Friday, 26 October 2012


A while back, I posted a couple of songs performed by the late John Moffatt in Hit the Heights, a Christmas revue I compiled for BBC Radio 4 back around 1990.

Today, I am adding two glorious performances from the same show by the legendary Miss Elisabeth Welch.

Her extraordinary career is (briefly) described as follows in Stephen Bourne's biography, Elisabeth Welch: Soft Lights and Sweet Music:
From her stage debut in 1922 to her final professional appearance in 1996, Elisabeth Welch was an important figure in the world of popular song. In 1923, she launched the Charleston and throughout the Jazz Age, she was associated with some of the great names of the Harlem Renaissance, including Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and Ethel Waters. 

On Broadway she popularised Cole Porter's scandalous song 'Love for Sale'. After settling in London in 1933, she introduced the classic torch song 'Stormy Weather' to British audiences, and that same year she appeared in Cole Porter's Nymph Errant, beginning a career in English musical theatre that lasted sixty years. In 1930s Britain, Ivor Novello wrote songs for her, Paul Robeson was her leading man in films, and she enjoyed popularity as a cabaret star of London's cafe society. Remaining in her adopted country for the duration of the war, Elisabeth entertained the troops and the British public, alongside such theatrical giants as Sir John Gielgud. 

In the post-war years she reigned supreme in sophisticated revues in London's West End and Elisabeth's appearance in Derek Jarman's 1979 film version of William Shakespeare's The Tempest (in which she sang 'Stormy Weather') won her a whole new legion of fans. 
At the age of 81, she returned to the Broadway stage and her performance in Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood earned her a Tony nomination. The stage, screen and radio career of this sophisticated African American actress and singer defied categorisation. Spanning almost a century of popular music, she did not fit the definition of jazz, torch, pop or ballad singer but defined her art quite simply as 'telling a story in song'. Whatever she sang, she demonstrated that she had no peer in the art of interpreting songs by the likes of Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.
I have some wonderful personal memories of working with Elisabeth on Hit the Heights: particularly the fact that, then in her upper 80s, her long term memory was still crystal clear (recounting, for example, vivid recollections of Paris in the Jazz Age) while her short-term memory was already fast failing. Indeed, she turned up for a dress rehearsal in full costume, thinking it was the performance and departed at the end saying how much she had enjoyed it – leaving us all wondering whether she would be there for the next day's show.

But, of course, she was!

Dressed to the nines in a stunning red dress, with bracelets, bangles and rings galore, she perched on a stool beside the grand piano and wowed the audience...

Having missed her cue to one of the songs a couple of times – seeming not to recognise the piano introduction – she eventually asked Musical Director, Richard Holmes: "What are we doing?" Richard replied: "'The Man I Love', Elisabeth," which was, of course, one of her signature numbers. Elisabeth shrugged and turning to the audience with astonished smile, responded: "They never tell you anything!" The audience loved her all the more and she then sang the song word and note perfect!

Obviously, the glitch was edited out of the broadcast, but the audience reaction at the end is an indication of the impact she made on everyone there and the affection in which we held this great star...

A story that I particularly remember from our conversations in the Green Room was one recounted with great relish: only once was she asked to audition when Bob Fosse was casting the musical Pippin.

"What would you like to sing for us?" asked Fosse – presumably unaware of her star status.

"Oh," Miss Welch replied, "I think I'll sing the first song Cole Porter wrote for me."



Boll Weavil said...

Two great performances Mr B. Her voice is so expressive.
I love that show and still listen to it at least once a year.

Boll Weavil said...

I think your regular readers would love to hear the whole of this show Mr B. Its long overdue. Then they could appreciate all the work you've mentioned in context. 'Hit the Heights' is a much underrated show in your canon.
PS I'm sure I could clean up my radio version if you need a digital copy :-)