempest (1979), playing the Goddess and singing "Stormy Weather." She explains the film by saying, "It's Shakespeare's lines, but a lot of it was cut, and there's a lot of nakedness in it. Jarman always likes to have naked boys in there. I didn't appear naked, but a very big lady did—Caliban's mother."
For the Record …
Born on February 27, 1908, in New York, NY; died on July 15, 2003, in London, England.
Began singing in shows in high school; appeared in the musical Liza, 1922; made her professional debut in Blackbirds of 1928; opened the Royal Box club in New York City, 1930; began appearing in shows in England, early 1930s; performed in dozens of shows over the next few decades; performed her first one-person show, A Marvelous Party, 1969; appeared in the film Revenge of the Pink Panther, 1978; and The Tempest, 1979; recorded the album Sings Irving Berlin, 1987.
By 1973 Welch was gravely crippled by arthritis; Bob Fosse arranged the role of the Grandmother in the London production of Pippin so that she could sit most of the time. She had operations on both hips and recovered her agility. She spent the next decade primarily appearing in cabarets, concerts, and musicals.
In 1980 Welch returned to the United States to perform for the first time in nearly fifty years in the Black Broadway segment of the Newport in New York Jazz Festival. She had been asked to participate the year before, but the date conflicted with a tribute given her at Festival Hall in London. In 1982 Welch was drawing young audiences in a strenuous one-person show. In January 1986 she appeared on Broadway in a revue called Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood, an import from London, which was not a success although she won a Tony nomination for her work. Her personal success in this endeavor led to her performing Time to Start Living, a one-person show, which opened for a limited run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on March 20, 1986. For this show she won an Obie. She later took it to Australia and continued to perform it on occasion although she no longer was physically capable of doing the normal theater schedule of eight performances a week.
Welch entered the recording studio in 1987 to record Sings Irving Berlin for Verve; the record was released in 1988 to high praise. There was also a retrospective compilation, Miss Elisabeth Welch (1933–40), in 1979. Three other albums appeared in the 1980s: Elisabeth Welch in Concert (1986), Where Have You Been (1987), and This Thing Called Love (1989). In 1989 she appeared in a one-night concert performance of Nymph Errant, in which she had first sung "Solomon" fifty-six years earlier.
In 1988 Welch appeared in the film Far from Lazy after All These Years, a combination of performance and oral history. On October 19, 1989, she was one of the recipients of the first Cabaret Classic awards at New York's Town Hall, and the following Sunday she performed at a gala benefiting the Mabel Mercer Foundation, the host of the Cabaret Convention.
Elisabeth Welch had an outstanding and long-lasting career. She reminds her listeners of the great show and cabaret singing tradition that flourished in the years Irving Berlin and Cole Porter were writing for the stage, but at the same time she has survived into very different times. Only the onset of old age has been able to slow her down. Clive Barnes, the New York critic who also heard her while he was growing up in London, summed up his impressions in the New York Post, March 24, 1986: "Welch is an original. With her sweetness, her gentility, arsenic-laced with a sense of roguish innuendo and pagan sensuality, she is like no one else…. She has class, and class, and class. A saloon singer who would make any saloon into a salon." Welch died on July 15, 2003, in London, England.
Where Have You Been, DRG, 1986.
Sings Irving Berlin, Verve, 1988.
This Thing Called Love, That's Entertainment!, 1989.
Sings Jerome Kern, RCA, 1990.
Irving Berlin Songbook, That's Entertainment!, 1995.
Live in New York, That's Entertainment!, 1995.
Duberman, Martin Bauml, Paul Robeson, Knopf, 1988.
Kellner, Bruce, The Harlem Renaissance, Methuen, 1984.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, New England Publishing Associates, 1992.
Down Beat, August 1988.
London Times, June 18, 1983.
New York Post, March 24, 1986.
New York Times, May 16, 1980; February 13, 1988.
Newsday, March 21, 1986; March 30, 1988; October 17, 1989.
People, August 4, 2003, p. 83.
Women's Wear Daily, January 28, 1986.
—Robert L. Johns
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