Weaver tells remarkable story of Pontotoc diva Ruby Elzy

Author David Weaver, author of “Black Diva of the Thirties: The Life of Ruby Elzy,” will be in Northeast Mississippi in the coming days to promote his biography of the Pontotoc native who became one of the nation's outstanding sopranos. The tentative schedule:

Thursday, 5-7 p.m. – Corinth Tourism Council
Friday, 3-7 p.m. – Corinth Black History Museum fish fry
Saturday, 3-7 p.m. – Spice of Life book store in Corinth
Sept. 19, 2 p.m. – Mount Moriah United Methodist Church, with reception at the Black History Museum immediately afterward.
Sept. 22 (afternoon) – Rust College, Holly Springs.
Sept. 23, 7 p.m. – Pontotoc County Library

BY DANNY MCKENZIE

DAILY JOURNAL

David Weaver's biography of Ruby Elzy is not only an enthralling and ultimately tragic account of one of Mississippi's greatest talents, it also serves as an inspration to try and find her music.

“Black Diva of the Thirties: The Life of Ruby Elzy” (University Press of Mississippi; $26) tells the story of an African-American child born into poverty in Pontotoc, but who eventually found her way to the Broadway and opera stages of New York and the movie studios of Hollywood.

Forgotten by most folks in Northeast Mississippi – even in Pontotoc – Elzy had become a vocal superstar before her death in 1943 at the age of 35.

Weaver, a professional singer and broadcaster who lives in Columbus, Ohio, says he was awestruck when first heard a recording of Elzy singing “My Man's Gone Now,” the song she made famous playing Serena in the original Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess” by George and Ira Gershwin.

“Yes, her voice was indeed beautiful, vibrant and expressive,” Weaver writes in the book's preface, “but there was something more. I had never heard a voice exactly like it. And I was hooked.”

Which is exactly what most readers will experience when reading the opening pages of “Black Diva.”

Weaver's has put together a marvelous accounting of a remarkable life. Elzy grew up in Pontotoc and burst into a spontaneous solo for the first time as a 4-year-old at McDonald Methodist Church.

That was but the first of many solos she would sing as she made her way from Pontotoc to Rust College in Holly Springs, to Ohio State University, to the Julliard School in New York City, and ultimately to Broadway and Hollywood.

It took Weaver five years of searching and researching, he writes, to put together Elzy's much deserved biography.

“A major part of the problem,” he writes in the preface, “was that what information there was about Elzy was widely scattered. It took a great deal of slow and painstaking effort, the help and guidance from many people across the country, and oftentimes just plain good luck to uncover what, in the end, was a wealth of material.”

The prologue serves as an introduction to Elzy by offering a glimpse at a 1937 Christmas concert at the White House for Eleanor Roosevelt and the wives of the Supreme Court justices. Elzy sang classical pieces in German, French and English, then closed with the spiritual “Everytime I Feel the Spirit” – a performance that elicited a standing ovation from the White House audience.

By that time, Elzy was already a star, appearing opposite the legendary Paul Robeson in the movie version of “The Emperor Jones” and co-starring with Bing Crosby and Mary Martin in “Birth of the Blues.” She had headlined at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and in the Hollywood Bowl.

In 1935, she had been chosen by George Gershwin to create the role of Serena in “Porgy and Bess” and he wrote “My Man's Gone Now” especially for Elzy.

After more than 800 performances in “Porgy and Bess,” Elzy had begun work on the title role of Verdi's “Aida” when she died while undergoing surgery for a benign tumor. Had she lived she would have been one of the first black artist to appear in grand opera.

Elzy's mother, Emma, was a school teacher in Pontotoc who moved to Corinth after her oldest daughter moved away. Ruby Elzy would make frequent trips back to Pontotoc and Corinth to visit her family, but her career took her far beyond Mississippi's borders.

Weaver has done a masterful job of not only following Elzy's career, but of also introducing readers to the friends and families who supported her and literally made it possible for her to succeed.

Chief among her supporters were C.C. McCracken and his family at Ohio State, and many others at the university in Columbus – most of whom were white. While Elzy faced her share of racial difficulties of the times, Weaver explains that it was her charm and sense of humor that allowed her to transcend the bigotry.

“I wanted more than just facts, dates and places,” Weaver writes. “I wanted to show Ruby Elzy not just as a gifted artist, but as a woman – a black woman – at a time in America when there were limited opportunities for both.”

The author accomplished much more than a timeline with a narrative. The story of Ruby Elzy is compelling and Weaver's writing is equal to his subject.