Adelaide Hall was an American-born jazz singer whose improvisational, wordless rhythms ushered in the vocal technique known as “scat.”
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 20, 1901, jazz singer Adelaide Hall debuted as a chorus member in the musical Shuffle Along in 1921. Hall was a major figure during the Harlem Renaissance before settling in Britain, where she had an illustrious career. After returning to the United States, her career waned until the release of the film Cotton Club. Hall continued to perform into her 90s. She died in London in 1993.
Adelaide Louise Hall was born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 20, 1901, the older daughter of William Hall and Elizabeth Gerard Hall. Her father taught piano at the Pratt Institute in New York City, where Adelaide and her sister, Evelyn, attended. Encouraged by both parents, the girls formed a piano-vocal duo, but in 1918, those dreams were cut short when Evelyn died during the influenza epidemic.
In 1921, Adelaide Hall debuted in the chorus of the Broadway musical Shuffle Along, featuring Florence Mills and Paul Robeson. Two years later, she starred in the musical Runnin' Wild. In 1924, she married Bertram Errol Hicks, a British citizen born in Trinidad. Hicks soon became Hall's business manager.
In 1926, Hall toured Europe as a star of Chocolate Kiddies. She also met Duke Ellington during this time, beginning a long professional association with the famed jazz orchestra leader. The two recorded "Creole Love Call" in 1927, where Hall, using her voice as a pure jazz instrument, pioneered the vocal technique known as "scat."
Hall became a major musical figure in the late-1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance. She headlined Harlem's fabled Cotton Club, where Ellington was a regular. She also toured the Vaudeville circuit, appearing on Broadway in Desires (1927) and in Blackbirds of 1928 with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
With her success, Adelaide Hall bought a home in the all-white community of Larchmont, New York, in the early 1930s. The residents there were not comfortable with their new neighbors, however, so they tried to have them evicted. After a mysterious fire broke out in Hall's home, she feared for the safety of her family, and they subsequently left for Europe.
In 1937, Hall, her mother and her husband settled in Paris, France, where she became an overnight sensation. The following year, she traveled to Britain to co-star in the musical adaption of The Sun Never Sleeps and quickly became one of England's best-loved entertainers. During World War II, she opened her house to American soldiers arriving in London in ever-increasing numbers. In the war's final years, she joined the uniformed entertainment corps performing in Europe after the Allied invasion, often near the frontlines.
After the war, Hall performed in Cole Porter's Kiss me Kate in London. In 1957, she returned to the United States and appeared in the Broadway production of Jamaica, starring Lena Horne. With her husband's declining health and eventual death in 1963, Hall made only a few public appearances, including singing at Duke Ellington's memorial in 1974.
The international success of Francis Ford Coppola's Cotton Club in 1980 brought new life to Hall's career, and she began performing regularly in both Britain and the United States. In 1988, her one-woman show at New York's Carnegie Hall was a sell-out. A year later, her story was captured in a BBC documentary entitled Sophisticated Lady.
Hall gave her last performance in March 1992, singing over two nights at Carnegie Hall as part of the "Cabaret Comes to Carnegie" series. Following a short illness, Hall died on November 7, 1993, in London, at the age of 93.