Elisabeth Welch

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Elisabeth Welch
Welch in 1977 by Allan Warren
BornFebruary 27, 1904[1][2]
DiedJuly 15, 2003(2003-07-15) (aged 99)
Northwood, London, England
Occupation(s)Actress, singer, entertainer
Years active1922–1996
Luke Smith
(m. 1928⁠–⁠1936)

Elisabeth Margaret Welch (February 27, 1904 – July 15, 2003) was an American singer, actress, and entertainer, whose career spanned seven decades.[3] Her best-known songs were "Stormy Weather", "Love for Sale" and "Far Away in Shanty Town". She was American-born, but was based in Britain for most of her career.

Early life[edit]

According to her birth certificate, Welch was born at 223 West 61st Street in New York City. Her father was chief gardener of an estate in Englewood, New Jersey. Her father was of indigenous American and African American ancestry; her mother was of Scottish and Irish descent. Welch was brought up in a Baptist-Christian family, and began her singing in a church choir.

She first intended to go from high school into social work, but instead chose to become a professional singer. She started her career in New York in 1922, but in 1929 she went on to Europe – first to Paris and then to London.

Professional career[edit]

After her first appearance in America in Liza in 1922, Welch was the initial singer of the Charleston in the show Runnin' Wild (1923). During the 1920s she appeared in African-American Broadway theatre shows, including The Chocolate Dandies (1924) and Blackbirds of 1928. She made relatively few recordings. Before moving to Europe she made only one record – "Doin' The New Lowdown", b/w 'Digga Digga Do", as vocalist for the Irving Mills-assembled Hotsy Totsy Gang (Brunswick 4014, 27 July 1928).

"Blackbirds of 1928" was taken to the Moulin Rouge in Paris in 1929 and it was here that Welch began her career as a cabaret singer including performances at the popular nightclub Chez Florence.

Welch was asked to return to New York, where she replaced a singer in The New Yorkers (1930–1931) and sang Cole Porter's controversial song "Love for Sale". The composer met her afterwards in Paris, and then invited her to perform his song "Solomon" in Nymph Errant in London in 1933. That year, before this show was available, Welch was given permission to perform in London in Dark Doings, in which she sang "Stormy Weather", newly written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler.[4] She subsequently took the song as her signature tune.

Welch's show-stopping performance in Nymph Errant was seen by Ivor Novello, and in 1935, he gave her a part in his show Glamorous Night, in which she stood out again singing his blues song "Far Away in Shanty Town". In 1931, she had included in her cabaret act the new song "As Time Goes By", almost a dozen years before it achieved screen fame in Casablanca. In 1936 she recorded vocals on a number of tracks arranged by Benny Carter, and performed with his orchestra & swing quartet for the recording "When Lights Are Low".[5][6]

In the mid 1930s, Welch entered two media: she appeared in films – usually as a singer, and as leading lady to Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom and the musical Big Fella – and she was also one of the first artists to perform on British television, appearing on the BBC's new TV service from Alexandra Palace.

During World War II, she remained in London during the Blitz, and entertained the armed forces as a member of Sir John Gielgud’s company.[7][8]

After the war she was in many West End theatre shows, including revues. She continued on both television and radio. She also had a series of one-woman shows until 1990. She was in the Royal Variety Performance in 1979 and 1985. In 1979, she was cast as a Goddess by Derek Jarman and sang "Stormy Weather" in his film version of Shakespeare's The Tempest.

In 1980, she returned to New York to appear in Black Broadway and she appeared there again in 1986 when her one-woman show Time to Start Living earned her an Obie Award.[9] At the 40th Annual Tony Awards in 1986, she was nominated for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance in Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood.[10]

Welch was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1985 when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews outside London's Palace Theatre.[11]

Her final performance was in 1996 for Black Divas, a Channel 4 television documentary, in which she sang "Stormy Weather", at the age of 92. Her final public appearance was at a 1997 tribute concert for Daily Mail theatre critic Jack Tinker at the London Palladium, at the age of 93, she didn’t perform, but her attendance was announced and there was a standing ovation in her honour.[12]

