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Keeping Liz Alive

Obituary by David Munro

In Memory of Elizabeth Welch: February 27, 1904 - July 15, 2003

ELIZABETH Welch is dead but she leaves behind a legacy - her recorded voice.

A great performer for nearly three quarters of the last century - she first appeared in the twenties and was still appearing and recording in the nineties - beloved by her colleagues, and the public alike, she was ever in demand for her performances on stage film, cabaret and concert.

From 78 rpm to CD, there is a wealth of evocative material to remember her by, some of which is currently available, some, alas, not.

Born in 1904, to a Negro father and a Scotch mother, she started her working life as a social worker but her outstanding voice was noticed in a church choir and she was booked to appear in a revue Running Wild, as part of a vocal group, where she introduced the vocal version of the Charleston; one of her claims to fame she said she preferred to forget.

Although her first public appearances were in coloured revues, she first made a real impact on white audiences in 1930, when she appeared in a revue, The New Yorkers, with a Cole Porter score and, more significantly, in one number, Love for Sale.

This prostitute's paean to her trade was originally sung by Kathryn Crawford and the Three Girl Friends 'in front of Rueben's', a well-known New York brasserie.

It was considered infamous that a white girl should sing such a number so the mise en scene was changed to 'the Cotton Club, Lenox Avenue, Harlem', and the singer to a coloured girl, with the result that it was Elizabeth Welch and Three Girl Friends who ensured the success of the number, which Porter often referred to as his favourite.

Presumably the Girl Friends retained their original hue for, as the run progressed, the number became a solo, and a showcase for Miss Welch, which set her on the road to fame of which, sadly, she has just reached the end.

There is no contemporaneous record of Love for Sale, although she had already recorded two songs from Blackbirds of 1928, but there is, for her next triumph, when, after a short sojourn in Paris, she premiered another fabulous Porter number, Solomon, in his 1933 Nymph Errant.

It is this number which has forever been associated with her and which she was always asked to sing, right up to the end.

Now a popular vocalist in London and Paris, she went from strength to strength, appearing as a stowaway with numbers specially written for her in Ivor Novello's Glamorous Night, making films as Paul Robeson's leading lady, having a programme, Soft Lights and Sweet music, fashioned for her on the BBC and, more importantly for posterity, making records.

Between 1933 and 1940, she made or appeared on 15 78rpm records. A few of these have disappeared but a lot can still be heard on a retrospective LP dedicated to her on World Record Club SH238 and on a more comprehensive CD, Pearl Past CD Elizabeth Welch - Soft Lights and Sweet Music.

Her late Thirties and early Forties stage appearances were not preserved and it was not until 1943 that she recorded again, once more from an Ivor Novello musical show, Arc de Triomph, and another number written for her, Dark Music, which can be found on many Novello LPs and CDs.

The forties and fifties found her stealing the limelight in a series of successful West End revues in addition to entertaining the forces, appearing in variety and cabaret performances.

None of her songs from this era have made the turntable, even though some of the songs she introduced became popular in their own right; La Vie en Rose and The Maharajah of Mogador, to name but two, whose disparity evidence her range and artistry.

Luckily, her book shows were better represented and The Crooked Mile, Cindy Ella, or I Gotta Shoe were both recorded, as was her own one woman show - Elizabeth Welch in Concert, and the revue, Kern Goes to Hollywood, a centennial celebration of his life and works.

Although the English Pippin was never recorded, Elizabeth did commemorate her show stopping number as Berthe, the old Queen, No Time at All, on her eponymous 1976 recital album - World Records SH 233.

Apart from her stage, film and cabaret appearances, she was a frequent broadcaster and appeared in quite a few notable broadcasts.

One of these was Sandy Wilson's Valmouth, as Mrs Yaj, in which she proved, for those lucky enough to hear it, that this was a part she should have played on stage and which, it is alleged, was originally intended for her by Sandy Wilson.

If so he made it up with the role of Fatimah in his 1980 version of Aladdin, which gave her two showstoppers, happily preserved on the cast album.

One strange relic of her broadcasting days does remain, an LP of a musical broadcast in 1986, entitled In With The Old!, where she appears in the company of Dora Bryan and Evelyn Laye, among others, and sings Ten Cents a Dance, and also Stormy Weather; the number she made popular in Paris in the thirties.

There is a very rare French recording of her singing it, and when she first sang in England, in a revue Dark Doings, in 1933, and successfully revived in Derek Jarman's film of The Tempest - with a chorus of Sailors - also recorded on a rare 45rpm.

During the seventies and eighties, she recorded de novo, three LPs and two CDs on which she included most of the songs associated with her. The last recording that I have been able to trace was a CD cut in 1992, entitled The Ultimate Elizabeth Welch.

Although one will never see her again, in person , the records remain which, although those currently available were, in the main, made late in her life, when her voice had lost its initial power, they are potent mementos of the charm and artistry which made her a legend in her lifetime.

So the life is over but the legend lingers on.

As long as her records are played, Elizabeth Welch will never die, which is something the next generation may live to be grateful for. I know I am.

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