Ruby Elzy (1908-1943)

by David E. Weaver

Ruby Elzy, 1930

One of the first inductees into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, singer Ruby Elzy possessed one of the greatest soprano voices of her generation. She created the role of Serena in the American folk opera Porgy and Bess by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. Elzy played Serena more than 800 times between the opera’s 1935 premiere and her death in 1943, and introduced one of the opera’s most famous arias, “My Man’s Gone Now.”

Ruby Elzy

Ruby Pearl Elzy was born in Pontotoc, Mississippi, on February 20, 1908. At age five, her father abandoned the family. Elzy’s mother, Emma, single-handedly supported herself and her four children by working as a teacher in the Pontotoc Colored School and by washing and ironing clothes for well-to-do white families. As a child, Elzy learned Negro spirituals from her grandmother, who had been born a slave. Elzy began singing at age four in her church, and even as a child astonished people with the power and beauty of her voice.

Elzy was a freshman at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where she was overheard singing one day in 1927 by a visiting college administrator, Dr. C.C. McCracken of Ohio State University. Overwhelmed by her natural talents, he arranged for her to transfer to Ohio State, where she graduated in 1930. Elzy then received a Rosenwald Fellowship to the Julliard School in New York City, graduating in 1934.

Elzy made her Broadway debut in 1930 in the chorus of Brown Buddies. In 1933, she made her film debut as Dolly in The Emperor Jones, starring Paul Robeson. The screenwriter for that film was author DuBose Heyward. When Heyward and composer George Gershwin began working on Porgy and Bess, adapted from Heyward’s novel, he recommended that Gershwin audition Elzy. After one hearing, Gershwin cast her as Serena. Elzy received tremendous acclaim in the role, both in the original Broadway production in 1935 and the 1942 revival, and on tour.

Ruby Elzy (far left) with Todd Duncan (kneeling), Anne Brown (standing to their left), George Gershwin (standing center) and members of cast of “Porgy and Bess,” 1935

In addition to Porgy and Bess, Elzy starred on stage in Run Little Chillun and John Henry. She also sang in concerts and on radio. In 1937, she made her solo recital debut at New York’s Town Hall and sang at the first Gershwin Memorial Concert at the Hollywood Bowl, which was broadcast worldwide by CBS radio. Elzy received the greatest honor of her career in December, 1937, when she sang at the White House at the invitation of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In addition to The Emperor Jones, Elzy appeared in four other films, most notably 1941’s Birth of the Blues (with Bing Crosby and Mary Martin), in which she sang “St. Louis Blues.” In 1940, Elzy was chosen by composer Harold Arlen as one of the soloists to record the world premiere of Reverend Johnson’s Dream, his original suite of American Negro spirituals.

Scene from “Birth of the Blues,” with Eddie Rochester Anderson (lying down), Ruby Elzy (kneeling), Bing Crosby (standing center), Mary Martin (right), Harry Barris (bass fiddle), Jack Teagarden (trombone), Brian Donlevy (cornet), 1941

Elzy’s dream was to sing in grand opera, and she planned to make her operatic debut in the title role of Aida in 1944, following the close of the Porgy and Bess tour. Her dream, however, was to remain unfulfilled. On June 26, 1943, one week after singing her final performance as Serena, Ruby Elzy died in Detroit, Michigan, following an operation. She was 35 years old. Elzy is buried in her hometown of Pontotoc, Mississippi.

©2005 by David Weaver. All rights reserved.

databaseThe Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists, including this artist, of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day. To see the recordings by this artist currently represented in the database, please click on the image to the right.

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