Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Ethel Llewellyn Ennis
MSA SC 3520-13599
Vocalist

Biography:

Ethel Ennis is an internationally renowned musician, cultural ambassador, entrepreneur, and community advocate of Baltimore, Maryland. Her brilliant journey through the world of music has inspired many to seize happiness simply by being yourself.

Ethel Ennis was born on November 28, 1932, on the third floor of a row house on Calhoun Street in Baltimore, Maryland. Her mother and father, Arrabell “Bell” and Andrew Ennis, were South Carolinians who had immigrated to their home on Calhoun Street, and would later move to the Gilmor Projects in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in 1941.1

Andrew, a barber, worked long hours, so it was up to Bell and her mother, Elizabeth “Honey,” to raise Ennis, her younger brother, Andrew, and Honey’s youngest child, Charlotte (who was two years older than Ennis).2 Bell and Honey were both very spiritual and conservative women who ensured that the young Ennis children were raised to be assiduous and responsible.3 They were especially concerned with raising children of color who could successfully survive in a racist world. Ennis remembered her beloved grandmother’s rigorous parenting style with appreciation: “She always told me that we needed to work on everything three times harder than the whites, just to be noticed. She said to be the best we could be at everything, to work harder, and to never be idle. And Honey lived what she said.”4 Although Honey was a strict disciplinarian, Ennis remembered her fondly and attributes many of her own best features to being raised by such a tough and upstanding woman.

Both Honey and Bell sang with the Ames United Methodist Church choir, and Bell worked with other churches as a pianist and organist.5 Ennis’s father was also a singer and harmonica player.6 Music was an important part of the Ennis household, and lessons for both young Ethel Ennis and her brother began at an early age. Ennis began her career learning piano just as her brother, Andrew, started on the clarinet. As Ennis moved from church music to jazz, so would Andrew, who would later go on to learn the saxophone and play with Ray Charles’ band for nearly a decade.7 Bell was her daughter's piano teacher until she was seven years old. At this point, Ennis went on to take formal lessons with her mother's own teacher, Ms. Lovey Husketh, a well-known pianist, educator, and civic leader in Baltimore.8 Taking the trolley from her home in West Baltimore to Ms. Husketh’s home in East Baltimore, Ennis took lessons with her for seven years, and at 13 years old, she began working as a pianist for her church.9 Ennis recalls that she initally learned music more for the sake of her family than for herself until she started working with her first jazz band.10 She remembers dreading her music lessons, because, at the time, Ennis really desired to become a ballerina. Honey, however, balked at the idea, and said that she didn’t want her granddaughter dancing with the devil, but, as Ennis quips in a much later interview, now she’s singing with him.11 12

Throughout her childhood, Ennis dutifully held herself up to her mother and grandmother’s high, often rigid, standards. She was the mild-mannered young lady that her mother and grandmother desired her to be; however, when she became exposed to the rhythm and blues scene, her interests shifted. Neither Honey nor Ennis's parents approved of jazz and blues. Her grandmother called any non-church music common, vulgar, and demeaning, and Ennis’ parents would forbid their daughter from playing pop music when she practiced her piano, and demand she play only etudes and hymnals.13 14 15 Despite her mother and grandmother’s best efforts to shield her from the devil’s music, Ennis remembered how she would press an ear to the floor of her parents’ third floor apartment to hear the rhythm and blues music that pervaded her downstairs neighbor’s home.16 Ethel remembered: “I mean this lady lived down there, you know, the house with the red lights. And boy, you could… hear the music. Boom! Boom! You could hear the bass line. Anyhow, havin’ my ear down there and listenin’ through the floor, that’s how I learned a lot of things I wasn’t supposed to learn.”17

