Elisabeth Welch

Elisabeth Margaret Welch (February 27, 1904  July 15, 2003) was an American singer, actress, and entertainer, whose career spanned seven decades.[4] 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.

Elisabeth Welch
Elisabeth Welch in 1977 by Allan Warren
Elisabeth Margaret Welch

February 27, 1904[1][2][3]
DiedJuly 15, 2003(2003-07-15) (aged 99)
London, England
ResidenceNew York City
London, England
OccupationActress, singer, entertainer
Years active1922–1996
Home townNew York City
Luke Smith (m. 19281936)

Early life

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.

Professional career

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.

Personal life

In 1928, she was married to Luke Smith, a musician, and remained with him until his death in 1936. They had no children.

Welch died at the age of 99 in Northwood, London on July 15, 2003.


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.[5]

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.[6]

Theatrical performances

Film performances

Further reading

  • 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


  1. "Elisabeth Welch Biography – Father Walked Out on Family, Moved to London, Still Brought Down the House, Selected works". Archived from the original on June 10, 2018. Retrieved June 10, 2018.
  2. "Elisabeth Welch". The Telegraph. July 16, 2003. Archived from the original on June 10, 2018. Retrieved June 10, 2018.
  3. "Elisabeth Welch". Oxford Reference. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on June 10, 2018. Retrieved June 10, 2018.
  4. 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. Retrieved March 6, 2009.
  5. "Welch, Elisabeth (1904–2003)". English Heritage. Retrieved January 7, 2012.
  6. Desert island Discs Castaway Archive.
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