National Portrait Gallery

Devotees

Evelyn Dove (1902-1987)

Loaned by Stephen Bourne

Evelyn Dove, singer, was born in London, the daughter of Francis Dove, a barrister from Sierra Leone, and his British wife, Augusta. Francis Dove was the son of William Dove, who had made a fortune from trading out of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Evelyn Dove studied singing, piano, and elocution at the Royal Academy of Music. When she graduated in 1919, she was awarded a silver medal. As a contralto she hoped for a career on the concert platform but the worlds of jazz and cabaret were more welcoming.

In the early 1920s the all-Black jazz revues that were popular in America were being recreated in Europe. In 1925 the cast of The Chocolate Kiddies, starring Adelaide Hall, was sent to Europe to give overseas audiences an opportunity to see some of America's top Black entertainers. Dove was invited to join them in Britain and with the company she toured western Europe for a year, then went to Russia, playing in Leningrad and Moscow, where the audience included Stalin. After replacing Josephine Baker as the star attraction in a revue at the Casino de Paris, Dove travelled to New York in 1936 to appear in cabaret at the famous nightclub, Connie's Inn. This rivalled the Cotton Club as a showcase for top Black talent.

In 1937 her travels took her to Bombay, India, where she performed with great success for white colonials at the Harbour Bar. This review of her opening night appeared in the Evening News of India on October 7, 1937: ‘She is an artist of international reputation, one of the leading personalities of Europe's entertainment world. She is described as the closest rival of the great Josephine Baker herself. Evelyn didn't get just the big hand. She got an ovation, a roaring welcome.’ Dove’s greatest professional success was her work with the BBC. From 1939 to 1949 she took part in broadcasts of many popular music and variety programmes, including Rhapsody in Black (1940) with Elisabeth Welch. She also made over fifty broadcasts with the Trinidadian folk-singer Edric Connor in Serenade in Sepia (1945–7). This series was so popular with listeners that the BBC produced a television version, with Dove and Connor, at the studios at Alexandra Palace.

After leaving the BBC to work in cabaret in India, Paris, and Spain, Dove found it difficult to find employment when she returned to London. Despite her experience and talent, in 1951 she was the understudy for Muriel Smith in the role of Bloody Mary in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Then, in 1955, short of money and desperate for work, Dove applied for a job as a Post Office telephonist, asking the BBC for a reference. In 1956 the BBC cast her as Eartha Kitt's mother in a television drama called Mrs. Patterson. More television work followed and she returned to the West End musical stage, not as an understudy, but as one of the stars of Langston Hughes's Simply Heavenly. Also in the cast was the singer and actress Isabelle Lucas, who later recalled: ‘We became friends, but Evelyn's life took a bad turn. Her reputation as a singer faded, and she became very ill. She lost contact with her family. Her spirit was broken.’ In 1972 Dove was admitted to a nursing home in Epsom, Surrey, where she died of pneumonia in 1987.

Further information:

Stephen Bourne, Evelyn Dove, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).

esmeefairbain foundation and inspire  program