Ruby Pearl Elzy was a pioneering black opera singer. A soprano, she was best known for her performances in Porgy and Bess. Elzy was born in Pontotoc on 20 February 1908, the eldest child of Charlie Elzy and Emma Kimp Elzy. When she was five, her father abandoned the family, leaving Elzy’s mother to support herself and her four children by teaching school, working in the cotton fields, and doing laundry for well-to-do white families. Elzy learned spirituals from her grandmother, who had been born a slave. Elzy sang her first solo in church at the age of four and even as a child dreamed of a singing career.
Elzy was a freshman at Rust College in Holly Springs in May 1927 when she was overheard singing by a visiting college administrator, Dr. C. C. McCracken of Ohio State University. Impressed, McCracken arranged for Elzy to transfer to Ohio State, where she graduated with honors in 1930 and received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to the Julliard School in New York City. Elzy received two degrees from Juilliard, graduating in 1934. While there, she joined the professional chorus directed by composer and conductor J. Rosamond Johnson, the younger brother of poet James Weldon Johnson. As a member of the Johnson Choir, Elzy made her Broadway debut in the 1930 musical Brown Buddies. The following year, she appeared in the revue Fast and Furious.
In 1933 Elzy had her first film role, playing Dolly in The Emperor Jones, starring Paul Robeson and written by DuBose Heyward. When Heyward and composer George Gershwin began working on Porgy and Bess, adapted from Heyward’s novel, he recommended that Gershwin hear Elzy. Gershwin then cast her as Serena, the opera’s second-most-important female role. Porgy and Bess had its world premiere in Boston on 30 September 1935 and ten days later opened at the Alvin Theatre in New York. Critics praised Elzy’s performance, particularly her singing of the difficult aria “My Man’s Gone Now,” which Gershwin had written especially for her.
In 1937, following Gershwin’s death, Elzy sang in memorial concerts with the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the latter presented at the Hollywood Bowl and broadcast worldwide by CBS radio. Elzy made her solo New York recital debut at Town Hall in October 1937. Two months later, the highlight of Elzy’s career came when she was invited to sing at the White House by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1938 Elzy appeared as Serena in the first West Coast tour of Porgy and Bess. When the show closed, Elzy settled in Hollywood. She sang on radio and appeared in three more films, The Toy Wife (1938), Tell No Tales (1939), and Way Down South (1939). Elzy starred as Ella Jones in the Federal Theatre Project’s production of Hall Johnson’s musical, Run Little Chillun, which opened in Los Angeles in July 1938 and ran for more than three hundred performances.
In 1940 Elzy returned to Broadway to star opposite Robeson in a short-lived musical adaptation of John Henry. That year she also made her first and only commercial recording, a solo in composer Harold Arlen’s Americanegro Suite. In 1941 Elzy made her final screen appearance, singing “St. Louis Blues” in the Paramount film Birth of the Blues, starring Bing Crosby. In 1941 Elzy starred again as Serena in producer Cheryl Crawford’s revival of Porgy and Bess. The production was a sensation, playing for 286 performances on Broadway before embarking on a 1942–43 national tour. When Elzy gave her last performance as Serena in 1943, she had appeared in the role more than 800 times.
Elzy was scheduled to begin a solo concert tour in August 1943 and to make her grand opera debut in the title role of Verdi’s Aida in 1944. However, she died in Detroit on 26 June 1943 following an operation to remove a benign tumor. She was buried in Pontotoc.
- David E. Weaver, Black Diva of the Thirties: The Life of Ruby Elzy (2004)