Born November 28, 1932 in Baltimore, Maryland
Jazz Musician and entrepreneur
Ennis, Ethel Llewellyn, singer, musician, and cultural ambassador, was born to Arrabell and Andrew Ennis in Baltimore, Maryland. A younger brother, Andrew, who also became a musician, was born in 1938. Ethel, considered a “mild child”, was trained from early childhood to carry the deportment of a lady. According to her mother, Bell, and her grandmother, Honey, that deportment included training at the piano. The skill that Ethel reluctantly honed helped to propel her into a successful career as a recording artist and performer.
Ethel Ennis was invited by a classmate, Sylvester Coles, to play piano with his band, The Riley Octet. Her singing skills were discovered during a challenge at one of the band’s performances. The band could earn extra money if one of them would perform In the Dark, a popular blues song of the day. Ethel, who prided herself on bringing light to the groups she played for, found her particular spark as she belted out the racy tune. After joining The Riley Octet, she went on to perform with other local groups, The Tilters and The JoJo Jones Ensemble. Later, the young pianist accompanied bassist, Montell Poulson, as a duo. It was at this time that Ethel Ennis’ particular talent was noticed. George Fox, owner of The Red Fox, began to reserve a regular spot for her at his club. Fox became her first manager and went on to secure her first recording contracts with Jubilee and Capitol Records.
A vocalist and pianist for over fifty years, Ennis stood on the precipice of international stardom and then spurned it for artistry in the sanctity of her home town. This once-considered “mild child” toured Europe with Benny Goodman, sang before two United States presidents, appeared weekly for nearly a decade on The Arthur Godfrey Show, and produced has twelve albums to date. Legendary singer, Billie Holiday, called her a musician’s musician and she was admired by the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald. Yet, she chose Baltimore and the home she has shared with her husband, Earl Arnett, as the central location for her art. By the time she opened Ethel’s Place in 1984, a haven for international jazz aficionados, she was beginning to, indeed, find her place.
Ennis explained to her biographer, Sally Kravetz, “From the beginning, I never wanted to be a myth or my ‘act’ all the time; I just wanted to be a real person. That was the only way I could stay in the business”. She and her husband, Earl, developed the concept of “Soft Power”, which defined their lifestyle. Ennis defined it as “closing your eyes and ears and communicating to and from within”. This way of eliminating boundaries and developing open communication led the couple to be named Cultural Ambassadors for the City of Baltimore in 1982. Today, Ennis continues as an ambassador of music through her recordings and musical performances.
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