Though she liked what she could only occasionally hear, Ennis did not eagerly leap into the jazz scene. The first jazz group that she played with was an all-male group called, “Abe Riley’s Octet.” She was invited by an older neighbor into the group, because he had heard from his drummer, a classmate of Ennis’s, that she was a pianist. The polite high-schooler was tentative to start at first, because she had been raised to play church music, not the bebop jazz that the octet wanted to perform. She was also raised to be a cautious, churchly young woman, and was concerned about how Bell and Honey would react. Ennis came to a performance before she made her decision, and found that, because most of the men in the Riley Octet were under drinking age, the group played in relatively calm places like community halls.18 More assured, she was drawn into the group at 15 years old. Ennis became the token woman with Riley's Octet, and said she had fun rising to the challenge of a whole new genre of music.19 The group toured around the outskirts of town, careful to play in places where age wouldn’t be a problem.20  Though jazz was not something her parents and grandmother approved of, Ennis knew that they trusted her to make the right decisions because of her good upbringing. Not only did they have faith in Ennis’ ability to carry herself, but they also trusted the other adults in Riley’s Octet to take care of their daughter.21 22

At the time, Ennis was only a piano player; however, her musical career took a swift transformation when she was asked by her group leader to sing a blues song popularized by Lil Green called, “In the Dark.” She recalls belting out this rather racy song and having the realization that she could “hang up her shingle as a singer.”23 She vividly remembered that moment:

“My first time singin’ and everybody applauded! And then, when I finished, they asked me to sing it again and again. And I thought, ‘Ooooh, I’m gonna be a singer and a piano player… Maybe I’ll get paid doubly… But that didn’t happen. I still got only two dollars and fifty cents a week and now I was singin’ my head off.”24

From this moment on, Ennis began performing as a singer.

Ennis gained some quick acclaim in 1950 when the music director at Booker T. Washington High School submitted her name for a local talent show on Channel 13’s WAAM, when Ennis was a senior. She won this local talent show, and went on to compete at the national competition on Paul Whiteman’s show in Philadelphia. She did not win, but she gained notoriety as a young local singer in Baltimore; however, after this early stint, she told interviewers of the Baltimore Afro-American that she was not seriously considering music as a livelihood.25

Ennis graduated from Booker T. Washington in 1950, and decided she would attend business school and work at the Department of Health during the day, and perform at night.26 This precarious balancing act did not work out for long, and when Ethel found that she was making more money in music, she quit working at the Department of Health. She did, however, successfully graduate from business school in 1952.27

Ennis worked in all manner of musical venues, as both a soloist and a part of an ensemble, when she was a teenager. She played a set on the Block, the adult entertainment district in the city, at places like the Flamingo and the Oasis where her act was sandwiched between a striptease and a burlesque act.28 29 As she gained popularity in the jazz scene and began travelling to different clubs Ennis recalled what it was like to be a black woman performing at segregated clubs in the 1940s and 1950s. She remembered when she was working with the Tilters, a black all-male seven-piece band, and they would get into scuffles. She recalled one time when some white truckers at Sherrie’s Musical Bar and Lounge off of Pulaski Highway would harass her and call her names. When the Tilters, who were taking a break upstairs while Ennis played her set, heard this harassment, they came down ready for a brawl. Though the racism and sexism that she faced scared and confused her at the time, Ennis pushed through and continued to sing and play piano in clubs around the Baltimore area.30

