Family and early life
Elzy was born in Pontotoc, Mississippi and educated at Rust College, the Ohio State University and the Juilliard School. Her sister Amanda Elzy (died 2004) was a prominent educationist after whom Amanda Elzy High School in Greenwood, Mississippi is named. Their mother Emma Elzy (died 1985, aged 98) was a teacher and prominent member of the Methodist church, in whose memory the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church presents an annual Emma K. Elzy award.
Elzy entertained at the White House, December 15, 1937, for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's luncheon for the wives of U.S. Supreme Court Justices. She appeared on Broadway in the musical John Henry, in films, on radio and on the concert stage. She appeared with Paul Robeson in the film of The Emperor Jones, and also with Bing Crosby and Mary Martin in Birth of the Blues, though neither of these were starring roles. She sang at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and in the Hollywood Bowl.
Elzy created the role of Serena in George Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess and performed in it more than eight hundred times. Her big aria in the opera was "My Man's Gone Now", Serena's lament after her husband is murdered in a crap game; but it was Anne Brown, and not Elzy who sang it on the so-called "original cast" album of selections from Porgy and Bess, made in 1940. However, Elzy can be heard singing it on a CD release of the 1937 Gershwin Memorial Concert, which took place three months after Gershwin's death, at the Hollywood Bowl.
Elzy rose above poverty and prejudice to become one of the most acclaimed singers of her generation, but her career lasted barely a decade. She died at the age of thirty-five in 1943, just as she was reaching the peak of her powers as a singer and about to achieve her greatest dream: to star in the title role of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida.
In 2006, Elzy's biographer, David E. Weaver, produced a first-ever CD compilation of Elzy, featuring the singer in twenty rare recorded and broadcast performances. The CD, entitled Ruby Elzy in Song, was released on the Cambria label.
- Birth of the Blues (1941)
- David E. Weaver, Black Diva of the Thirties: The Life of Ruby Elzy, University Press of Mississippi, September 2004.
- "The Sweet Sound of Ruby Elzy", review of CD Ruby Elzy in Song by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Lloyd Schwartz on NPR's Fresh Air, broadcast 28 June 2007: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11510015