The Jewish jazz singer they all thought was Black

The Jewish jazz singer they all thought was Black


norman lebrecht

September 14, 2021

The death has been announced of Ruth Olay, a jazz star in Los Angeles nightclubs for 40 years. She was 97.

A divorced single mother, Ruth quit her day job with a Hollywood producer to sing nights with bandleader Benny Carter. Under dim lights, audiences assumed she was African-American. When Billie Holiday cancelled an engagement, Ruth took over at $500 a week. She went on to become a fixture on the Jack Paar show, and later on Johnny Carson.

Just listen to that voice.



  • sam says:

    You mean Amy Winehouse?

    • George Neidorf says:

      Amy Winehouse tried to sound Black by imitating Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, she didn’t look black in any light. Ruth Olay sounded like herself and could be mistaken for Black in low light.

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    So, just like Ali G, then.

  • pvl says:

    She was a great singer! RIP
    What was her family name, her maiden name?

  • pvl says:

    I’ve found it!
    She was Ruth Lissauer – that’s her family name, her maiden name.

  • Don Peterkin says:

    Really? Who thought that she was black? Only (some) audience members? It would have been extremely hard to tell from an audience members perspectives. Believe me, I have been in some divey jazz clubs. But, really, usually you can tell, but because race is so frigthenly complex and ambiguous (not as Western society has chosen to categorize it), it can be actually hard to tell, sometimes. But, most of the time one can tell. Come on, the club owners knew, she knew, the bandleaders knew, her fellow musicians knew. If they didn’t, I’m sure that most of them asked. And those that didn’t wondered.

    I am black, but my mother was “grey” but she considered herself black. She was definitely not white, despite her skin color or tone, as was my white elementary school teacher, for example. It was so funny that my younger sister and I would tease my mother about her skin color/tone and “white looking” features. She would never get upset or annoyed, but would calmly say that she is black. She was a beautiful woman, black or white or double, as I like to call my son of both African American and white European/Spanish ancestry.

    However, even that is reductionistic and esentializing. His mother is Andalusian Spanish, directly from deep Southern Spain (practically the furthest South you can be in Spain, unless you are at the coast) . She has a dark tone, and a distinct nose (which some have said is a “jewish nose,” what exactly is a “jewish nose”?). She has “orange’ freckled face and “blonde” or white skin (and naturally reddish blonde facial and body hair, which is changing as she ages), which never tans. Oh, my God. Race is so complicated that we don’t have the tools to adequately account for it in any meaningful way.

    What is crucial and interesting to me is Ruth Olay’s artistry (via her sound). She is obviously incredible, but does she sound “black” (whatever that actually is)? She doesn’t sound like Billy Holiday who she replaced.

    I would like to know why she changed her Jewish name. I would like to know if it was an economic advantage for her to have a different name (Yes, I’m sure of it, but I still would like to know in her own words).

    It’s also akin to this article about a white female who performed as a man (i.e., trans or was he just a male impersonator? The distinction is important because the term transgender is evolving and so easily corrupted at its origin and ongoing.

    Again, was it to get more work?

    This brings up another question: If a white (or black) man, decides to “be” a woman, as a jazz musician, could he or she have been afforded some benefits? Would they even have been accepted into the music industry?

    Because if she replaced Billy Holiday for $500.00 a week (How many years ago?). That is a prodigious amount. It is 2021 and jazz musicians don’t get that kind of salary.

    Further, why did she replace Billy Holiday? What happened?
    The questions are endless.

    I know this little story is a mere piece of history but, please, don’t insult our intelligience. People back then and people now know what’s going on.

    Finally, she was an incredibly beautiful woman and her talent was exquisite.

    But, please, what’s really going on?

    • Adam Magid says:

      Ruth Olay was my mother. “Rachel Davis” and “passing” was totally Benny Carter’s idea, not my mom’s. As for her sound–she was so much greater than people realize on that recording. She could sing the ballsiest blues or the most delicate, sensitive ballads on a dime. All from her heart. She never repeated. I grew up listening to her sing three sets a night in the clubs for hardly any scratch, after working all day at her day job as a secretary.

      In response to the hyper-analytical and assumptive line inquiry, I direct one to Occam’s Razor. It wasn’t a great economic advantage for her to have had Benny change her name (and that was just for the shortest period–no doubt b/c he was wary of the way race relations were back then).

      She was a fantastic singer. Ck out her “Live At Mr. Kelly’s” LP for a taste or “Soul In The Night” Her rendition of
      “Don’t Explain” (on a later lp) or “‘Round Midnight” or many others are just singularly classic imo,

  • GUEST says:

    This article does not promote art. Rather, it promotes racism and it promotes division, uneccessarily. Henry Roth mentioned that Paganini had “Jewish features” as well. When can all of the bs racism end on every side? How about just appreciate greatness regardless of race, gender, etc? It is being perpetuated by this kind of article.

  • Sidelius says:

    I am still wondering about the comment about Amy Winehouse by Mr. Neidorf. Was that meant as a slap at her? I believe almost every singer probably begins by emulating others they identify with, and gradually find their own voice. Even Shostakovich began by emulating Mahler, and told his students to begin with the same approach, knowing they will find their own style over time. Amy was only 27. Her posters are still all over the walls of any record shop you care to visit. Who knows how she would have grown by 50? So leave her be, notorious G.

  • Adam Magid says:

    Another mom never “tried” to sound like anyone or anything other than herself. Like all singers, she others in her ear–Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, Benny Goodman’s phrasing, Kay Starr–but she always had her own voice and got better throughout the years. She continued her vocalizing and classical voice training through three generation of vocal teachers and it just amazed me how her instrument was instantly and so remarkably responsive and reflective of the slightest nuances and shadings. Ella was a fan, Dinah was a fan, Streisand used to sit on the back of the club with a little notebook. Why she didn’t become one of the biggest stars riles and frustrates me to no end. But then again, many incredible jazz artists never got nor get the widespread recognition they deserve. What’s new? But jazz aficionados are aware. Overseas, jazz artists are much more appreciated.