As a pianist and singer, Ennis toured up and down the east coast with a variety of bands in the early 1950s. When the Tilters disbanded in 1951, she joined the JoJo Jones Ensemble. When this band also began to part ways, Ennis teamed up with their bass player, Montell Pousson, as a keyboard and bass duo. At the time, Ennis was singing and playing the standards, music popular in the 1930s and 1940s.31 32 In 1954, Ennis made a fortuitous connection with George Fox, a New York club owner. Fox heard her at a club, and knew that he needed her to sing at the Red Fox, his integrated nightclub at Pennsylvania and Fulton Avenues.  Fox eventually became Ennis’s first manager. He gave the singer a steady gig at his club for nine years and secured her first recording contract with Jubilee Records, where she recorded Ethel Ennis and Lullabies for Losers.33 34 The record was moderately successful, and pushed Ennis’ name up in the music world. It was after hearing her on this record that Billie Holiday, one of Ennis's great black female jazz vocalist predecessors, called Ennis to tell her, “You’re a musician’s musician. You don’t fake. Keep on singing that way… one day you’ll be famous.”35 After this record was released in 1956, Ennis also sang at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. The Apollo was the temple of black music at the time and how you performed often dictated how great you would come to be. On the suggestion of the owner, Frank Schiffman, Ethel sang the upbeat song, “You Gotta Drive, Daddy, Drive,” which greatly enthused her audience, and further boosted her name into jazz fame.36

Fox proved himself a great manager as he continued promoting his young client, and secured Ethel a contract with one of the most famous labels in music, Capitol. It was in recording Ennis’s album Change of Scenery, that Ennis made another serendipitous connection, this time with her photographer, Popsie Randolph. Randolph had been a drummer for the celebrated "King of Swing," Benny Goodman, and knew that the band leader was looking for a female vocalist for his upcoming European tour. Upon hearing her vocals, Randolph believed Ennis would be a good fit.37 Though she was tentative to audition for one of the great jazz musicians of the time, Ennis sang for Goodman and he hired her for the 1958 European tour. In the spring of 1958, Ennis sang with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 16 cities across Europe over the course of 4 weeks, and ended the tour with a bang at Brussels World’s Fair.38 39

Despite her success with Benny Goodman, Ennis’s career slowed at the onset of the early 1960s. She moved from gig to gig. She went from London to New York to Philadelphia. It had been 5 years since she cut a record. Despite these doldrums, Ennis was named one of the outstanding jazz artists in a Playboy poll in 1960.40 Ennis's marriage was also showing signs of stress as her husband, Jack Leeds, an attorney in Maryland, became jealous of Ennis’ stardom and also began cheating on her with other women.41 The lull in her career was swiftly overturned in 1963 when Ennis signed a contract with her new manager, Gerry Purcell. Purcell was a big time business man who promoted many of his clients to household names. With Purcell leading her career, Ennis recorded with RCA Victor, a hugely famous label, and was being dubbed a jazz-pop musician hybrid. The name of her first record with RCA was called This is Ethel Ennis. This album was an attempt to introduce Ennis into the bigger popular music scene, but Ennis recalls that the attempts of the company to pigeonhole her as a “jazz-pop” maven didn’t feel right. She says of her album, This is Ethel Ennis: “... it really wasn’t me, who I really am.” This dissonance would characterize most of her relationship with Purcell and the career he was trying to push into the spotlight. With RCA, Ennis travelled throughout the U.S. promoting her album and regularly cut new records.42 At the 11th Newport Jazz Festival in 1964, Ethel was re-discovered. Her popularity as a jazz musician soared, and it reflected in the albums she was creating.43 With this revival jumpstarting her career, Purcell needed Ethel to conform to the star role to really cement her place in the business. He sent her to choreographers so that she could get out from behind the piano and steal the stage. He also told her she needed to be better groomed and would tell her, for example, that she could not sit before or during shows, otherwise she would crease her dresses. Ethel tried to go along with these efforts, but soon bridled. She says of this time that it was simple: “I didn’t feel that their way was right for me.”44 Uncomfortable with the demands of big business and simultaneously working through a divorce with Leeds, Ennis left Purcell to work with a much more relaxed manager in John Powell. She returned to Baltimore and left the big time behind. She looks back on this time as a decision to place her needs above her manager’s idea of her: “I said no. Let me step aside and let me learn more about me.”45

