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The untold story of Britain’s first black female superstar

CLASS ACT: Evelyn Dove in the 1950s

EVELYN DOVE was one of the true pioneers of the booming cabaret age of the 1920s.

She thrilled audiences around the world and her exquisite stage costumes helped to make her one of the most glamorous women of her time.

In 1936, amidst a frenzy of public interest, she became the first black British singer to try and conquer America, 25 years before Shirley Bassey.

Evelyn headlined a cabaret show at New York’s popular Connie’s Inn. This rivalled the Cotton Club as a showcase for the best in black talent.

CABARET STAR: Evelyn Dove in the 1920s

Evelyn was mixed-race, born into privilege in London in 1902 to a West African father and English mother.

She was educated privately until she studied singing, piano and elocution at the Royal Academy of Music.

As a trained contralto, in the early 1920s she hoped for a career on the concert platform, but this was almost impossible in Britain for a black singer at that time.

So Evelyn worked in London cabaret shows instead and the all-black cast jazz revues that toured Britain and eventually took her to Europe where she was a sensation.

ELEGANT: As a singer Dove won fans all over Europe and America

She spent several years in Italy where she proved to be enormously popular with audiences and then, in 1932, she travelled to Paris to replace the legendary Josephine Baker as the star attraction of the Casino de Paris.

For the revue, Evelyn wore Josephine’s flimsy, revealing costume. Consequently the prim and proper middle-class English girl scandalised her family by appearing semi-naked on stage in Paris and it was said that her respectable and strait-laced West African father disowned her.

However when Hitler’s war clouds appeared over Europe, Evelyn couldn’t go back to France or Italy.

Instead she returned to Britain. Throughout World War II she enjoyed the same appeal as the ‘Forces Sweetheart’, Vera Lynn.

The BBC employed Evelyn all through the war, and she proved to be one of radio’s most popular singers, appearing in a wide range of music and variety programmes.

RADIO TRAILBLAZER: Dove in the 1940s with Trinidadian folk singer Edric Connor

Many of these appearances were broadcast to the forces, while others could be heard on the BBC’s West African and Caribbean airwaves. In fact, as early as 1925, Evelyn had the distinction of becoming the first black woman to sing on BBC radio.

Starting in 1939, for almost a decade Evelyn made radio broadcasts, including over 50 editions of the series Serenade in Sepia in which she was featured with the Trinidadian folk singer Edric Connor.

POPULAR

The series was so popular that, in 1946, the BBC transferred it to their television service. Evelyn and Edric became household names and they were among Britain’s first television stars in the early post-war years when the medium was still in its infancy.

In the 1940s Evelyn enjoyed another decade at the top of her profession.

But work became scarce a decade later and, in 1955, desperate, she applied to the post office for a job as a telephonist. But even more humiliating was the fact that she had to ask the BBC for a reference.

In 1956 the tide began to turn when she landed an acting role on BBC television as Eartha Kitt’s mother in the play Mrs Patterson.

Two years later she was back on stage, in London’s West End, as one of the stars of Langston Hughes’s musical Simply Heavenly.

LIFE STORY: Historian Stephen Bourne recounts the star's legacy

After her star began to fade, Evelyn suffered from depression and in 1972, at the age of 70, she was admitted to a nursing home in Epsom, Surrey.

In the 1950s Evelyn had befriended a young singer and actress called Isabelle Lucas who later found fame as Lenny Henry’s mother in the ITV television sitcom The Fosters.

TALENT

Isabelle later explained what happened to Evelyn: “I felt very sorry for her because she had so much talent, so much to give. I stayed in touch with Evelyn until she died in 1987. She was still a lovely woman when she was old. I went to her funeral, but no one else did, apart from one or two members of staff from the home. It made me very sad.”

In the 1920s and 1930s many African American expatriates settled in Europe including Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall and Elisabeth Welch.

They captivated audiences with their songs, beauty, elegance and style. Evelyn stood alone as a black Briton who joined these trailblazers. They were women who created a glamorous new image for black women in show business, far removed from the bandanna-wearing mammy.

TRAILBLAZER

Evelyn Dove was a trailblazer who was a head of her time, forging new barriers and facing up to her own personal struggles with determination and defiance. Her spirit remains alive in all of us.

Stephen Bourne’s Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen is published by Jacaranda Books (£12.99).

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