Personal life[edit]

In 1928, she was married to Luke Smith, a jazz musician, but they separated after a few months. They had no children and he died in 1936.[13]

Welch died at the age of 99 at Denville Hall in Northwood, London on July 15, 2003.[14]


The Variety Club of Great Britain in 1988 recognised her with a Special Award for services to the entertainment industry.[15][16]

In February 2012, writer Bonnie Greer unveiled an English Heritage blue plaque at Ovington Court in Kensington, London, where Welch lived from 1933 to 1936.[17]

She was twice a guest on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs, on February 26, 1952, and November 18, 1990; her latter appearance is now part of the programme's online archive.[18]

Theatrical performances[edit]

Film performances[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Peter Gammond, The Oxford Companion to Popular Music Oxford University Press, 1991. ISBN 0192800043
  • Guinness Who's Who of Stage Musicals, ed. C. Larkin. Guinness – ISBN 0851127568)
  • Stephen Bourne, Elisabeth Welch – Soft Lights and Sweet Music (foreword by Ned Sherrin) (2005, Scarecrow Press) ISBN 0810854139
  • Stephen Bourne, Deep Are the Roots - Trailblazers Who Changed Black British Theatre (2021, The History Press) ISBN 9780750996297


  1. ^ "Elisabeth Welch". The Telegraph. July 16, 2003. Archived from the original on June 10, 2018. Retrieved June 10, 2018.
  2. ^ "Elisabeth Welch". Oxford Reference. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on June 10, 2018. Retrieved June 10, 2018.
  3. ^ Bourne, Stephen (July 16, 2003). "Elisabeth Welch Black diva whose roles ranged from Cole Porter's 'Nymph Errant' to Derek Jarman's 'The Tempest'". The Independent Obituary. Archived from the original on April 5, 2008. Retrieved March 6, 2009.
  4. ^ Mayes, Sean (August 26, 2021). An inconvenient Black history of British musical theatre : 1900-1950. Sarah Whitfield. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 134. ISBN 978-1-350-23268-6. OCLC 1240305223.
  5. ^ The essential jazz records. Vol. 1, Ragtime to swing. Max Harrison, Charles Fox, Eric Thacker. London: Mansell. 1984. p. 221. ISBN 978-0-567-26969-0. OCLC 317073629.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  6. ^ Benny Carter, His Orchestra & Swing Quartet Featuring Elisabeth Welch - When Lights Are Low, retrieved March 28, 2022
  7. ^ Law, Dr Kate (October 4, 2020). "Black Women in Wartime Britain 1939-45 by Stephen Bourne". Women's History Network. Retrieved March 28, 2022.
  8. ^ Rust, Brian (1973). The complete entertainment discography, from the mid-1890s to 1942. Allen G. Debus. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House. p. 661. ISBN 0-87000-150-7. OCLC 700684.
  9. ^ "86". Obie Awards. Retrieved March 28, 2022.
  10. ^ Bourne, Stephen, October 31- (2005). Elisabeth Welch : soft lights and sweet music. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press. p. 131. ISBN 0-8108-5413-9. OCLC 57406323.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ Elisabeth Welch, This Is Your Life, November 6, 1985, retrieved March 28, 2022
  12. ^ wcclibraries (October 12, 2020). "Theatre Archives: Elisabeth Welch". Retrieved March 28, 2022.
  13. ^ "Obituary: Elisabeth Welch". the Guardian. July 17, 2003. Retrieved March 28, 2022.
  14. ^ "Kenneth Partridge, interior designer". The Daily Telegraph (obituary). December 21, 2015. Retrieved July 23, 2020.
  15. ^ "National Portrait Gallery - Devotional". www.npg.org.uk. Retrieved March 28, 2022.
  16. ^ Bourne, Stephen, October 31- (2005). Elisabeth Welch : soft lights and sweet music. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press. p. 131. ISBN 0-8108-5413-9. OCLC 57406323.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  17. ^ "Welch, Elisabeth (1904–2003)". English Heritage. Retrieved January 7, 2012.
  18. ^ Desert island Discs Castaway Archive.

External links[edit]