With October being Black History Month, our next theatre blog celebrates one of the most famous ladies of the West End, Elisabeth Welch.
Born in New York in 1904, Elisabeth was the daughter of a Scottish mother and a half-African American, half-Native American father. She once described herself as a one-woman United Nations.
As a child she had planned on becoming a social worker, but after taking part in performances at school such as HMS Pinafore, she pursued after school professional theatre activities and eventually decided on becoming a singer.
It’s reported that when her Presbyterian father realised that his wife was encouraging their daughter down this route he packed his bags and left their home. His parting words were “Girlie’s on the boards – she’s lost”.
After a name change from Welsh to Welch, Elisabeth’s career took off. In the 1920s she could be found performing in a number of New York shows, before taking up her first international opportunity in Paris.
Her performance of Stormy Weather in London in 1933 made that song her signature tune. That same year she performed in Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant at his personal request. Seen in this show by Ivor Novello, she was snapped up to then star in one of his shows too.
There began a career lasting over 60 years on the West End stage. Though American by birth, Welch considered herself English in thought and nature. Remaining in London during the Second World War, she travelled to sing to troops in Gibraltar and the Middle East. She has been compared to Vera Lynn for her contribution to the war effort.
Elisabeth was the most famous black woman in Britain during the 1930s and 1940s, loved for her grace and elegance, soft voice and perfect diction.
The programme from the 1959 production of The Crooked Mile at the Cambridge Theatre has a lovely biographical piece, highlighting just how famous Elizabeth was.
Her career seemed to have no end, and in 1989 she was back on stage at Drury Lane, in a concert version of Nymph Errant, 56 years after starring in it for Cole Porter.
In her later years, Elisabeth moved to Denville Hall, a retirement home for actors and actresses. She was once recognised by a visitor who proclaimed “you used to sing stormy weather”, to which she replied “my dear, I still do!”, and then broke in to a full unaccompanied rendition of the song.
Her contribution to the theatrical world was acknowledged with a programme honouring her at the Lyric in 1992.
He final public appearance was at the Palladium in 1997 at a tribute concert for Daily Mail theatre critic Jack Tinker. At the age of 93, she didn’t perform, but her attendance was announced and she waved to the audience, prompting a standing ovation in her honour.
Throughout her life she had worked hard to keep her age a secret, giving her birth date as anywhere between 1904 and 1909. Her true age was not revealed until her death, as those who knew it, knew how hard she had worked to protect it.
She died in 2003, aged 99 years old at Denville Hall, Northwood, London.