IN MEMORIAM: Ethel Ennis – American Jazz Musician
Ethel Llewellyn Ennis (November 28, 1932 – February 17, 2019) was an American jazz musician whose career spanned seven decades. Ennis spent the majority of her life in her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, where she was affectionately known as the “First Lady of Jazz”.
Life and career
Ennis was born in a row house on North Calhoun Street in Baltimore, Maryland, and grew up in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. She began performing as a church pianist at a young age.
Embarking on a solo singing career, she recorded a number of songs for Atlantic Records before her LP debut, Lullabies for Losers, was released by Jubilee Records in 1955. In 1957, she moved to Capitol Records for a two-album contract, and released A Change of Scenery. Soon after the 1958 follow-up LP Have You Forgotten, Ennis took a six-year hiatus from recording, during which she toured Europe with Benny Goodman.
In 1963, she recorded four LPs for RCA Victor. However, disenchanted with the creative direction of the label and artist management, Ennis left that label and took another hiatus. Eight years would pass before she received another recording contract. During this period she sang the title song for the 1967 feature film Mad Monster Party? The BASF LP 10 Sides of Ethel Ennis emerged in 1973; later that year, Ennis, a Democrat, was invited to sing at the re-inauguration of Richard Nixon. Her unusual a cappella rendition of the national anthem shocked some, but inspired many others.
Ennis had by then returned to her hometown of Baltimore, and would sing outside the area only a handful of times in the ensuing decades. However in 1980 she reappeared, releasing a live album, to the delight of her loyal fans. Ennis was brought back to national attention in 1994 with a self-titled NYC studio album produced by her long-time drummer, Paul Hildner. It reached the Jazz Top 40 radio chart. James Gavin of the New York Times wrote, “Her long, seductive ‘Save the Best for Last’ finds surprising depth in that Vanessa Williams hit, and she unlocks all the quiet wisdom of ‘I Can Let Go Now,’ Michael McDonald’s ballad about the moment when the pain of a failed relationship ends. Mr. Gress, the pianists Stefan Scaggiari and Marc Copland, and the drummer Paul Hildner help give the album its stark, shadowy mood.”
In 1998, Ennis once again recorded for a major label with If Women Ruled the World on Savoy Jazz. The most recent Ennis recording was a critically praised 2005 live set, captured in performance at Montpelier in her home state of Maryland.
Ennis died from a stroke on February 17, 2019. She was 86.