Although Ennis never became a superstar quite like her managers and fans wanted, she found happiness in going back to her roots in Baltimore. She stayed in her row home in Mondawmin and continued performing at the Red Fox. In 1967, Ennis met, fell in love with, and married her husband, and biggest supporter, Earl Arnett, all within 5 months. Upon hearing Ennis sing, Arnett, a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun, was entranced by Ennis’s voice. He called her one day to set up an interview for a piece he was writing. The piece was never published, and, instead, he married Ennis in Aspen, Colorado only a few months after they met. Arnett, a white man, and Ennis’ interracial marriage was not actually legal in Maryland until a few months after their ceremony.46 47

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ennis continued working all around the nation. Ennis especially loved working on the West Coast, where Spokane, Washington would become her home base for a time. In this period, Ennis also became more comfortable on the stage and in opening up to her audience, something with which she had always had trouble when she was working with Purcell.48 After entertaining together on a late-night show, Ennis also met the television and music personality, Arthur Godfrey, who invited her onto his own show as a regular act for nine years.49

Ennis also spent a lot of her time performing in her beloved hometown of Baltimore. In 1970, she even performed for free at the Baltimore City Fair to an estimated 22,000 people gathered on the Hopkins Plaza.50 With the adoration of her hometown, Ennis glided into local stardom. A 1972 cover article in The Baltimore Sun featured Ennis and highlighted some of the her most recent work. This article reached the desk of then Vice President of the United States and former Governor of Maryland, Spiro Agnew, who called into the newspaper to get Ennis' contact information.51 Agnew, a longtime fan of Ennis’s, invited her to sing at some of his dinner parties and political events, which eventually led to her performing at a state dinner hosted by Danny Thomas and Frank Sinatra. She was then invited to sing at the 1972 Republican National Convention. Though Ennis was a Democrat, she agreed to perform at the event, and with her successful performance, was invited to sing the national anthem at President Richard Nixon’s second inauguration.52 53 Ennis’s creative a capella interpretation of the anthem has led to many others putting their own spin on the song. She added an octave jump in the line “O'er the land of the free,” and on this decision, Ennis's husband, Earl Arnett, reporting for The Sun, wrote, “Ethel Ennis hit a high F on the word ‘free’ while singing the national anthem and the note rang throughout the Capitol area with a spirit which must have warmed the coldest heart among spectators assembled.”54

The latter half of the 1970s and the early 1980s proved to be a time of reflection, self-realization, spirituality and growth for Ennis. Honey died in 1977 and Bell died only two years later.55 Mourning the loss of some of her greatest mentors, Ennis learned more about her own spirituality and thereby, herself. She and Arnett began to develop their spiritual philosophy of Soft Power, which Ennis describes as a force that is based in “... closing your eyes and ears and communicating to and from within. To really listen to that silent world; it’s not a verbal world. It’s where you feel. And then start feeling deeper.”56 Spirituality led Ennis to greater realizations about herself, and also helped her through the loss of her grandmother and mother. In this period of time, Ennis also began singing regularly at the Maryland Inn in Annapolis. This gig allowed Ennis to stretch and learn. She learned about stage presence and her audience, and sang differently. Ennis recorded new work there and experimented with her sound.57 Ennis also gave voice to the animated character, “Ethel Earphone,” on the Maryland Public Television’s educational children's show, “Book, Look, and Listen.”58

The 1980s were filled with further recognition from her hometown of Baltimore. In 1982, Mayor William Donald Schaefer appointed Ennis and Arnett as Cultural Ambassadors of the City of Baltimore, which led Ennis, in 1987, to sing in the First International Music Festival in Baltimore's sister city, Xiamen, China. She was also inducted into the Frederick Douglass High School Hall of Fame and presented with an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art.59 In 1982, Ennis also headlined Baltimore’s inaugural Artscape, the largest free community arts festival in the U.S.60 In 1979, Ennis and Arnett created their husband-and-wife company, EnE Productions, which, in 1984, debuted Ethel’s Place, a cabaret club, restaurant, and production company on Cathedral Street right across from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Ennis and Arnett sold Ethel’s Place in 1988 to focus on music and arts, but the club is fondly remembered as a hub of the arts in Baltimore.61

