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  Adelaide Louise Estelle Hall (1901–1993), by Walery, c.1930 Adelaide Louise Estelle Hall (1901–1993), by Walery, c.1930
Hall [married name Hall-Hicks], Adelaide Louise Estelle (1901–1993), jazz and cabaret singer, was born on 20 October 1901 in Brooklyn, New York, the elder daughter of William Arthur Hall, a piano and singing teacher at the Pratt Institute, New York, of African-American and Dutch descent, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Gerard, of African-American and North American Indian descent. Her father died when she was fourteen, and her younger sister, Evelyn, died in the flu epidemic of 1918. A self-taught tap dancer, Hall began her stage career in Noble Sissle's and Eubie Blake's Broadway musical Shuffle Along (1921). This was the most successful musical created to date by African Americans, and demonstrated that there was a place for them in commercial musical theatre. In 1924 she married a merchant seaman, Bertram (Bert) Hicks. Born in Trinidad, he was a British subject, educated in London and Edinburgh. He gave up the sea to become her manager—a role he kept until his death in 1963. There were no children of the marriage.

Hall enjoyed another success on Broadway in Runnin' Wild (1923) and toured Europe in the revue The Chocolate Kiddies (1925), with a music score written by Duke Ellington and Jo Trent. Her association with Duke Ellington continued when he encouraged her to become one of the first scat vocalists in jazz. It happened, almost by chance, when she was appearing with Ellington in Jazzmania at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. Her wordless vocal on ‘Creole Love Call’, which they subsequently recorded on 26 October 1927, was innovatory as a use of the voice as pure jazz instrument. However, most jazz critics and historians have undervalued her work as a jazz singer or, worse still, ignored her altogether. An exception is Gunther Schuller who, in The Swing Era: the Development of Jazz, 1930–1945 (1989), described her recording of ‘Drop me off in Harlem’ as ‘totally original … Her singing is rich with delightful, pert inflections and impeccable diction. It virtually transforms [Duke] Ellington's opus into an American art song’ (Schuller, 389). Adelaide's association with Duke Ellington continued throughout her career. In 1974 she performed at his memorial service at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. In 1928 she starred opposite the legendary dancer Bill Bojangles Robinson in another stage hit, Blackbirds of 1928—Broadway's longest-running black-cast revue. It was in this musical that she introduced Dorothy Fields's and Jimmy McHugh's standard ‘I can't give you anything but love’. In 1931 she visited London for the first time and became one of the first black entertainers to top the bill at the London Palladium. On returning to the United States, she toured extensively using jazz musicians, such as Art Tatum and Joe Turner, as accompanists; in 1934 she headlined at New York's famous Cotton Club, where she introduced ‘Ill Wind’, written for her by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler.

After leaving the Cotton Club, Hall settled in Paris with her husband and together they opened their own nightclub, La Grosse Pomme (The Big Apple). While running the club, she performed in cabaret all along the French coast. In 1938 she accepted an offer to appear in The Sun Never Sets, a stage production at London's Drury Lane Theatre. After selling La Grosse Pomme, she and her husband made London their permanent home, and opened the Florida Club in Mayfair. Also in 1938 she recorded ‘I can't give you anything but love’ and ‘That Old Feeling’ with jazz legend Fats Waller at the HMV Studios in London. Between 1939 and 1945 she made over seventy recordings for Decca. In 1940 she made a brief appearance in the film classic The Thief of Bagdad. After losing the Florida Club in an air-raid during the London blitz, she spent the remainder of the war broadcasting for the BBC, touring Britain's music-halls, and entertaining the troops for the Entertainments National Service Association. After the war, she appeared in cabaret and occasional West End musicals, including Cole Porter's Kiss me, Kate (1951). In the same year she and her husband opened their third nightclub, the Calypso, in London's Regent Street. Also in 1951, for BBC radio, she made a rare acting appearance with Flora Robson and John Gielgud in Helena by Evelyn Waugh and Christopher Sykes. In 1957, after an absence of twenty-seven years, she reappeared on the Broadway musical stage in Jamaica with Lena Horne. It ran for over 500 performances.

