Obituary: Thelma Carpenter

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The Independent Online
The phrase "Black is Beautiful" could have been inspired by the petite Thelma Carpenter, whose exquisite face and melodic voice delighted cabaret and theatre audiences for more than 50 years. A noted interpreter of the great standard songs, she was as fearless as she was stylish, feistily standing up for herself, even in night-clubs run by the Mafia.

As a child, the Harlem-born Thelma sang in the streets for coins, and appeared on Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour, a hugely popular radio series that also gave Frank Sinatra his first break. At 15 she entered another amateur contest, at the Apollo Theatre in New York, where her singing of "Stormy Weather" won her a week's booking.

In 1939 the superb pianist Teddy Wilson, shortly after leaving Benny Goodman, formed his own big band, and invited Carpenter to provide the vocals. Boasting such musicians as Ben Webster, J.C. Heard and Doc Cheatham, the band set an awesome standard of musicianship, but lasted only a year. Wilson next made a magnificent series of small-group recordings, featuring, among others, Carpenter and her friend Billie Holiday. Their friendship even survived Holiday's addiction to heroin. As Carpenter told the writer Donald Clarke: "At first, I thought 'I don't need to be around that stuff', but my mother said to me, 'Now's the time she needs a friend.' So I used to go around and see her."

After singing with the bands of Coleman Hawkins and Count Basie, Carpenter replaced Dinah Shore on Eddie Cantor's radio series, despite pressure from Cantor's sponsors over a black performer appearing with whites. She sang in black clubs all over the New York area until 1944, when she played her first white night-club, Le Ruban Bleu, on East 56th Street.

Her cabaret success led to a role in the Broadway musical Memphis Bound (1945), which starred Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. A re-setting of HMS Pinafore on a Mississippi showboat, it was scuttled after 36 performances. Far more successful (it ran a year) was the Arthur Schwartz / Howard Dietz revue Inside USA (1948), which co-starred Beatrice Lillie and Jack Haley. An ill-advised revival of the 1921 show Shuffle Along (1952) lasted only four performances, but the rowdy musical Ankles Aweigh (1955) managed 22 weeks.

By 1967 Hello, Dolly! had been running on Broadway for three years, and was playing to ever-diminishing audiences. David Merrick, the show's producer, decided to present an all-black version, starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, with Carpenter hired as Bailey's standby. Suddenly, Dolly! was a hit all over again, but, as Bailey tended to miss a great many performances, Carpenter played the role of Dolly Levi more than 100 times.

The long-running Bubbling Brown Sugar (1976) was her favourite show, as it commemorated a place and time she knew well: Harlem between the First and Second World Wars.

At the age of 58 Carpenter finally made her motion picture debut in The Wiz (1978), the all-black remake of The Wizard of Oz, based on the hit Broadway show. With the 34-year-old Diana Ross calamitously miscast as a repressed 24-year-old Harlem Dorothy, the film dragged along glumly until Carpenter burst on to the screen as the good witch Miss One, congratulated Dorothy for inadvertently killing the Wicked Witch of the East ("Bottom line, honey - this chick put the 'ugh!' in 'ugly'!") and then, flanked by dancing, hula-hooping Munchkins on skateboards, launched into the funky "He's the Wizard!"

She also appeared in Francis Ford Coppola's film The Cotton Club (1984), and on television in The Ed Sullivan Show, The Cosby Show and The Love Boat. She played the meddling mother-in-law in Barefoot in the Park (1970- 71), an all-black situation comedy based on Neil Simon's play. She recently toured in the musical Pippin.

"I never married," Thelma Carpenter told a journalist at the age of 50. "Although you might say I've done lots of heavy rooming and light housekeeping in my time, I like life."

Thelma Carpenter, singer and actress: born New York 15 January 1920; died New York 15 May 1997.