More recently, in the 2000s, Ennis has continued recording her songs and performing for local audiences. She enjoys entertaining at the Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel. In an interview after a concert in 2014, the then 82 year old told a reporter that, for her, “Singing is never work.”62

Ennis is greatly admired by some of the biggest names in jazz and her Maryland community members alike. Although she has not gone on to live the superstar life of some of her jazz heroes like Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, Ennis serves as an inspiration to all those who had to decide what was the healthiest and happiest route for them. She asserted herself and made the radical decision to go against the grain of big business, by choosing to take care of herself. Besides, for Ennis, it’s always been about her love of singing. As she was getting ready to open Ethel’s Place in Baltimore in the 1980s she told her biographer, Sallie Kravetz, “This time I’m going out with a purpose. I’m singing me, which was never there before.”63 For her admirable journey in music and her contributions to culture and the community, Ethel Llewellyn Ennis is proudly recognized as a member of the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.


Endnotes:


  1. Transcript of Oral History with Ethel Llewellyn Ennis, interviewed by Elizabeth Schaaf, Interview No. SAS8.07.02, Sounds & Stories: The Musical Life of Maryland’s African-American Communities, Friedheim Music Library, Johns Hopkins University Peabody Institute, 7 August 2002, https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/bitstream/handle/1774.2/35226/ennis.pdf?sequence=2. Return to text.

  2. Carl Schoeffler, “ETHEL ENNIS: Her Own Person, Her Own Place,” The Sun (1837-1989), 4 August 1985, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text.

  3. Sallie Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star (Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1984), 2. Return to text.

  4. Ibid., 6. Return to text.

  5. Ibid., 2. Return to text.

  6. Transcript of Oral History with Ethel Llewellyn Ennis, interviewed by Elizabeth Schaaf. Return to text.

  7. Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star, 4. Return to text.

  8. Transcript of Oral History with Lewellyn Husketh Walker, interviewed by Megan Coe, Interview No. SAS3.14.02, Sounds & Stories: The Musical Life of Maryland’s African-American Communities, Friedheim Music Library, Johns Hopkins University Peabody Institute, 14 March 2002,  https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/bitstream/handle/1774.2/35249/walker.pdf?sequence=2. Return to text.

  9. Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star, 7. Return to text.

  10. Transcript of Oral History with Ethel Llewellyn Ennis, interviewed by Elizabeth Schaaf. Return to text.

  11. Sandra Crockett, “Baltimore’s lady of jazz; Ethel Ennis fell in love with jazz and blues in childhood. At 65, there’s nothing else she’d rather sing,” The Sun, 14 June 1998. Return to text.

  12. Jack Dawson, “‘TO MAKE IT YOU HAVE TO GIVE UP SO MUCH,’” The Sun (1837-1989), 2 January 1972, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text.

  13. Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star, 10. Return to text.

  14. Transcript of Oral History with Ethel Llewellyn Ennis, interviewed by Elizabeth Schaaf. Return to text.

  15. Crockett, “Baltimore’s lady of jazz; Ethel Ennis fell in love with jazz and blues in childhood. At 65, there’s nothing else she’d rather sing.” Return to text.

  16. Henry Scarupa, “Ethel Ennis a riddle? Biographer thinks so,” The Sun (1837-1989), 31 December 1984, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text.

  17. Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star, 10. Return to text.

  18. Ibid., 11. Return to text.

  19. Ethel Ennis, “Ethel Ennis: From Playing for Church to Playing with a Group,” YouTube video, 7:41, posted by “visionaryproject,” 17 March 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLCwE4GdJdVRLD7x0HOBAmlxby9_khz2MR&v=PoO9ZGx0vyY. Return to text.

