Roche, Singer of Blues and Be-Bop, Dead at 81
By BEN RATLIFF
Betty Roche, a singer who performed with Duke Ellington in the 1940s and
'50s and was noted
for her strong, dramatic delivery of blues material, died on Feb. 16 at
the Mainland Manor
Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Pleasantville, N.J. She was 81.
"She had a soul inflection in a bop state of intrigue," Ellington wrote
about Ms. Roche in his oblique
style of praise, "and every word was understandable despite the sophisticated
hip and jive
Born Mary Elizabeth Roche (pronounced ro-SHAY) in Wilmington, Del., she
began her career by
winning an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. In 1941 she
sang with the Savoy
Ms. Roche joined Ellington in 1943, replacing Ivie Anderson just before
Ellington's first Carnegie
Hall concert and scored highly with the critics and audience in her section
of the Ellington suite
"Black, Brown and Beige."
Her feature within the suite was the "Blues" sequence, meant to express
the feelings of blacks who
settled into urban life at the start of the 20th century. With its famous
pyramidal lyric scheme -- it
begins, "The blues/the blues ain't/the blues ain't nothing/the blues ain't
nothing but a cold gray day" --
it became one of Ellington's greatest pieces for a singer.
But Ms. Roche's rendition, in a concert recording, was not released until
the 1970s because when
Ellington made a studio recording of the suite in 1944, Ms. Roche already
had been replaced by
Joya Sherrill. In a similar bit of unfortunate luck, Ms. Roche sang "Take
the A Train" with Ellington in
the 1943 film "Reveille With Beverly" but wasn't recorded singing Ellington's
signature tune until nine
years later, in a be-bop style, on the album "Ellington Uptown."
Ms. Roche also performed and recorded with the pianist Earl Hines, the
trumpeter Clark Terry and
the singer and pianist Charles Brown. She made three recordings under her
name for the Bethlehem
and Prestige labels in the late 1950s and early 60s.
She is survived by three grandchildren.