Two More Obits: 1920s/30s singer Elisabeth Welch and film writer Alexander Walker

From the Daily Telegraph, UK (cut down considerably):

Elisabeth Welch, who died yesterday aged 99, was one of the last century’s most polished interpreters of popular song. She belonged to an elite group of singers who gave definitive shape to the works of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Noel Coward and the other songwriters of the golden age. Her style was poised, her voice mellow and dignified. She never gave a forced or eccentric reading of a lyric, distorted a melody or misjudged a tempo. Her art was classic.

She was born on West 63rd Street, New York City, on February 27 1904. Elisabeth Welch began as a singer and dancer, appearing in the Broadway musical Runnin’ Wild in 1923, in which she introduced a new dance to the tune of the Charleston. As a chorus girl in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1928, which starred Adelaide Hall, Ada Ward and “Bojangles” Robinson, she was a success, and made a record of two songs from the show. Soon there were cabaret engagements in Paris and New York, which precipitated a violent rage in her absent father, who fulminated about his “Girlie . . . meeting her doom by going on the boards”. Elisabeth Welch later recalled: “It was terrible. He associated show business with low life, and he thought I would become a whore.”

One can perhaps understand his feelings in view of the circumstances of her appearance in Cole Porter’s New Yorkers in 1931. The famous song Love For Sale caused an immediate scandal because it dealt openly with the subject of prostitution (it was banned from the radio for many years), so after a month the scene in which it was sung was moved to Harlem, and Elisabeth Welch substituted for the original white performer, Kathryn Crawford. Shortly after, she gave an early demonstration of her acute taste by spotting the wonderful As Time Goes By and incorporating it in her cabaret act, a dozen years before it attained immortality in Casablanca.

Her first appearance in London was in an all-black review, Dark Doings, at the Leicester Square Theatre in 1933, in which she introduced Harold Arlen’s magnificently sad Stormy Weather to English audiences. Dark Doings was not a success, but after it folded Elisabeth Welch was summoned back from New York by the impresario C B Cochrane to appear in Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant, scoring the greatest of all her hits. After her success in Nymph Errant, Elisabeth Welch settled in England, where she remained for more than half a century and rapidly became a star prominent on stage, radio and film. In high old age, Elisabeth Welch continued to sing with great aplomb; indeed, although her voice lost some of its range and mobility, recordings from the mid-1980s indicate greater maturity of interpretation than ever.

Alexander Walker, who died yesterday aged 73, was for more than 40 years the outspoken film critic of the London Evening Standard; a journalist of passionate enthusiasm, he combined fine writing with a sure eye for quality and a dislike of gratuitous violence."

Walker also wrote more than 20 books, often lavishly illustrated. There were biographies of the stars Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Vivien Leigh and Bette Davis; studies of the star system, the use of sex on screen and the British film industry of the 1960s, as well as two highly valued critical works on his friend Stanley Kubrick. At the same time he was a frequent broadcaster. He wrote the television series Moviemen, and was the author and co-producer of a series on Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin, as well as a radio series called Film Star.

I’ll let you jazzbos talk about Elisabeth Welch, as I don’t have any of her recordings (though I am impressed beyond words that she seems to have been the first to dance the Charleston onstage!).

But I can say that Alexander Walker was one of the great movie-star biographers, a real hero of mine. I’ve never read his film criticism, but his biographies have always been intelligent, balanced, well-researched and very readable–not doctoral-thesis stuff, but not fan-mag crap, either. Terrific writer.

I have Walker’s book, Stanley Kubrick Directs, which came out around 1971. It’s a comprehensive review of all Kubrick’s work through 2001: A Space Odyssey, and can attest that he was a first-rate writer. I’m sorry to see him go.

. . . Jusyt bumping this for any late-comers. They were both such remarkable people that I didn’t want this to just drop off the front page unnoticed . . . I hope they get decent NY Times obits later this week.