Earl Okin on Adelaide Hall (1901 -1993)

Around the mid forties, when Duke Ellington was in London as a variety act at the London Palladium, his friend, the late Renee Diamond played him an old 78 of Duke's 'Merry-Go Round' cut in the early Thirties. Duke's response was 'My! Did the band ever really sound as good as that!' Now, given that, by all accounts, the Forties were the years when Duke Ellington was at his very peak, this must surely tell us something about what jazz musicians of that era thought about their music compared with what the critics say today.

The reason I've told that little anecdote is that Adelaide Hall, who died in 1993, was the last link with Duke's first classic band.

Not only did she sing the famous wordless phrase (that she'd improvised in the wings while on tour with Duke's band a week or so before) on the classic 1927 recording of 'Creole Love Call', but, more impressively I think, there were two vocals with Duke on an early Thirties version of two songs, ('Baby!' and 'I Must Have That Man'), that Adelaide introduced in 'Blackbirds', the show that really launched her career. Anyone interested in singing jazz should listen to those tracks. They could learn an awful lot.

Then, of course, one should remember that it was as accompanist to Adelaide Hall that Art Tatum was first heard outside his home town. The few recordings they made together make fascinating comparison with the Billie Holiday / Teddy Wilson collaborations of a decade later. And oh yes! We should never ever forget those wonderful duets she recorded in London with Fats Waller in 1938.

Now that she's gone and the traditional tributes have been printed perhaps it's time to talk about Adelaide as a person and also to reassess her importance in the history of jazz singing and, in so doing, look at our attitudes to what jazz singing should be about and how it stands alongside the attitudes of her contemporaries.

Without wanting to overgeneralize, I think it's true to say that our feeling about jazz singing tends to be that its rightful place to be performed is down in some smoke-filled basement amongst world-weary musicians and other jazz cognoscenti. The singer should be black and, ideally, should have 'lived'. If she has had a brush with the seamier side of life, i.e. prostitution, too much booze or even drugs, then so much the better. Of course, this is rather a stereotyped image, but there's more than a grain of truth in it.

It certainly wasn't the way Adelaide's generation thought about jazz. Remember, Adelaide predated Billie Holiday by a whole generation. She was born, only a year after Louis Armstrong, into a middle-class black (or coloured, as Adelaide preferred to say) family in Brooklyn, her father being the sort of musician who would wake the entire household if he suddenly thought of a melody in the middle of the night. He'd have to go down to the piano and play it immediately, before he forgot it.

Adelaide was discovered at a school show and, in no time, found herself in the chorus of the epoch-making 'Shuffle Along', a musical revue written by Eubie Blake with a cast that brimmed with talent. The chorus line included not only Adelaide Hall but Josephine Baker, then popular for her comedy. This, remember, was the chorus line; never mind the stars! The point I am making is that this was showbiz on the lavish scale. You had to be heard without a microphone.

I remember that, as late as the mid Eighties, when I was involved with Adelaide in an Ellington retrospective at The Royal Albert Hall, she was practising and I could hear her voice clearly across that gigantic space unamplified. Her voice was big and rich without this being made too obvious.

Her manner was always that of the musical-comedy star rather than the night club chanteuse and she would light up as soon as she stepped on the stage even if, moments before, she had been complaining about a pain in her knee. After the show, Adelaide would love to be treated like the star she was. If there were a bottle of champagne and flowers in the dressing room, perhaps a limousine to take her home, some adoring fans to share an apres-show chat with, her evening was made.

Everything was for her audience. I used to joke about her being the ultimate ham. She would always pretend to be most reluctant if asked to sing at some musical event at which she was in the audience. Having been "dragged" to the stage, she would proceed to sing for the best part of half an hour before returning to her table and more adulation which was her life-blood. Addie, as everyone called her, exuded warmth to friends and strangers alike, and her late vanities were harmless and indeed rather endearing.

To Adelaide, jazz had been a world of glamour, never seediness. She starred at the Cotton Club in New York and Chicago, the Big Apple in Paris and the Palladium in London, all before the war, having made her reputation singing and dancing opposite the great Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson in 'Blackbirds' of 1928, during which she introduced 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love'.

I asked her once how she had learnt to tap dance. She looked surprised.

'Learnt?', she replied. 'We just danced'.

