Obituary: Adelaide Hall

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The Independent Online
Adelaide Hall, singer, dancer, actress: born New York City 20 October 1901; married Bert Hicks (died 1963); died London 7 November 1993.

ST PAUL'S CATHEDRAL provided an appropriately majestic setting for the memorial service to Duke Ellington in 1974. There was an aura of pomp not usual to a jazz occasion, as could be deduced from the embarrassed looks on the faces of Tony Coe and Ronnie Scott as they sat in the orchestra, apparently unable to adjust to the idea that it was one of God's occasions as well as being a jazz one. Adelaide Hall was to sing Ellington's beautiful anthem 'Come Sunday'. She processed through the cathedral on the arm of the gallant Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. As he led her up the steps of the dais she leaned over and whispered in his ear, 'I knew your daddy, you know.'

You bet she did. In a 70-year career which took in golden ages in Harlem, Hollywood, Paris and London, she knew just about anyone worth knowing. Her great beauty, wonderful voice and bubbling personality must have made her irresistible to the night-clubbers of the time, and, even in her late eighties when she still performed, she would swing or, by then, lurch an ankle in such a way that made it clear that she had been a skilled dancer too. Her name was always linked with Ellington's, although in truth she never worked regularly with his band, and recorded with it on only two occasions, in 1927 and 1937.

Adelaide Hall's father was a music teacher at the Pratt Institute, in New York. Her mother was of American Indian stock. Professor Hall died early and, whilst still a teenager, Adelaide had to become the breadwinner for her rather naive mother and younger sister.

She seemed to find no difficulty in entering show business at a fairly elevated level and in 1921 began her stage career in the show Shuffle Along on Broadway. In Running Wild (1923) she was given James P. Johnson's hit song 'Old-Fashioned Love' to sing. The next year she was in Chocolate Kiddies and became an established star.

Explaining how it happened she said, 'This is how you do it, my dear. You get to know the musicians. You're in the places where they are. And then you ask them if you can sing a song. Be very charming, not too pushy. And be prepared. Know your song, know your key. And sing it. And then someone will hear you and take you out to dinner and give you a job. And there you are.'

In 1924 she met her future husband Bert Hicks in New York. He was born in Trinidad and educated in London and Edinburgh. He had been an accountant and was now a ship's doctor, but gave up the sea when they married. They remained together until his death in 1963.

Chocolate Kiddies was such a success that in 1925 it was taken to Europe, touring in Scandinavia and Austria before running for two years in Berlin. 'Josephine Baker was at one end of the line, and I was at the other.' The tour went on to the Soviet Union, but Hall decided to return to New York.

'I went to work in the Cotton Club, which was managed by the underworld. Coloured people weren't welcome in the audience - I don't like the word 'black': we're all different colours.

'When you finished at the club on Saturday night you had your money, you put your coat on and then you were off until Tuesday. Among the people I worked alongside there were Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, Snake Hips Johnson and Peg Leg Bates. The costumes were fantastic.

'I also starred in Cotton Club Parade, where I sang 'Ill Wind', which Harold Arlen had written for me. There were 24 girl dancers behind me, all dressed in grey, and I was in pink. It was the first show ever that they had nitrogen smoke from the floor on stage.'

She first met Duke Ellington in Harlem and by 1927 they were touring in the same show. 'I closed the first half of the bill and Duke was on in the second.' Ellington had a new number, 'Creole Love Call'. He had composed it in typical fashion by creating sophisticated elaborations on a clarinet solo which Jimmy Noone had recorded on King Oliver's Camp Meeting Blues.

'I was standing in the wings behind the piano when Duke first played it. I started humming along with the band. Afterwards he came over to me and said, 'That's just what I was looking for. Can you do it again?' I said, 'I can't, because I don't know what I was doing.' He begged me to try. Anyway, I did, and sang this counter melody, and he was delighted and said 'Addie, you're going to record this with the band.' A couple of days later I did.'

