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Against the Grain

Ethel Ennis cuts her own path through her life and music


By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/14/2009

Ethel Ennis

Creative Alliance at the Patterson Oct. 16.

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When invited to sing at a presidential inauguration, you do--even when it's for Richard Milhous Nixon. Especially when you've voluntarily taken yourself out of the traditional music business in search for something else. You work, but the calls come to you. Just ask local vocalist Ethel Ennis.

"The same thing happened when she [was asked to sing] the national anthem at Nixon's second inauguration," says Earl Arnett, the former Sun reporter and features editor who has been married to Ennis since 1967. He sits on the stairs leading up to the second floor of their rowhouse in the Great Mondawmin area, a coffee cup in his hands. Ennis--who turns 77 next month, and with her salt-and-pepper hair and robust cheer, is the embodiment of aging gracefully--sits across the room in a comfortable chair, recalling that cold day, Jan. 20, 1973. "We didn't know Ted Agnew when he was the governor of Maryland," Arnett continues. "But it turns out that he was a fan. And we're not Republicans, either."

Ennis, ever playful, didn't just sing the "Star-Spangled Banner." The traditional musical accompaniment at inaugurations comes from the President's Own United States Marine Band, which was led by John Philip Sousa in the late 19th century. Francis Scott Key's "Star-Spangled Banner" didn't enter the inauguration ceremony until 1921. In the modern era, though, inaugurations frequently feature a vocalist singing a cappella during the ceremonies--Rev. Jesse Jackson's daughter Santita Jackson led the Resurrection Choir through the National Anthem for Bill Clinton in 1997. Ennis did it first.

"It was very cold of course," Ennis says. "And, of course, people are turning their backs from the circle, going to their cars and everything. I see their backs, so I start singing, 'Oh say can you see . . .' And, slowly, I see them turn around and then I could see their faces, and they were all kind of looking like, What is this?"

Arnett laughs. "They had never heard it done that way before," he says.

"And I got flack for that, too," Ennis says. "People said I 'jazzed' or 'blues' it."

Arnett and Ennis laugh at the memory--if an hour or so interview is any indication of their lives together, this house is filled with laughter--but the story isn't finished. "And after that was over, they had a lunch, and Ethel was sitting there with Supreme Court justices and what have you," Arnett says. "And then she comes back to Baltimore and cleans out the refrigerator."

"Yeah, I did," Ennis says. "It needed it."

That's not merely the punchline to an amusing anecdote; it's a statement of purpose. Ennis has become a local legend, the typical local-media story goes, because she turned away from the usual jazz diva path to stay in Baltimore. Her musical career, achievements, and impeccable voice and ear--for an appreciation of those, see Geoffrey Himes' "Room to Bloom" (Music, Aug. 24, 2005)--speak for themselves. Perhaps more compelling for artists right now is how and why she choose a different path--because it was a conscious choice. She didn't reject the stardom that came with the RCA record contract and William Morris Agency representation that she had in the 1960s; she chose to pursue a different definition of success. And what she became is an extraordinarily ordinary feat. What did choosing not to be star enable her to be? "A person," she says.

A uniquely talented person, but a person all the same. So while, yes, after she got out of her record contract and management in the late '60s, her talent is why people came calling for her to perform--at the White House, in jazz festivals, in the Pacific Northwest, and to represent Baltimore as a cultural ambassador when William Donald Schaefer was mayor--the package deal that comes with music-industry lifestyle never claimed her. And it is a packaging--the industry, especially in the '60s, felt it knew what people wanted, how it should look, and the best way to get it to them. Just look at Ennis' 1963 RCA recording This Is Ethel Ennis, where the cover features a head shot of Ennis against a blue-black background. Her hair is tastefully pulled back, her lips colored brightly red, and she's turned slightly, smiling and looking over her right shoulder. She puts her unmistakable stamp on the music, but you can probably find about 200 LPs from the era that look just like it in any used record store.

The pomp and career management didn't jibe with Ennis. "It didn't at all," she says, "I was taught by my grandmother: Don't go against your grain for gain."

This decade has witnessed the waning staying power of the mainstream music industry's traditional career model, a fact that makes Ennis a bit of a vanguard for defining success on an artist's own terms. For her, that means Baltimore is home and the rest of the world the stage--which makes her Oct. 16 performance with a trio (drummer Ryan Diehl, bassist Mark Russell, and pianist Stefan Scaggiari) at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson such a rare, intimate treat.

"Music was a hobby, and it evolved--that's what it was," Ennis says. "And when I say that, people look at me and want to kill me. They thought that I was afraid of success. Happiness is success. So when I do get into the music, I have something to say and [I know] how to say it. I have lived another kind of life, instead of being stunted in the so-called entertainment market. I don't find that fulfilling."

It's refreshing to hear Ennis talk about her music so mundanely. For decades, local cultural trainspotters have chased the elusive whatsit? that makes Baltimore artists so unique, sometimes confusingly rooting aesthetics in geography. Ennis is a pragmatic reminder that it comes from the artists who define it.

And she's only gaining momentum. Songwriting has come to her in floods recently, fueling her next musical chapter. "My thing from here on in until I'm claimed by death"--insert defiant chuckle here--"will be 'ethical Ethel,'" she says. "I just want to, more or less, sing the things that I have experienced, my experiences of life. I think people can respond to that. Sometimes, people say, 'Ethel, why do you want to write something like that? You're making me think and change up.' That's what I want to do."

Her husband grins from across the room, admitting he's always wanted to compile her aphoristic wordplays in a book of "Ethelisms." "Ethel was living here when I met her," Arnett says. "I came to do just what you're doing."

Of course, it doesn't hurt when an anecdote also has a great punchline."

"And he never wrote the story," Ennis adds.

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