The same was true of her singing. If you listen to her on CD, now her rare Twenties and Thirties recordings are readily and cheaply available (Hall of Memories and As Time Goes By on the Happy Days Series CDHD 169 and 248), her phrasing is definitive. Let me repeat that she was of the same generation as Louis Armstrong. There was no earlier generation to teach her about jazz phrasing. She was one of the creators.

Adelaide always swung, whatever she was singing...and this was as true in the last years of her life as at the beginning of her career. So, why do we not talk of Adelaide Hall alongside Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald?

Apart from the stereotype idea of the jazz singer that Adelaide never was, for a start she was too available and not only at jazz events. From the moment Adelaide arrived in Great Britain in 1938, she joined in with the typically British entertainment called Variety, singing under the byline of 'Songs in Sepia'. Just as Louis Armstrong loved to sing with strings or a harp, Adelaide could see no reason to restrict herself to the accepted jazz repertoire. She was more likely to be found singing her personal version of Ralph McTell's folksy 'Streets Of London', than a song of suffering or loneliness like 'Lover Man' or 'Round Midnight'.

Her personality was one that cheerfully accepted whatever came her way. This perhaps does not make a blues singer and goes against the purists' idea of what jazz singing is all about! Neither was she interested in technical experiments with music and taking jazz to new places. I suppose that if you were one of the generation that started the whole of jazz going as we know it, you could afford not to worry about things like that.

As far as she was concerned, she sang songs that suited her and songs that would combine to make up a well-balanced programme for her own audience. The affection and loyalty that this audience felt for her was well demonstrated when a concert was held in honour of her 90th birthday on the South Bank. Typically, she couldn't stay in her seat in the front row, but had to end the evening with a good few songs herself, centre stage!

Without knowing it, just about everybody singing jazz today is influenced by Adelaide, for she helped create the whole genre, although perhaps her only direct successor would be someone like Lena Horne (and they did perform together) or today maybe somebody like Diana Ross. Adelaide Hall was of the gracious side of jazz, but she was an original. You can't say she sounds like anyone else. Even her phrasing swings in a different way to many later singers, but it swings nevertheless.

I'll miss Adelaide, not only for her singing but for her humour, sense of fun and that devilry and mischievousness that showed you that there was still a little girl inside her that refused to grow up. Once, for instance, we were performing at Andrew Lloyd-Webber's private theatre at his own home (we were singing Duke Ellington, I hasten to add). After the show the cast of singers and musicians were offered as refreshment sandwiches of the most English and minuscule proportions. I can now reveal that it was the naughty Adelaide Hall, then in her mid-80s), who led the raid on the kitchen. Adelaide loved her food and perhaps a glass or two of wine. She was really incensed that day, but she did enjoy the raid, rather like a naughty schoolgirl.

Despite any little vanities and even occasional niggling jealousies that amused rather than offended, Adelaide was never coldly ambitious. Around 1980, a lavish retrospective celebration of Black Broadway was planned for Carnegie Hall. Naturally, the organisers wanted Adelaide to fly across and you would have thought that she'd have jumped at the chance. In the event, however, it took myself and others quite a bit of persuasion...and why? Because she'd have to let people down over a Summer Season of old-time Variety at Margate! That was typical Adelaide. Perhaps I should add that, despite a glittering cast, she was the hit of the evening. New Yorkers, who didn't even know she was still singing at all, let alone so well, (after all, it was over 50 years since 'Blackbirds'), were completely blown away.

As far as the jazz critics were concerned, perhaps Adelaide Hall didn't sing the way black jazz singers were 'supposed to'; perhaps she was just too available, the lady who lived round the corner rather than the USA-based artiste who would occasionally appear like Halley's Comet and disappear again. Maybe only now they'll realise the word 'legendary' really did belong next to her name.

As for me, I think I'll remember best the night when she sang at the debut performance of the late lamented Midnite Follies Orchestra at the 100 Club. As Adelaide herself said, (and she should have known), the band got about as close to the sound of that old Cotton Club Duke Ellington Orchestra as anybody could. Then, the last of the original Ellingtonians was there on stage, singing with the band and, all of a sudden, the whole audience found themselves saying 'I didn't know jazz could sound so good!'

EARL OKIN.


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