Ethel Ennis, Singer Who Walked Away From Fame, Is Dead at 86 - The New York Times
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Ethel Ennis, Singer Who Walked Away From Fame, Is Dead at 86
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Ethel Ennis with Louis Armstrong at Morgan State University in Baltimore 1958. At the height of her career, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, she also performed with Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington.CreditBaltimore Sun

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Ethel Ennis with Louis Armstrong at Morgan State University in Baltimore 1958. At the height of her career, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, she also performed with Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington.CreditCreditBaltimore Sun
Ethel Ennis was in bed one night in the mid-1950s when Billie Holiday called.
Ms. Ennis was in her mid-20s at the time, a jazz vocalist on the rise and, like Holiday, a product of Baltimore. At first she figured it was a prank call. But she quickly recognized Holiday’s dusty voice.
“You have a great voice; you don’t fake it,” she later remembered Holiday saying. “Keep it up and you’ll be famous.”
Ms. Ennis soon fulfilled Holiday’s prophecy — but only for a short time. She recorded for major labels in the late 1950s and the ’60s; toured Europe with Benny Goodman; performed onstage alongside Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong; and appeared on television with Duke Ellington. She became a regular on Arthur Godfrey’s TV show and headlined the Newport Jazz Festival. In 1961 she won the Playboy jazz poll for best female singer.
But she soon grew disillusioned with the demands placed on young divas, and she eschewed national celebrity for a quieter life in her hometown. She became a beloved performer and jazz advocate there, earning the unofficial title of Baltimore’s “First Lady of Jazz.”
“They had it all planned out for me,” she told The Washington Post in 1979, referring to the music executives in charge of her career. “I’d ask, ‘When do I sing?’ and they’d say, ‘Shut up and have a drink. You should sit like this and look like that and play the game of bed partners.’ You really had to do things that go against your grain for gain. I wouldn’t.”
She added: “I want to do it my way. I have no regrets.”
Ms. Ennis’s performances reflected her convictions. She sang in a sturdy, beaming voice that was quite different from Holiday’s tattered-silk purr.
She drew inspiration from crooners like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, but her vocals were a touch less stagy, more direct. Her readings of popular songs and standards had as much in common with Etta James’s effulgent soul singing as with Fitzgerald’s elegant diction.
Ms. Ennis died on Feb. 17 at her home in Baltimore at 86. Gary Ellerbe, a Baltimore radio host and friend of Ms. Ennis’s, said the cause was complications of a stroke.
She is survived by her husband, Earl Arnett, and her younger brother, the saxophonist Andy Ennis, who played in Ray Charles’s band for 10 years before settling down, like her, in Baltimore. A previous marriage ended in divorce.
Ethel Ennis in a publicity photo taken in 1958.CreditBaltimore Sun

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Ethel Ennis in a publicity photo taken in 1958.CreditBaltimore Sun
Ethel Llewellyn Ennis was born in Baltimore on Nov. 28, 1932, and grew up in the Gilmor Homes, a newly constructed public housing project in the West Baltimore neighborhood. She was raised primarily by her mother, Arabell, who played piano and organ in storefront churches, and by her maternal grandmother. Both caretakers were strict Methodists who refused to play jazz and blues in the house. But the music came thumping through the floor from the apartment below, and Ethel grew to love it.
She learned piano and began playing at the Ames United Methodist Church. At age 15, she started playing in nightclubs around town with an otherwise all-male band. When an audience member one night requested a blues song that required a female singer, she stepped up and sang it. It was a turning point.
“I sang and got the applause,” she told The Post. “I said, ‘Oh my,’ because I couldn’t sing that at home.”
Ms. Ennis became a mainstay of the Red Fox, a club on Baltimore’s main black entertainment strip along Pennsylvania Avenue. She was just 22 when she recorded her debut album, “Lullabies for Losers,” featuring the pianist Hank Jones and the drummer Kenny Clarke, for the Jubilee label.
That recording prompted the call from Holiday and a deal with Capitol Records. Ella Fitzgerald soon stated that Ms. Ennis was her favorite young vocalist, and Frank Sinatra called her “my kind of singer.”
Capitol released her album “Change of Scenery” in 1957 and followed it with “Have You Forgotten” a year later. In the mid-’60s Ms. Ennis put out four LPs on RCA. But rather than lean into her stardom, she decided to marry Mr. Arnett in 1967 (violating Maryland’s anti-miscegenation laws) and buy a house in central Baltimore.
She briefly landed back in the spotlight in 1973, when she sang the national anthem at President Richard M. Nixon’s second inaugural. A blizzard of media opportunities followed. Within days, she was invited onto the “Today” show and the nationally syndicated radio program “Monitor.” Her album “The 10 Sides of Ethel Ennis” was rushed into release.
But she continued to focus on the home front. In the 1970s she appeared on a children’s show on Maryland Public Television. From 1984 to 1988 she and Mr. Arnett ran Ethel’s Place, a jazz club in central Baltimore.
In her final decades Ms. Ennis played about a dozen shows a year around the Mid-Atlantic region and released a few albums. She never stopped expanding her repertoire.
“If Women Ruled the World,” released in 1998 on the Savoy Jazz label, found her performing songs by Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman and others.
That album’s final track, “Hey You,” is an original composition with a chorus that amounts to a statement of beliefs:
Hey you, are you doing what you want to do?
Yes you, are you doing what you want to do?
‘Cause life’s a treasure, time’s a measure
So why not to yourself be true?
Correction: Feb. 24, 2019
An earlier version of this obituary misspelled the name of the public housing project in Baltimore where Ms. Ennis grew up. It was the Gilmor Homes, not Gilmore.
A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 26, 2019, on Page B12 of the New York edition with the headline: Ethel Ennis Dies at 86; Baltimore Jazz Singer Who Eschewed Fame. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
 
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