Ethel Llewellyn Ennis was born in Baltimore on Nov. 28, 1932, and grew up in the Gilmore Homes, a newly constructed public housing project in the West Baltimore neighborhood. She was raised primarily by her mother, Arabell, who played piano and organ in storefront churches, and by her maternal grandmother. Both caretakers were strict Methodists who refused to play jazz and blues in the house. But the music came thumping through the floor from the apartment below, and Ethel grew to love it.
She learned piano and began playing at the Ames United Methodist Church. At age 15, she started playing in nightclubs around town with an otherwise all-male band. When an audience member one night requested a blues song that required a female singer, she stepped up and sang it. It was a turning point.
“I sang and got the applause,” she told The Post. “I said, ‘Oh my,’ because I couldn’t sing that at home.”
Ms. Ennis became a mainstay of the Red Fox, a club on Baltimore’s main black entertainment strip along Pennsylvania Avenue. She was just 22 when she recorded her debut album, “Lullabies for Losers,” featuring the pianist Hank Jones and the drummer Kenny Clarke, for the Jubilee label.
That recording prompted the call from Holiday and a deal with Capitol Records. Ella Fitzgerald soon stated that Ms. Ennis was her favorite young vocalist, and Frank Sinatra called her “my kind of singer.”
Capitol released her album “Change of Scenery” in 1957 and followed it with “Have You Forgotten” a year later. In the mid-’60s Ms. Ennis put out four LPs on RCA. But rather than lean into her stardom, she decided to marry Mr. Arnett in 1967 (violating Maryland’s anti-miscegenation laws) and buy a house in central Baltimore.
She briefly landed back in the spotlight in 1973, when she sang the national anthem at President Richard M. Nixon’s second inaugural. A blizzard of media opportunities followed. Within days, she was invited onto the “Today” show and the nationally syndicated radio program “Monitor.” Her album “The 10 Sides of Ethel Ennis” was rushed into release.