Among the LPs in my growing collection in 1958—yes, I’m an old geezer—was one freshly minted by singer Ethel Ennis. Her stunning voice captured me completely, particularly her rendition of “The Things I Love.” The album was titled “Have You Forgotten?” and from the moment I heard her lovely voice I knew I would never forget her.
This flood of memories cascaded again when I learned she had died on Feb. 17. She was 86 and her hometown paper The Baltimore Sun published a lavish review of her career, including her numerous recordings and her dates in concert with a litany of noted bands.
Ennis was born Nov. 28, 1932, in Baltimore, where she spent most of her life, after coming of age in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. She was more than a competent pianist at the start of her musical journey while in Frederick Douglass High School, having perfected her chords in the church. But it was her smooth, melodious voice that pushed her away from the keyboard and in front of a large ensemble or orchestra. She was 15 when she first sang in public, and after answering a request to sing the tune “In the Dark,” she stepped away from the piano into the spotlight.
In 1955, at 23, she recorded her debut album “Lullabies for Losers” (Jubilee). Not too long after the recording made the rounds, Ennis, then married to Jacques “Jack” Leeds, a Baltimore attorney, received a call from Billie Holiday. She told Ennis how much she was impressed by her album. Apparently, Billie had gotten her number from an associate they had in common. Billie told her she was “the real deal and one day would be famous.” It should be noted that Ennis recorded four albums with Atlantic. Two years later, on the Capitol label, came “Change of Scenery.”
There followed a stint of road engagements in the states and a tour of Europe with the Benny Goodman band. But this grind was too intense for her and she returned home and to the recording studio with the chestnut I mentioned above in 1958.
More than six years went by before she landed a contract with RCA Victor and issued “This Is Ethel Ennis,” with the hope of renewing the acclaim that followed her debut album. There were three more reasonably successful releases before she once again went into seclusion, somewhat disenchanted with the recordings, and preferring to perform around town at smaller venues. In 1967, she sang the title song to the film “Mad Monster Party?” Her hiatus from the studio ended in 1973 with the BASF album, “10 Sides of Ethel Ennis.” More noticeably she, as a Democrat, sang the National Anthem at the re-inauguration ceremony for President Richard Nixon. Her a cappella version was received with mixed feelings, though many were inspired by it.
By 1980, much to the delight of her fans, she was behind the mic again with her recording of “Live at Maryland Inn.” Even so, it took a number of years before she garnered national attention with an album produced by her long-time drummer, Paul Hildner. The album featured such tunes as “Save the Best for Last” and “I Can Let Go Now,” the Michael McDonald song about the end of a love affair.
A few years later, she and her husband opened their jazz club “Ethel’s Place,” where such notables as George Shearing, Max Roach, Joe Williams and Marsalis performed. For a moment it had some appeal to customers but that soon faded. It closed in 1988. “I have no regrets,” Ennis said in the 1998 interview. “I would do it this way all over again. I would not change a thing. Every day for us is a holiday.”
Ennis received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Johns Hopkins University in 2008, and last October she was given a star at Maryland Public Television’s Walk of Fame at its Owings Mills headquarters. “Ennis Anyone?”was released in 2005, and her last performance was in 2016 at the Montpelier Cultural Arts Center in Prince George’s County.
She is survived by her brother, Andrew, himself a very fine musician who performed with Ray Charles. Plans for a memorial service are incomplete, though her voice will echo through the years, never to be forgotten.