Obituary by David Munro
In Memory of Elizabeth Welch: February 27, 1904 - July 15,
ELIZABETH Welch is dead but she leaves behind a legacy - her
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,
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
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
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.