'Creole Love Call', with its expansive and melancholy theme, was intended as a vignette of the great blues singer Bessie Smith. But Hall's contribution was so fundamental to the performance that it has rightly been always linked to her. Her voice growled and swooped on her wordless theme in the manner of a jazz trumpet, and even Bubber Miley, the great expert who followed her with a pungent muted trumpet solo, was easily upstaged. At the same session she recorded another vocal with Duke which also became a hit, 'Blues I love to Sing'.

Adelaide Hall took over Florence Mills's leading part in the show Blackbirds at the Liberty Theatre on Broadway when Mills died in 1927. She judged this to be the role which confirmed her as a star. The cast included 'Bojangles' Robinson again and Hall sang two more numbers which became forever associated with her, the novelty 'Digga Digga Doo' and the beautiful 'I Must Have That Man', the latter being one of the two songs she recorded with Ellington in 1932. Both songs were written by the talented team of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields.

Hall toured in the US using a pair of pianists in her accompaniment. The most regular of these was Francis Carter and his partners included the jazz pianists Alex Hill, Joe Turner and Art Tatum. She made some recordings with Tatum which let us hear her voice in conventional interpretations. It is delightful, and there is no doubt that she could have been successfully trained as an operatic singer.

Hall first came to England in 1931 to star at the Palladium, where she was billed as 'The Crooning Blackbird' and she recorded in London with Joe Turner. She and her husband emigrated from the United States in 1934 and went to Paris, where Hicks opened a night-club called La Grosse Pomme. 'It held about 200 people. I made this dramatic entrance coming down the stairs from the attic. Nobody knew that all the boxes of wine and tinned food were stored up there with me. I came down the stairs in the most gorgeous costume you'll ever see, floating in feathers and plumes.'

In Paris she sang with the orchestras of Willie Lewis and Ray Ventura. She also recorded again on a trip to Copenhagen in 1937. In 1938 the couple moved to England and took British nationality. Hall starred in London in Edgar Wallace's play The Sun Never Sets and had her own radio series, in which she was accompanied by Joe Loss and his orchestra. Hicks opened the Old Florida Club in London. That autumn Fats Waller was in London and Hall recorded another Fields-McHugh song which she had introduced in the Twenties, 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love', with Waller on Hammond organ.

Early in the war the Old Florida Club was destroyed by a land-mine. 'I joined Ensa. I had a lovely uniform made by Madam Adele of Grosvenor Street, and it was smart] My husband joined the Merchant Navy.' After the war she continued to appear in theatres all over the country in revue, musicals and variety. She had a big role in the eventual return of cabaret to top-class London hotels.

Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate came to the London Coliseum in 1951 and Hall starred in it for 18 months before moving on to Love from Judy, also in London. In 1957 she went back to New York to co-star with Lena Horne on Broadway in Jamaica.

She returned to the US to sing on several occasions, once, in May 1980, to star in Black Broadway with Elizabeth Welch and Buck and Bubbles in the New York cast.

In 1988 when Bob Wilber and his orchestra played what was claimed to be the public premiere of Duke Ellington's Queen Suite at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Hall was on the bill. (There was controversy over the claim, because the suite had been performed earlier at the Ellington Conference of that year iin Oldham, but Wilber claimed that the conference was not 'public'.)

Hall continued to tour and record throughout the Eighties and in April 1989 was the subject of Sophisticated Lady, a television documentary produced by John Jeremy for Channel 4 where the singer reflected upon her life and sang with skilled and sympathetic accompaniment from the pianist Mick Pyne and the bassist Dave Green, musicians half her age. June Knox- Mawer presented a Radio 4 series on the singer called Sweet Adelaide and she was the subject of a Desert Islands Discs programme.

In the early Nineties she made a brief appearance in cabaret with the pianist Keith Ingham at the King's Head pub theatre in Islington, north London.

Adelaide Hall appeared in several films, including Dancers in the Dark with Duke Ellington (1937), All Colored Vaudeville Show (1935), Dixieland Jamboree with Cab Calloway (1935) and Dixie Jamboree with Calloway again (1944). In 1940 she appeared and sang in the British film The Thief of Baghdad. Cleo Laine was an extra in one of the crowd scenes.

(Photograph omitted)