Ruby Elzy was a sweet-voiced soprano from the hills of northeastern Mississippi who became a star of Broadway, radio, and the movies in the 1930s. She sang everywhere, from Harlem's Apollo Theater to the White House, and she created a highly acclaimed role in one of the greatest American operas ever written, Porgy and Bess.
Ruby Elzy overcame poverty and prejudice to become one of the most illustrious singers of her generation. Yet for many decades after her tragic death in 1943 at the age of 35, she was largely forgotten.
A young girl’s dream
Ruby Pearl Elzy was born in Pontotoc, Mississippi, on February 20, 1908. It was the era of Jim Crow, a time when opportunities for African Americans were severely limited. Ruby was only five when her father, Charlie Elzy, abandoned the family. Ruby’s mother, Emma, was a strong and devout woman. After her husband left, Emma single-handedly supported herself and her four children by teaching in the Pontotoc Colored School, picking cotton, and doing laundry for White families. Ruby helped her mother with the laundry, singing as she worked.
If life was harsh, music helped ease the burden. “Singing was as natural to us as breathing,” Ruby would recall. She learned Negro spirituals from her grandmother, who had been born enslaved. Ruby sang in public for the first time at age four in her church, astonishing listeners with the power and beauty of her voice. Even as a child, she dreamed of a career on stage. It was a huge ambition, especially for a poor Black girl living in a segregated society.
Her big break came on a spring day in 1927. Ruby, then a freshman at Mississippi’s Rust College in Holly Springs, was overheard singing by Dr. Charles Chester “C.C.” McCracken. A professor at Ohio State University, McCracken was visiting Rust on an educational study. Awed by Ruby’s voice, he made arrangements to enroll Ruby at Ohio State. McCracken became her champion and mentor, the closest thing she ever had to a real father.
Ruby entered Ohio State as a sophomore in September 1927. She studied voice under Dr. Royal D. Hughes, the founder and director of the school’s new department of music. Teaching Ruby was a challenge for Hughes — despite her incredible voice, she could not read a note of music.
There were other problems to surmount. Just as she had in the South, Ruby had to contend with prejudice and discrimination in Ohio, even on the OSU campus. When the McCracken family took Ruby with them to see a stage show and movie at a downtown theatre, she was refused admission. On the second day of school, three students from Texas refused to sit in the same section as Ruby in the new University Chorus, and chorus director Hughes asked her if she would mind sitting in the back. She graciously agreed. A month later, the three Texas students apologized and said they would “consider it an honor to sit next to someone with such a wonderful voice.” Ruby displayed a remarkable ability to handle these difficult situations that won the respect and admiration of even those who at first dismissed her because of her race.
The three years at Ohio State completely transformed Ruby Elzy. By the time Ruby graduated in June 1930 (ranking first in her class from the department of music), she could both read and write music, play the piano, and perform in four languages.
From Ohio State, Ruby went east on a Rosenwald Fellowship to study at the famed Juilliard School of Music in New York City, where she would receive two graduate degrees. While still a student there, Ruby made her Broadway debut and began her network radio appearances. She sang as a soloist with the choir founded and directed by composer J. Rosamond Johnson (brother of the famed poet, James Weldon Johnson).
In 1933, the choir was hired to appear in the film version of The Emperor Jones, starring the great singer-actor, Paul Robeson. The producers needed an actress to play the small but important role of Dolly in the picture. They cast Ruby. It was a huge break for Ruby to make her screen debut opposite the celebrated Robeson. More significantly, she became friends with the screenwriter, DuBose Heyward.
Heyward was just beginning to work with composer George Gershwin on a new opera based on Heyward’s novel, Porgy. At Heyward’s recommendation, Gershwin called Ruby in for an audition. She sang the dramatic spiritual, “City Called Heaven.” That one song was all Gershwin needed to hear. He cast Ruby as Serena, the opera’s second female lead.
The opera, now called Porgy and Bess, premiered in Boston and New York in the fall of 1935. Critics hailed Ruby’s performance, especially her rendition of the song “My Man’s Gone Now.” A. Walter Kramer wrote in Musical America, “Miss Elzy’s delivery of this music is a masterpiece of its kind.” Porgy and Bess made Ruby Elzy a star, and Serena would remain the foundation of her career. She played the role more than 800 times between 1935 and 1943. “My Man’s Gone Now” would become her signature song. But Ruby’s career was not limited to Gershwin’s opera. She starred on stage in John Henry (teaming again with Paul Robeson) and in Run Little Chillun, which ran for nearly a year. Ruby became a frequent guest on major radio shows, appearing with such stars as comedian Fred Allen and popular singer Bing Crosby. She played a recurring role in the NBC series, The Melody Master, and recorded several solo broadcasts in which she sang everything from spirituals to operatic arias.
In 1936, Ruby made her concert debut with George Gershwin and the New York Philharmonic. The next year, following Gershwin’s sudden death at the age of 38, Ruby sang at memorial tributes in New York and at the Hollywood Bowl. The latter concert, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was broadcast worldwide over CBS radio.
In October 1937, Ruby Elzy made her New York recital debut at Town Hall. Two months later, she sang at the White House, at the invitation of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. It was the high point of her career.
