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Soft Lights and Sweet Music: Photographs of Elisabeth Welch

Past display archive
5 March - 25 October 2009

Room 31 case display


Elisabeth Welch
by Humphrey Spender
June 1933
NPG x131702

From her stage debut in 1922 to her final appearance in 1996, singer Elisabeth Welch (1904-2003) was an important figure in the world of popular music. Born in New York, at the age of nineteen she helped to launch the Charleston in the Broadway show Runnin’ Wild. Throughout the Jazz Age she worked on stage with some of the great names of the Harlem Renaissance, including Josephine Baker and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. On Broadway she popularised Cole Porter’s scandalous ‘Love for Sale’ (a prostitute’s lament), and in 1933 she introduced Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s torch song ‘Stormy Weather’ to British audiences. Also in 1933, with her appearance in Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant, Welch began her sixty-year career in English musical theatre.

In the 1930s Ivor Novello wrote songs for Welch, Paul Robeson was her leading man in films, and she enjoyed popularity as a cabaret star of London’s café society.

From 1934 to 1936 the BBC broadcast her own radio series Soft Lights and Sweet Music. When the war broke out in 1939 Welch decided to remain in her adopted country, and support the British war effort, entertaining the armed forces.

In the post-war years, Welch starred in three sophisticated revues in London’s West End: Tuppence Coloured (1947), in which she sang Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie En Rose’, Oranges and Lemons (1949), and Penny Plain (1951).

In 1979 Welch’s appearance in Derek Jarman’s film of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (singing ‘Stormy Weather’) won her new fans. At the age of eighty-one she returned to the Broadway stage, and her performance in Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood earned her a nomination for a Tony award.

Welch did not fit the definition of jazz, torch, pop, or ballad singer but defined her art quite simply as ‘telling a story in song’.

Elisabeth Welch: Soft Lights and Sweet Music by Stephen Bourne (Scarecrow Press, 2005) is available from the National Portrait Gallery bookshop. The National Portrait Gallery has recently acquired this group of vintage prints of Elisabeth Welch from Stephen Bourne, who has provided the accompanying text and additional contextual material.



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