Ethel Ennis aims songs at 'feeding the spirit'

August 25, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Singer Ethel Ennis has been compared to Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. She toured with Benny Goodman. She has performed on network television. She has been called "the singer's singer," the chanteuse of choice for jazz connoisseurs.

Naturally, then, I expected to talk with her about music. But time and again our conversation would move back to spiritual matters.

For instance, Ms. Ennis tells me that she believes her strength lies in singing ballads. We were sitting in the living room of her home near Mondawmin Mall in Northwest Baltimore, a modest brick townhouse where she has lived with her husband for 30 years.

"Why ballads?" I ask.

"Because I like feeding the spirit. I love to be involved with a listener's subconscious," she replies. Then she lets out a self-conscious little laugh.

"You don't want to hear this sermon, do you?"

"Yeah, I do."

"Well, I believe we all have 'soft power.' Soft power is what I call jTC our spirituality. It is the common web that holds us all together, that makes us one. I believe the world is starving spiritually. We are bombarded by so many things, so much stress. And part of the solution is to find something that feeds, that nurtures that soft power inside us. It can be anything -- clothes, food -- anything that is creative and reinforcing and soothing."

Ethel Ennis uses her voice.

"I just like to lullaby people, to put them at ease," she says. "I am singing to the spirit, trying to touch the power within -- for peace, for atonement. It is like therapy, jazz therapy."

She looks at me shyly. "I suppose all of this sounds weird to you."

No, not at all. An increasing number of people seem to be exploring their faith; the ways in which they connect to God and to each other. In fact, it is tempting to label the 1990s the decade of the spirit because so many people seem to be seeking inner peace amid the cacophony of violence and horror that dominate the daily news. But such a label may be premature. After all, the decade is still young and there seems to be more madness than harmony in this, our wild and wicked world.

Ms. Ennis, 61, learned to cope with the madness early in her career. In the late 1950s, she appeared to be the brightest young star on the horizon. She was compared to some of the greatest singers of the time. Ecstatic critics have compared many young singers to Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan. But in Ms. Ennis' case, the comparison -- to all three, no less -- represented the consensus of the music world. She could be as sensuous as Ms. Lee, as deft with a tune as Ms. Fitzgerald, as silky smooth as Ms. Vaughan -- all the time speaking through an idiom that was her own.

But in 1966, Ethel Ennis walked away from super-stardom and returned to her native Baltimore. "I am content to be a semi-star," she said then. Distancing herself from the entertainment industry allowed her to pick her projects, to explore her spirituality and communicate her discoveries through music.

"I suppose you could say I rejected the formula: Look this way. Be this way. Sing this song," she says today. "I just want to sing and be appreciated. And it doesn't have to be a multitude of people -- just folks who like what I do. I don't need great monetary rewards, either."

Sunday, she will perform at Baltimore's Center Stage. Part of the proceeds will benefit the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center. In April, she released "Ethel Ennis," her first recording in 14 years. Talking about that recording soon brought the discussion back to the spiritual realm. Backed by a trio, Ms. Ennis sings only ballads on the recording. She calls it "mood music."

"It was done with a lot of respect," she says proudly. "I mean acknowledging others -- paying homage to the past, sharing with the listeners, being true to your deepest, innermost spirit. Respect means sharing -- in everything you do. Not holding back.

"A lot of people just gig," she continues. "They don't always come out with their best stuff although I don't know what they're waiting for because the more you give of yourself, the more you get back.

I believe part of being spiritually healthy means pouring out your talent."

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