Even after she became a star, Ruby retained close ties to her native state. After graduating from Juilliard in 1934, she gave a series of concerts across Mississippi. Whenever she went back home to visit her mother and sisters, Ruby would sing at the churches in Corinth and Pontotoc, and at Rust College. In December 1940, Ruby returned to Mississippi for what would turn out to be her final tour. Interviewed by the newspaper in her hometown of Pontotoc, Ruby said her amazing career could all be summed up in the title of one of the spirituals she always sang, “The Lord Done Laid His Hand on Me.”
Despite her successes, Ruby’s life was not without its heartaches and disappointments. Her first marriage, to journalist Gardner Jones, ended in divorce after five years. She still had to fight prejudice and the narrow views the entertainment industry had of African Americans, especially of those in classical music.
Ruby Elzy spoke out publicly for the first time on behalf of her race in December 1942, a year after the nation had entered World War II. Young Black men — among them Ruby’s brother Robert and her sister Wayne’s new husband — were going off to defend freedom around the globe when all too often it was denied to them at home. In a profile of her in the December 31, 1942, issue of the Christian Advocate, Ruby Elzy said: “I believe prejudice is based altogether on misunderstanding and fear, and I pray that the day will come when my race will find the way to let it be known that what they want is not the sort of thing the white people fear. In the new world for which we are fighting, Negroes ask only to be considered as men and women with the right to work out their own salvation with, as Mr. Lincoln put, ‘malice toward none,’ with liberty and justice for all.”
From 1938 to 1941, Ruby lived in Hollywood. In 1940, she was chosen by composer Harold Arlen to record the world premiere of his original suite of Negro spirituals, “Reverend Johnson's Dream.” It would be her only commercial recording. That same year, Ruby married actor- singer Jack Carr; it was a happy marriage that would last until her death.
In 1941, Ruby appeared in her fifth and most memorable film: Paramount’s Birth of the Blues, co-starring Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, and Eddie Rochester Anderson. Her performance of W. C. Handy’s song “St. Louis Blues” was singled out as the musical highlight of the picture.
Ruby returned to Broadway in the 1942 revival of Porgy and Bess. It ran for 286 performances (more than double the number in the original run), followed by a triumphant nine-month national tour. Ruby was at the peak of her powers as a singer. Now looking to the future, she signed a contract that would fulfill a lifelong dream — to make her grand opera debut in the title role of Verdi’s Aida.
Sadly, it was not to be. On June 26, 1943, one week after her final performance as Serena, Ruby Elzy died in Detroit, following surgery to remove a benign tumor. She was only age 35. Ruby was buried in her hometown of Pontotoc.
A rich legacy
In the decades following her death, Ruby Elzy was gradually forgotten. She would receive a passing mention, a few paragraphs at most, in books about Gershwin, or the American musical theatre. That is changing.
In 1998, the centenary of George Gershwin’s birth, the 1937 Hollywood Bowl Memorial Concert was released on CD for the first time. Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Lloyd Schwartz wrote that one of the CD’s highlights was, “Ruby Elzy, the first and best Serena, in a hair-raising ‘My Man’s Gone Now,’ which she never recorded commercially.”
The schools Ruby attended, Rust College, Ohio State University, and Juilliard, have all honored her with special programs and exhibits. On what would have been Ruby’s 97th birthday in 2005, Ohio State’s public radio station WOSU — the station on which she made her radio debut in 1929 — presented a one-hour special devoted to her remarkable life and career. The program went on to win the Ohio Public Broadcasters Award as the outstanding arts and culture special of the year.
Fittingly, it is Ruby Elzy’s native state that has paid her the highest tribute. In April 2000, Ruby was named as one of the charter inductees into the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame, along with other Mississippi natives rock-and-roll legend Elvis Presley, Metropolitan Opera soprano Leontyne Price, blues singer B. B. King, classical composer William Grant Still, and country singer Tammy Wynette.
Ruby Elzy accomplished much in a career that lasted barely a dozen years. The tragedy of her early death is that it leaves us to wonder what more she could have achieved. Her friend and colleague, Todd Duncan (the original Porgy), became the first African American to sing with the New York City Opera in 1945. Ten years later came Marian Anderson’s historic debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Even though she didn’t make her grand opera debut, Ruby helped pave the way for Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, and the others who followed her.
“There is no color to talent,” Ruby wrote not long before her death. With her own formidable talent, she broke down barriers as a pioneer Black diva who traveled from a small town in Mississippi to greatness as a star of stage, screen, and radio. In doing so, Ruby Elzy left behind an inspiring legacy to be remembered and celebrated.
Listen to Ruby Elzy sing “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess as a guest star in 1940 on the CBS radio series Meet Mr. Music. From the CD, "Ruby Elzy in Song."
David E. Weaver, a professional singer in operas and musicals, is development director for the Ohioana Library in Columbus, Ohio, and is the author of Black Diva of the Thirties: The Life of Ruby Elzy.
Weaver, David E. Black Diva of the Thirties: The Life of Ruby Elzy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
“Ruby Elzy in Song.” David E. Weaver, Producer. CD-1154, Cambria Music, 2006.