Like many African-American performers of her time, singer Elisabeth Welch found greater success in Europe than in the United States. After starting her career in New York, Welch performed in popular clubs in Paris and London, and, later, in British films. Before leaving New York, however, Welch made her Broadway debut in the 1923 musical Runnin’ Wild, singing “Charleston” the “theme song of the jazz age.”1 Welch was still in high school at the time.
After singing for years in European clubs and shows, Welch returned to New York to a club called the Royal Box in 1930. While performing there, she sang Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” a song featured in The New Yorkers, which had just opened on Broadway to mixed reviews. A friend of Porter’s heard Welch’s performance and convinced The New Yorker’s producers to replace the white actress who sang the song in the show’s opening with Welch. “Love for Sale” became one of Welch’s most popular songs and her performance in the New York production of the musical was the first of many appearances she would make in Porter’s productions. It also marked the beginning of a long friendship with Cole Porter.
Welch, who trained as a social worker before committing to a career in the theater, returned to England where she enjoyed a long and varied career including work in the theater, on the radio, and in films. During World War II, she performed for British troops as a member of Sir John Gielgud’s company. Welch returned to New York in 1980 to appear in Black Broadway, a tribute to 20th century African-American theater in New York City.