Happy birthday, Ruby Elzy! Born on this day in 1908, Elzy had a remarkable voice and a remarkable career that was tragically cut short when she died during a routine operation for a benign tumor at the age of 35.
Born and raised by her mother in Pontontoc, Mississippi, Elzy was surrounded by strong women and singing from an early age. Elzy's mother worked three jobs: as a school teacher in the mornings, picking cotton in the afternoons, and as a launderer for white families in the evenings. Elzy would join her mother in the evenings, and they would often sing together. She learned spirituals from her grandmother, who had been a slave, and began performing in church at the age of four.
Elzy began college at Mississippi's Rust College, but during her Freshman year a visiting professor from Ohio State, Dr. Charles McCracken, heard her sing. He helped arrange for her to transfer to Ohio State, where he was her teacher, mentor, and her family away from home. Though Elzy started at Ohio State with some disadvantages due to the availability of opportunities in Mississippi, she graduated first in her class three years later, reading and writing music, speaking four languages, and playing the piano.
After graduating, Elzy won a Rosenwald Fund fellowship to attend Juilliard, from which she received two graduate degrees. During this time, she also became involved with the Harlem Renaissance and started performing on Broadway. A choir she joined was hired to sing in the new motion picture "The Emperor Jones," staring Paul Robeson; Elzy was picked for the small additional role of Dolly. This brought her to the attention of the screenwriter, DuBose Heyward--also the author of "Porgy." When Heyward worked with Gershwin to create "Porgy and Bess," he told the composer that he had to hear Elzy sing. After hearing "City Called Heaven" (listen below!), she was immediately cast as Serena.
Elzy went on to perform "Porgy and Bess" over 800 times, and this became the basis of her career. Because of this, she went on to appear in movies and radio broadcasts with Bing Crosby; to sing with the New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic; and to make her debut at New York's Town Hall. She sang for Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House and she sang recitals throughout the country. Elzy died at the age of 35, as she was preparing for her debut in the title role of Aida.
Want to learn more about Elzy's life and career? Check out this hour long radio broadcast from 2009.
Sparks Co-Artistic Director Martha Guth interviews internationally renowned Baritone to discuss American Song, his Hampsong Foundation and the Song of America educative Initiative which explores the history of American culture through Classical song.
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