I want to claim Adelaide Hall as one of our own but in reality she was like so many naturalised Londoners, she came, she saw (or in her case she sang), and she stayed!
A New Yorker from Brooklyn, she lost her father and sister early on in her life and became the main breadwinner with responsibility for her mom at just 16 years old. She had already had a full career in the USA before she ventured to Europe. Singing in a club called The Big Apple in addition to the famous Cotton Club and she was also popular on Broadway. It is thought the term the Big Apple, the name for New York, comes from that very same Harlem Club.
By the time she arrived in Europe she had featured with Bill Bojangles on Broadway and had recorded ‘Creole Love Call’ with Duke Ellington. This was termed Scat music and she is credited with introducing this genre of singing where no words are sung and the voice is made to sound like another instrument. It’s not for everyone granted, but it was a huge hit back then which propelled her to fame. The public simply adored her. Here you can see a photo of a crowd assembling in Paris to meet her. The immense fame leads me to ask why her memory has not endured in the same way Vera Lynn's has. I will leave that up to you to decide.
Having already completed a world tour between 1931-1932 you could say she had acquired a taste for all things European (who can blame her)? She had performed in both the famous Berlin transexual club Eldorado (the club that inspired the film Cabaret) and the Moulin Rouge. In the fall of 1935 she and her husband Bert moved to Paris. Bert opened a nightclub in Montmartre and they called it La Grosse Pomme (the Big Apple, just like the name of the original New York Club). Hall recounts those days as a heady mix of flamboyance and feathers with costumes to wow the crowds. One can only imagine the sort of exotic spectacle she painted. Remember that black artists were revered in Paris at the time. Josephine Baker is immortalised in art deco posters and images scattered across Parisian sidewalks to this day.
In 1937 she choreographed her own Can-can style of dance and called it the Canned Apple. She was also credited with introducing the Trucking dance craze to Parisians.
In 1938 Adelaide moved with Bert to London. She took up a starring role in Edgar Wallace’s ‘The Sun Never Sets’ at Theatre Royal Drury Lane. It was so successful that British audiences were enchanted by her. She decided to make London her home.
On 28th August 1938 she recorded 'I Can’t Give You Anything But Love' and ‘That Old Feeling’ at Abbey Road Studios with Fats Waller.
On 1st September 1939 Adelaide was due to appear on BBC at 9pm. But war was looming and she got word during the day that broadcasting would be shut down. It remained shut down for 7 years. Can you imagine that sort of black out today?
She and her husband Bert, took over The old Havana club in Mayfair and renamed it The Florida Club. Sadly this club was bombed in the war. The strange thing is she had a premonition it would happen and told everyone to leave the club. Bert, her husband was in the cellar at the time the bomb went off, thankfully he survived but the club did not!
During the war Hall like her more well known counterpart Dame Vera Lynn entertained troops In Europe for the United Service Organisation (USO) and the British equivalent Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA) in which she served as a captain.
On 17th October 1939 the first world wide live broadcast took place from RAF Hendon by the BBC. On the bill was Hall and for those who love your instrumentals you will definitely know Mantovani! There’s a name from my childhood.
From there on in, she recalls singing for severely wounded troops sometimes without musical accompaniment but she worked hard to raise morale. One night in London in the East End she made history when she was on stage when the Luftwaffe struck. It was part of a sustained bombing campaign with the aim of obliterating the docks and supply chains which served as the larder of the UK. Bombs were raining down and Hall was singing on stage. Rather than go to the shelter she continued to sing. She did 54 encores until they got the all clear at 3.45am in the morning.
Hall was one of the first performers to go into Germany to entertain the troops as they advanced toward Berlin. Dismissing the dangers, the war was still on but the bravery with which she continued to perform was exceptional.
After the war she and Bert opened another club on Regents street called the Calypso club. It was during this time that she is said to have taught the young princess Elizabeth to do the Charleston. She continued to make records for Decca, recording over 70. She entered the Guinness Book of Records in 2003 for the world’s most enduring artist having released records for 80 years! In her career, and in addition to Bill Bojangles and Duke Ellington who I have mentioned earlier she sang with the likes of Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Rudee Vallee, Art Tatum and more recently Jools Holland.
At the height of her career in 1941 she was the wealthiest black singer in the world.
Her marriage was rock steady and she talks fondly of the creative influence of her adoring husband on her career. He died in 1963 and she outlived him by 30 years. They had no children.
She died in 1993 of pneumonia in Charing Cross hospital and her funeral was held at the Actors church in Covent Garden, attended by stars like Michael Parkinson and Elaine Page.
On my Mayfair Matriarchs Tour we will go to the location of the Florida club. My next tour to Mayfair is on Monday 13th November 11am. Tickets can be purchased on my website.
A plaque exists at Abbey Road commemorating this extraordinary lady.
We salute you Lieutenant Hall! Vivre sa mémoire! Long live your memory!