After the death of her husband in 1963, Hall's career lost direction, and for a while she supported herself by taking boarders into her South Kensington home. By the 1970s her career had reached such a low point that she could be found performing in town halls up and down Britain. There were also occasional guest appearances in pantomimes and revues such as Dick Whittington and The Jolson Minstrel Show. Things began to look up in 1980 when she returned to New York to take part in Black Broadway—a vaudeville-style song-and-dance salute to several surviving black Broadway legends of the 1920s. Five years later, when Francis Ford Coppola's film The Cotton Club was released in Britain, the British press discovered they had a real-life Cotton Club legend in their midst. To her delight the release of the film gave Hall an unexpected career boost and she found herself in demand for press interviews, cabaret appearances, and two important television documentaries: Omnibus: the Cotton Club Comes to the Ritz (BBC) and The South Bank Show: the Real Cotton Club (London Weekend Television). In an interview with Clive Goodman in the Daily Mail, she said:
Look, I'm way past seventy. Before the film, I'd been singing in town halls up and down the country, doing charity shows. People thought I was back in the States, that's how quiet things were. But ever since the movie came out my phone hasn't stopped ringing. It feels good to be a legend—and still living. (Daily Mail, 25 May 1985)
She continued performing in her one-woman show until her early nineties, and in 1986 Bruce Crowther and Mike Pinfold assessed her performing style in their book The Jazz Singers: from Ragtime to the New Wave:
She has a light, flexible voice and her sense of style is perfectly balanced with a degree of sophistication and warmth rarely encountered in popular singing. She has the ability to project the feeling of a lyric with great finesse. Not always at ease with a fast tempo, her forte is the slow, meaningful ballad which she invariably portrays with rare skill and sensitivity. (Crowther and Pinfold, 76)
In October 1988 there was a triumphant, sell-out homecoming when Hall made an appearance in her one-woman show at the Weill recital room at New York's Carnegie Hall. Audiences voted her the artiste they most wanted to come back, and she obliged with another appearance in 1992. Meanwhile, in 1989, Adelaide's happy and joyful personality was successfully captured in Sophisticated Lady, a Channel 4 television documentary which included reminiscences by the star and excerpts from a concert filmed at the Riverside Studios. Also in 1989 she was given a special award from the BBC's Jazz Society for her ‘outstanding contribution to music over the past sixty-two years’. This was followed in 1992 with a gold badge of merit from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors. In 1991 she celebrated her ninetieth birthday with an all-star tribute at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. She died in London's Charing Cross Hospital on 7 November 1993 and her funeral took place in New York at the cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City. She was buried with her father, mother, and sister.

Stephen Bourne

Sources  

R. Dunbar, ‘American-born entertainer is the darling of London’, Baltimore Afro-American (27 Feb 1948) · B. Green, ‘A timeless voice of Britain's queen of jazz’, Daily Mail (11 Nov 1993) · F. McHugh, ‘Sweet Adelaide sings on’, The Times (30 Jan 1988) · C. Larkin, The Guinness who's who of stage musicals (1994) · S. Bourne, ‘The love call’, Wire (Aug 1988) · A. Woll, Black musical theatre: from Coontown to dreamgirls (1989) · B. Crowther and M. Pinfold, The jazz singers: from ragtime to the new wave (1986) · H. Rye, ‘Visiting firemen: 10 (a) Adelaide Hall, Joe Turner and Francis J. Carter’, Storyville, 114 (Aug–Sept 1984) · G. Schuller, The swing era: the development of jazz, 1930–1945 (1989) · C. Ellis, ‘Adelaide Hall—the singing blackbird’, Storyville, 31 (Oct–Nov 1970) · S. Nicholson, A portrait of Duke Ellington: reminiscing in tempo (1999) · A. Rose, Eubie Blake (1979) · d. cert. · personal knowledge (2004) · S. Bourne, Sophisticated lady—a celebration of Adelaide Hall (2001)

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFINA, Omnibus, BBC1 · BFINA, South Bank Show, LWT · BFINA, ‘Sophisticated lady’, Channel 4, 1989

 

SOUND

 

BBC WAC · BL NSA, Oral history of jazz in Britain, 13 Dec 1988, T989–T9900YC1 · BL NSA, ‘Sweet Adelaide’ (4 parts), BBC Radio 4, April 1992, B9187/3


Likenesses  

Walery, photograph, c.1930, Hult. Arch. [see illus.] · photograph, repro. in The Times (8 Nov 1993) · photograph, repro. in The Independent (8 Nov 1993)

Wealth at death  

£194,881: probate, 31 Dec 1993, CGPLA Eng. & Wales