  20. Transcript of Oral History with Ethel Llewellyn Ennis, interviewed by Elizabeth Schaaf. Return to text.

  21. Ibid. Return to text.

  22. Ennis, “Ethel Ennis: From Playing for Church to Playing with a Group.” Return to text.

  23. Ibid. Return to text.

  24. Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star, 12. Return to text.

  25. “MUSIC CENTER OF LIFE: Warbling, Playing Get Girl, 17, Try on TV,” Afro-American (1893-1988), 12 August 1950, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text.

  26. John Lewis, “Pure Ethel,” Baltimore Magazine, March 2011, http://www.baltimoremagazine.net/2011/3/1/pure-ethel. Return to text.

  27. Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star, 16. Return to text.

  28. Transcript of Oral History with Ethel Llewellyn Ennis, interviewed by Elizabeth Schaaf. Return to text.

  29. Dawson, “‘TO MAKE IT YOU HAVE TO GIVE UP SO MUCH.’” Return to text.

  30. Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star, 15. Return to text.

  31. Ibid., 17. Return to text.

  32. Ethel Ennis, “Ethel Ennis: Early Singing Style,” YouTube video, 4:03, posted by “visionaryproject,” 17 March 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7shoNl0nAHM&index=3&list=PLCwE4GdJdVRLD7x0HOBAmlxby9_khz2MR. Return to text.

  33. Dawson, “‘TO MAKE IT YOU HAVE TO GIVE UP SO MUCH.’” Return to text.

  34. Lewis, “Pure Ethel.” Return to text.

  35. Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star, 27. Return to text.

  36. Ibid., 26. Return to text.

  37. Ibid., 31. Return to text.

  38. Ibid., 33. Return to text.

  39. Dawson, “‘TO MAKE IT YOU HAVE TO GIVE UP SO MUCH.’” Return to text.

  40. Ibid., 40. Return to text.

  41. Lewis, “Pure Ethel.” Return to text.

  42. Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star, 47-56. Return to text.

  43. Ibid., 51-52. Return to text.

  44. Ibid., 54. Return to text.

  45. Schoeffler, “ETHEL ENNIS: Her Own Person, Her Own Place.” Return to text.

  46. Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star, 73-77. Return to text.

  47. Ethel Ennis, “Ethel Ennis: Meeting Husband / Interracial Marriage,” YouTube video, 8:50, posted by “visionaryproject,” 17 March 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OlMAD6Tl_wc&list=PLCwE4GdJdVRLD7x0HOBAmlxby9_khz2MR&index=5. Return to text.

  48. Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star, 66-67. Return to text.

  49. Ibid., 74-75. Return to text.

  50. Dawson, “‘TO MAKE IT YOU HAVE TO GIVE UP SO MUCH.’” Return to text.

  51. “New Fame for Ethel Ennis,” The Sun (1837-1989), 25 February 1973, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text.

  52. Ethel Ennis, “Ethel Ennis: Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew,” YouTube video, 4:07, posted by “visionaryproject,” 17 March 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIRXHaiwBU0&list=PLCwE4GdJdVRLD7x0HOBAmlxby9_khz2MR&index=7. Return to text.

  53. Earl Arnett, “Ethel Ennis’s anthem: Inauguration pomp to cleaning the ‘frig,” The Sun (1837-1989), 22 January 1973, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text.

  54. Ibid. Return to text.

  55. Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star, 93-94. Return to text.

  56. Ibid., 95. Return to text.

  57. Ibid., 98. Return to text.

  58. Lewis, “Pure Ethel.” Return to text.

  59. Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star, 95. Return to text.

  60. Lewis, “Pure Ethel.” Return to text.

  61. Ibid. Return to text.

  62. Pat Farmer, “Age hasn’t dampened the style of singer Ethel Ennis [Senior Circles],” The Sun, 2 April 2014. Return to text.

  63. Kravetz, Ethel Ennis: The Reluctant Jazz Star, 108. Return to text.

Biography written by 2015 summer intern Amelia Meman.

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