“If my husband can be a merchant navy officer, I’m going to be a soldier.” Adelaide Hall.
Seems most appropriate during Black History Month to post two figures I’ve painted of Adelaide Hall, successful singer and businesswoman. As one of the world’s first jazz singers, through her improvised wordless rhythm vocalising she pioneered scat singing and enjoyed a career that spanned eight decades.
Adelaide Hall was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1901. Her family tree included a lineage to the Shinnecock Indians of Long Island. From 1921, Hall quickly developed a very successful stage career in the US, making a strong reputation appearing in all-black performer shows of the time. As a sought-after and successful singer, Hall made enough money to move to affluent Westchester County in New York where she received some racial threats and hostility from some white residents but also had support from her many fans.
In 1935, Hall moved with her husband to the more racially integrated Paris where they set up a jazz club and toured extensively. In 1938, she moved again to London where she would remain until her death in 1993. Her move continued her success and in 1941 she replaced Gracie Fields as Britain’s highest paid entertainer.
In London, she also opened clubs. A club that she owned in Britain was bombed by the Luftwaffe and she later reopened another on Regent Street. The arrangement worked well for, if work ever went quiet, she could always perform a show in own club. Her move to London just preceded the Second World War in which she would play her part in the war by entertaining troops as a member of ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association). It is this point in her career that Bad Squiddo’s figures represent.
“The first big wartime variety concert organised by ENSA was broadcast by the BBC to the Empire and local networks from RAF Hendon in north London on 17 October 1939. Among the entertainers appearing on the bill were Adelaide Hall, The Western Brothers and Mantovani. A Newsreel of this concert showing Adelaide Hall singing We’re Going to Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line accompanied by Mantovani and His Orchestra exists.” Wikipedia
Unfortunately, ‘hanging washing out to dry’ was about the only thing the Siegfried Line was useful for as the Wehrmacht moved swiftly into France and Belgium in the Battle of France. The ENSA members operated as part of the armed forces.
As such Adelaide Hall was enlisted as an officer and entitled to a uniform, as she related in an interview to presenter Sue Lawley on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1991;
SL: And you wore a uniform?
Adelaide Hall: Yes, and they made me a Lieutenant.
SL: Did that mean the boys had to salute you?
Adelaide Hall: Oh, yes! And I had my own jeep (laughs) and driver. My pianist was with me… [It was] a beautiful uniform, I loved it and I couldn’t stand the collar – very stiff for me, but you get used to anything, I suppose.
While painting, I got a feel for my subject and her music by listening to BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs broadcasts. She was recorded twice, once in December 1972 and again nearly 20 years later in January 1991. By the time of the last recording, Adelaide was in her 80s. A 6-minute extract only of her December 1972 broadcast remains:
Adelaide Hall was very well-respected in the industry and played with many top musicians and artists including Fats Waller, Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. Since her death, Adelaide Hall and her accomplishments have not been forgotten such as being acknowledged in Vogue’s list of ‘7 Remarkable Black Women Who Shaped British History’ and the award of a Black Plaque at Abbey Road Studios where she once recorded with Duke Ellington.
“I had a lovely uniform made by Madame Adele of Grosvenor Street and it was smart. Oh, you should have seen me in it! With the Sam Browne (belt) and a lovely cap, and the greeny-beige shirt and tie.”Adelaide Hall
“I went through Germany twice – and I must say that I enjoyed it. I was a bit on edge, but I persevered. I said, if my husband can be a merchant navy officer, I’m going to be a soldier.”Adelaide Hall