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Elisabeth Margaret Welch (February 27, 1904 – July 15, 2003) was an American singer, actress, and entertainer, whose career spanned seven decades. She was friends with Blanche Dunn and Barbara Key-Seymer.
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. After singing for years in European clubs and shows, Welch returned to New York to a club called the Royal Box in 1930. While performing there, she sang Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” a song featured in The New Yorkers, which had just opened on Broadway to mixed reviews. A friend of Porter’s heard Welch’s performance and convinced The New Yorker’s producers to replace the white actress who sang the song in the show’s opening with Welch. “Love for Sale” became one of Welch’s most popular songs and her performance in the New York production of the musical was the first of many appearances she would make in Porter’s productions. It also marked the beginning of a long friendship with Cole Porter. Welch, who trained as a social worker before committing to a career in the theater, returned to England where she enjoyed a long and varied career including work in the theater, on the radio, and in films. During World War II, she performed for British troops as a member of Sir John Gielgud’s company.
Welch was born in Englewood, New Jersey, where her father was chief gardener of an estate. 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.
by Carl Van Vechten
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 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). One of these was taken to Paris, where in 1929 and 1930, following artist Josephine Baker, she was in cabaret shows, including performances at the Moulin Rouge. 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. 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 the late 1930s, Welch entered two media: she appeared in films – usually as a singer, including two with Paul Robeson – and was also one of the first artists to perform on television, appearing on the BBC's new TV service from Alexandra Palace. During World War II, she remained in London during the Blitz. She entertained the armed forces along with many other artists. After the war she was in many West End theatre shows, including revues. She continued on both television and radio, and was even in one pantomime, Aladdin. She also had a series of one-woman shows until 1990. She was in the Royal Variety Performance in 1979 and 1986. In 1979, her recording of "Stormy Weather" was used by Derek Jarman 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 earned her an Obie Award. She was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood. Welch was the subject of This Is Your Life in October 1985 when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews outside London's Palace Theatre. Her final performance was in 1996 for a television documentary, in which she sang "Stormy Weather", at the age of 93.
In 1928, she was married to Luke Smith, a musician, but they separated after a few months. He died in 1936. They had no children. Welch died at the age of 99 at Denville Hall in Northwood, London on July 15, 2003.
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