Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Elisabeth Welch

My third helping of BROWN SUGAR pays tribute to the glorious Elisabeth Welch, one of the most gracious interpreters of popular 20th Century song.

Born to a half-black, half-native American father and a half-Scots, half-Irish mother, the young Elizabeth appeared in Broadway black revues with contempories Josephine Blake, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and Adelaide Hall and it at this here, in 1923, that she introduced the song "The Charleston". By the end of the 1920s she had joined Blake and Hall in Paris where she too thrived in the more accepting cabaret scene of Jazz Age Europe.

Back in New York in 1931, she introduced Cole Porter's "Love For Sale" to Broadway and, at Porter's request, she came to London in 1933 to appear in NYMPH ERRANT with Gertrude Lawrence. During the lengthy rehearsal period she was allowed to appear in a new revue where she introduced "Stormy Weather" to London. She settled in London where she was a vital presence on stage, radio, screen (co-starring in two films with Paul Robeson) and was seen regularly on early television broadcasts. She opted to stay in London during WWII adding concert tours for servicemen to her activities and here she stayed, constantly working until her retirement in the early 1990s and she died in 2003, seven months short of her 100th birthday.

I was lucky enough to see her in the 1980s when she appeared at the Donmar in her own show and in KERN GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. I met her while she was appearing in the show and she had a lot to say about how although the show celebrated the composer Jerome Kern that as a singer she felt the lyricists should be equally lauded.

Elizabeth left an idellible impression on anyone who saw her on stage - myself included - and, when filming his version of THE TEMPEST in 1979, Derek Jarman could not have chosen a better actress to play a Goddess. Her rendition brims with love, sly fun and sheer artistry.

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