E is for Evelyn

E is for Evelyn, Evelyn Dove.

Evelyn Dove was born in London on 11 January 1902 and was the first black woman to sing on BBC radio. Although often referred to as the British Josephine Baker, Evelyn Dove replaced Josephine Baker in 1932 as the star attraction at the Casino de Paris and in a career that spanned over five decades she was a star of jazz and cabaret, embraced by the world.

Evelyn had West African and English heritage, her father being a barrister originally from Sierra Leone. It is reported that she had a privileged upbringing, attending private school before going on to study at the Royal Academy of Music and in 1925 she became the first black woman to sing on BBC radio in 1925 at the age of just 24! Evelyn toured Europe performing with many of the great American jazz performers of the time before replacing Josephine Baker at the Casino de Paris. Coming from a privileged middle-class family, and with a parent of African heritage, you can only imagine the reaction her parents had to Evelyn donning Josephine’s revealing costume.

Let’s just pause and think about this for a second. Yes, Josephine Baker had already broken the scandal barrier when she danced her dance in Paris, but she was an American and we all know that our cousins across the pond are crazy can be – let’s say – more liberal at times; so when Evelyn Dove, a British daughter of a barrister and graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, performed in Paris in the 1930s in a skimpy little outfit this would have been considered truly scandalous. I can’t help but be awed at her bravery to follow her passion. Did her dual heritage mean that she was less likely to be judged or more? At the start of the 20th century did this give her more freedom or impose a shackle on what she was meant to achieve? I can only imagine the conversations in the family house.

Sadly, apparently her father disowned her. This didn’t stop Evelyn from following her dreams and after performing across mainland Europe she returned to the UK where she took part in many broadcasts with the BBC during the 40s. Her work with the BBC was so successful during this decade that the BBC transferred her radio series, Serenade in Sepia, to their television service.

The tide started to turn in the 50s and work became more difficult for Evelyn to obtain. At one point it became so difficult for her to find work in her industry she applied for a job as a receptionist, but Evelyn returned to acting and performed in the West End towards the end of that decade, starring in Langston Hughes’ Simply Heavenly.

Evelyn Dove was a star but unfortunately, her light began to dim in the 70s. Having lost contact with her family, she suffered from depression and at the age of 70 she was admitted to a nursing home in Surrey where she died of pneumonia in 1987.

I would love to see a film about Evelyn Dove, I think she deserved a better ending than she received in real life.

E is for Evelyn, Evelyn Dove.

If you want to read more about Evelyn Dove there’s a biography written by Stephen Bourne called Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen that you can purchase from New Beacon Books (and other good retailers).

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