In the second of a two-part profile by Tina May [the first is HERE], here is Elaine Delmar in conversation, talking about her life experiences and career of some 63 years. She was a rarity in 50s Britain – a black jazz and cabaret solo artist with a truly international outlook and, as such, a pioneering musician and role model in her own right. She has been consistently successful in crossing musical genres in her career: jazz, musical theatre, acting as well as singing on radio and television.
What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
I had to sit down and think about that… I think I was more involved with things ‘racial’ than ‘gender’ wise in my life. It’s not in my nature to blame anyone for a situation that may or may not happen. I run my own business as a singer and I’ve never thought that I’m trying to break through a ‘glass ceiling’. As a singer, I think it’s all down to your musical talent – but I was very nurtured by family and other musicians . I never doubted that I was a singer with ability.
My Mum was a wonderful homemaker, my father was a successful bandleader and always on tour – with all that that entailed.
How has life changed for you vis a vis life, in general?
Life has changed so much for women in the West. We got the vote, the pill… (she laughs). I worry about the men! (more laughter) We’ve risen like some sort of ‘serpent’…they now have to find their role. We have found more power in the West, of course. It’s not the same all over the world. I feel I’ve been very fortunate.
Who were your heroines?
I was inspired by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne – I loved her. She did a wonderful one woman show at the Aldwych. She was sublime and a heroine to me. They didn’t have an easy time being black female artists. I had 12 years of the northern club circuit but I never had to go into a hotel by the back door – like in the States. I’ve travelled a lot in the US but there are still parts of mid America that make me feel uncomfortable .
Was it difficult, bringing up your daughter and juggling your career?
No, not really. She came everywhere with me when she was little but I had always someone with me to look after her when I was on stage. Later on I had a dear friend, who acted as her nanny, to help me out at home. My daughter used to love coming to gigs and became a good singer herself, studying acting and musical theatre, before she went to live in the States.
Touring the working men’s clubs was very lonely and I remember after the last show, on a Saturday night, taking the late/early milk train home from the north. A cold journey in the ‘women only carriage’ – I recall carrying a small flick knife with me (just in case..).
What advice would you give to aspiring young singers?
Do your musical groundwork, learn how to inhabit a song. Learn from and sing with good musicians. Learn how to use your voice without doing damage to yourself. Remember this is an instrument that needs to be prepared for work. It’s so important to warm up your voice, learn good technique and not to stress it.
Do you reminisce about the musicians you have worked with?
Not a day goes by without me thinking about Pat Smythe – a wonderful pianist and friend. Duncan Lamont influenced me – he was a special friend and I loved his songs. And Brian Dee and I speak almost every day. Sadly, I haven’t worked with any female musicians…there weren’t any on the scene, when I was starting out…
Have you worked alongside other singers?
Only in shows like ‘ Bubbling Brown Sugar’ and ‘Cowardy Custard ‘! In general I’ve been solo (she laughs).
I remember changing backstage in Cabaret where there’s a stripper, a magician and all sorts of entertainers…all the while , you are desperately hoping that the house band remember what you’d rehearsed. It makes you resilient. I always say ‘someone could drop down dead on stage. I’d step over them and carry on singing!’ (more laughter).
What are your musical plans? Who are you working with at the moment?
Since Brian Dee retired I’ve been working with Barry Green, who I met through Ian Shaw about three years ago. Of course, at the moment everything has stopped….hopefully we will be at Ronnie Scott’s in June. We wanted to record early this year but have put it ‘on hold’. Barry is a lover of old songs, as am I. We will revisit some lovely songs – but also some new material. Barry is an ‘old head on young shoulders’ – but I love to take my time and work on the arrangements with him to get the right atmosphere, style and feel. He lives in Holland – but the whole world is waiting for things to open up so we can all travel again. Things will open up….eventually.
Do you know many female agents?
I think there are more theatre agents and producers than for jazz. Not so many, though.
Do you think about writing about your life. Your ‘history ‘ or rather ‘ herstory’?
I love to to write down my memories. I hope people know that I am pretty positive about life. I love Maya Angelou – there’s no bitterness. Her words are so wise….
I’m really looking forward to performing again and moving on to pastures new. We have a gig together in August in Bridgnorth together with Bruce Adams and the Craig Milverton trio. That’ll be fun!
LINK: Elaine Delmar’s website