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Ethel Ennis (1932-2019)

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Ethel Ennis, a female jazz-pop singer with an exceptional vocal range and a warm, seductive style that made listeners feel as if they just kicked off their shoes and extended their legs on a soft sofa, died on February 17. She was 86.

There was a hint of Sarah Vaughan in Ennis's voice, but instead of deploying Vaughan's coy phrasing at the end of lyric lines, Ennis played it straight, releasing a warm, elegant vibrato. Starting in 1955, her albums were universally excellent. In fact, Ennis aced every song she sang, and that's not an overstatement. Her skills as a jazz singer were first rate.

Ennis's first album, Sings Lullabys for Losers (1955), with Hank Jones (p), Eddie Briggs (g), Abie Baker (b) and Kenny Clarke (d) for Jubilee, is breathtaking. Her song choices were shrewd and her delivery was especially seductive. Her two Capitol releases—Change of Scenery (1957) and Have You Forgotten (1958)—are deft and devilishly enticing. Ennis had no trouble surfing Neal Hefti's jumpy arrangements on the former or bouncing with Sid Feller's brass on the latter. Then Ennis went off on tour to Europe with Benny Goodman.

On This Is Ethel Ennis for RCA in 1963, arranged by Sid Bass, Ennis lifts the quirky material and scoring with poise and grace. But with the adult pop-vocal market in rapid decline in 1964, Ennis had to ponder a Faustian bargain. An RCA Victor deal was in the offing but it came with two conditions: She would have to leave Baltimore to tour and promote albums, and RCA would control where she performed and with whom. She refused but still recorded four albums for the label.

In his Ennis obituary, Baltimore Sun writer Frederick N. Rasmussen included Ennis's reasoning for living life her way: “You had to belong to a clique. You were supposed to be seen with all of the right people, the movers and the shakers. They tried to mold you into something you were not,” Ms. Ennis explained in a 1998 Baltimore Sun interview. “The agent said, ‘You don’t want to be a star. You want to be a semi-star.’ I said, ‘OK. I’ll be a semi-star.’ I did have determination, but I don’t think you have to go against your grain.”

Pop music's loss was Ennis's and Baltimore's gain, as she was able to remain in her beloved home city and work steadily with jazz greats of the day.

Here are several of my favorite Ethel Ennis recordings:

Here's Lullabys for Losers (full album; all of the tracks are here, one after the next)...



Here's Ennis singing Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe, with an arrangement by Neal Hefti...



Here's Ennis singing A Little Bit Square But Nice arranged by Sid Feller...



Here's Ennis with Benny Goodman in 1958...



Here's a cool color video of Ennis singing I've Got That Feeling...



And here's Ennis singing a flawless My Foolish Heart...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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