She appeared as a singer and understudy in the African-American revue, Blackbirds of 1928, and traveled to Paris with the show, starting a famous career as a chanteuse. She also appeared in Cole Porter's Broadway musical, The New Yorkers. Porter liked her so much he wrote a choice part for her in his musical, Nymph Errant, seen in London.
Since 1933, Ms. Welch appeared almost exclusively in London shows, starting with a show called Dark Doings. In 1986, she returned to Broadway to appear in Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood. She snagged Tony Award nomination for it, for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, almost 60 years after she first played Broadway.
She appeared on radio, in films, plays and revues throughout a long career and sang in nightspots in New York, London and Europe. Ms. Welch was revered for her song stylings.
She was born Elizabeth Margaret Welch. Her father was a gardener who, according to The Times, was the son of a former slave and an American Indian woman. Her mother was Scots-Irish.
The Times reported Ms. Welch sang in church choirs and that her first major stage appearance was dancing the Charleston in a black Broadway show called Runnin' Wild (the dance was reputedly introduced in the show). Her Baptist father was reportedly so upset that she was dancing in public that he walked out on the family. When she traveled to Paris with the Blackbirds show, the performers were celebrated and embraced, a welcome change from a segregated America where opportunities for artists of color were limited.
After singing in Parisian clubs, she was asked to be a replacement performer in Broadway's The New Yorkers, singing "Love for Sale." The Porter song, "Solomon," was a highlight of the Gertrude Lawrence vehicle, Nymph Errant, and the tune remained in Ms. Welch's repertoire for years.
She appeared in plays or revues with Beatrice Lillie, Rex Harrison, John Gielgud and other luminaries. In London, she was the fairy godmother in Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin's Cindy-Ella (in 1962, 1963 and 1976), and appeared in the solo show, A Marvellous Party, in 1970, at the Hampstead Theatre Club.
Stricken with arthritis, she nevertheless appeared as the grandmother in a production of Pippin in London.
Scattered appearances include a 1980 turn with Adelaide Hall and other senior performers in Black Broadway at Town Hall in New York and the solo show, Elisabeth Welch: Time to Start Living, for which she won a Village Voice Obie Award.