Saturday, 21 March 2009

My kind of people -Elisabeth Welch (1909-2003)

Where would we be without the talent and courage of pioneers like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Alice Coltrane (Composer), Adrienne Fidelin (model and 'it' girl), Dorothy Dandridge, Winifred Atwell (Pianist), Josephine Baker, Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Britain's first Black it girl and the God-daughter of Queen Victoria), Donyale Luna (model), Gordon Parks, Eartha Kitt, Louis Armstrong and many more? Like all originators, Elisabeth Welch, a formidable singer and actress of British film and stage in the 30s and 40s deserves a mention.

Elizabeth's incredible journey begun in a staunch Southern Baptist church choir at the age of eight -spanning sixty plus years and encompassing British films and stage; several memorable guest appearances in cabarets, starring opposite Paul Robeson (another of my favourite pioneers in 'Big Fella' and 'Songs of Freedom'), playing a goddess in Derek Jarman's The Tempest (1979) -in which she sang, "Stormy Weather" (her signature song), playing Cleopatra, reading children stories on "Jackanory" ( in the late 60's) to launching a one-woman show in 1986, at age 81, at New York's Lucille Lortel Theatre (wowing audiences both young and old, black and white) -Elizabeth's career must be applauded. Elizabeth also supported the British war effort by entertaining the armed forces. Her phenomenal talent, bravery, passion and professionalism, in a time when her fellow African-American brothers and sisters were segregated, lynched and riding at the back of buses -allowed La Welch to live her life outside the box.

Thanks to her beauty, style (she was very glamorous, there was non of that sexless 'mammy' maid stuff for our Lizzy), grace and determination -black singers, actresses and artists etc -have less to prove today. To think that in a time before 'No blacks, no Irish, no dogs' and 'Political correctness' -this beauty left America and came to England to do 'her thing' -is admirable. Paul Robeson sung 'Nobody knows the troubles I've seen' and you can bet that Elizabeth would have seen her fair share but her ambition to live, entertain, earn a crust and much more (freedom, self expression etc) -carried her through. You'll be pleased to know that a display of rare photographs of Elisabeth Welch taken in the 30s and 40s by the likes of Carl Van Vechten, Paul Tanqueray and Humphrey Spender (pictured above) has just opened at The National Portrait Gallery (until 31 September 2009). The photos were acquired by the Gallery from her biographer, Stephen Bourne, who has also contributed the text and some memorabilia from his private collection. Elisabeth Welch: Soft Lights and Sweet Music by Stephen Bourne (Scarecrow Press, 2005) is also available from the National Portrait Gallery bookshop. See you there...
P.s If you fancy a, 'Go tell it on a mountain' moment -check out the following pioneers on YouTube: Bill Bojangles Robinson, Elizabeth Welch, Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Marian Anderson and Nina Simone - they will thrill and inspire you.

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