SINGERS Billie Holiday and Ethel Ennis were both born and raised in Baltimore. Holiday had long been gone from the town when Ennis' first album was released in 1956. When Lady Day heard the record, though, she called an old friend back home to demand: "Who's this bitch from Baltimore?"
"She got the number and called me at four in the morning," recalls Ennis. "Woke me up to talk about my record! But she gave me encouragement. She said, 'You have a great voice; you don't fake it. Keep it up and you'll be famous.'"
Sinking back in her living room couch, Ennis mimes the sleepy daze with which she received the advice. Then she breaks into her characteristic grin that keeps stretching long after most smiles stop. The lines around her round, brown eyes crinkle.
As her current performances at the King of France Tavern in Annapolis attest, Ethal Ennis still has a great voice and still doesn't fake it. But she never became famous. She never won the national reputation that Sarah Vaughn or Ella Fitzgerald enjoy, though Fitzgerald and many others predicted it for her.
Ennis came close to grabbing the brass ring several times. She toured Europe with Benny Goodman. She did a TV special with Duke Ellington. She sang with the Miles Davis-John Coltrane Sextet at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan. She won the 1961 Playboy poll for best female singer. She starred at the Newport and Monterey Jazz Festivals. She released records with Jubilee, RCA, Capitol and Atco.
But she refused to play the game. "They had it all planned out of me," she explains. "Go here and have your picture taken. Go to a choreographer (that was a disaster). Go to the right parties. 'When do I sing?' I'd ask. 'Shut up and have a drink.' You should sit like this and look like that and play the game of bed partners. You really have to do things that go against your grain for gain. I wouldn't.
So Ennis has spent a good deal of the past few years in the obscurity of her house in West Baltimore. Her modest brick townhouse is on a tree-shaded street in a middle-class black neighborhood. She hosts the interview in house slippers and a comfortable, brightly printed smock. After serving coffee, she gives a tour of the house filled with her drawings, her cats and her basement recording equipment.
She obviously has a sense of contentment that so tragically eluded Billie Holiday. "A lot of people look at me today like I must be lazy," admits Ennis. "But it's just that I want to do it my way. I have no regrets."
When it came time to follow-up a tour, an award or a record, Ennis wouldn't go out and sell herself. Instead she'd come back home to Baltimore. "You can't get away from roots," she smiles.
Her younger brother, saxophonist Andy Ennis, also came home. After working 10 years in the Ray Charles Band, including the last two as band-leader, Andy quit and returned to Baltimore to be with his family.
He and Ethel grew up in Baltimore's Gilmor housing projects. "We had what we called the ironing cord," he remembers. "Our grandmother was the type that if you went to jail, she'd go into jail and whip you there. Ethel knew that ironing cord. That's how we came through it all-the winos, the dope and the pimps. Grandma was there with the ironing cord, saying: 'I dare you; I just dare you.'"
Both their grandmother and mother were strict Methodists. Arabell, the mother, traveled around playing piano and organ for store-front Pentecostal churches. Arabell scraped together the money to buy music lessons for her children.
But she wouldn't allow jazz or blues records in the house. "Late at night, Though," Ethel reveals, "you could hear the blues coming up through the floor. The woman downstairs had all those good records."
At 15, Ethel was non-singing pianist for an older, otherwise all-male band. "One night one of the guys asked me, 'Do you know the words to "In the Dark?" We got this big tip and we can keep it if you sing it.' So I sang and got the applause. I said, 'Oh my,' because I couldn't sing that at home."
Ethel Ennis has been singing professionally for the 31 years since. But for all that time, she insits "I've never been classified right. They say I'm a jazz singer, but I'm a comtemporary singer. If you change a song at all, they call you a jazz singer; and I change them, so that's what they call me."
Her repertoire always has been centered around pop material from Broadway and the radio, however. She started out with songs made famous by Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day. Her current set includes numbers by B.B. King, Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel. "I try to choose material that's food for thought," she claims. "Instead of just entertaining the audience, I want them to learn something."
A big influence for her has been Sarah Vaughn. "Her voice is really an instrument," marvels Ennis. "That's my lady. I'm moved by the beauty of her voice, but not by what she does with it. I like to tell a story. Singers like Sarah just sing.I'm trying to bring life to the lyric, to paint a picture."
At the King of France Tavern, she brought the life of the over-sung "Mr. Bojangles," the ballad of a New Orleans street dancer. Her hair was tightly woven into more than 18 braids held in place with silver beads and rhinestone rings. She whispered the first verse with her head back and eyes closed as if reluctantly recalling a story not told in a long time.
But as she got going, she caught the flavor of that memory. She pulled up her pants and bent her knees as if she were the old drunk dancer herself. As the memory faded into her barely audible "la-la-la's," there was no other sound in the club but the air conditioning.
She similarly transformed the national anthem when she sang at Nixon's second inauguration. "I sang it a capella and I sang it real soft," she explains. "I made the words come alive so it wasn't 'duh-duh-dum-dum-boom-boom!'" She insists she didn't appear for the politicians but for the people who needed to be represented there.
When she finishes her stand in Annapolis tonight, Ennis will go into a Maryland studio to record for a company she refuses to identify. In July she plans to begin her heaviest touring work in years. "I'm getting ready for 10 years of hard work," she discloses. "The time wasn't right before, but now I enjoy the music and I can do it my way.
"I'm going to use the disco beat but put my message on top of it. And they can't tell me how to do it, because we'll be our own production company and the contrast will be with the company."
So at age 46, Ennis is finally pushing for the recognition that has eluded her. But she has waited until she could stalk it on her own terms, without the manipulation and heartbreak that afflicted Billie Holiday and so many others.
"Before," she points out, "I was so young I didn't know what I was doing. People would say, 'Ethel, you have a career.' To me, it was just singing. But now I'm going to have my career and still sing my way."
Over the stairway in her house is a stark black-and-white photo. It pictures her with her hands clasped tightly over her ears, her head thrown back and her eyes squeezed shut. The sidelight casts shadows around her full mouth and round cheeks. "It's like that picture," Ennis assers, nodding toward the stairs, "just ignore what's going on outside and listen to what's inside you." CAPTION: Picture 1, At 46, Ethel Ennis "still has a great voice and still doesn't fake it." By Fred Sweets-The Washington Post; Picture 2, "The time wasn't right before, but now I enjoy the music . . . ." By Fred Sweets-The Washington Post