Welch was born in Englewood, New Jersey, where her father was chief gardener of an estate. Her father was of indigenous American and African American ancestry; her mother was of Scottish and Irish descent. Welch was brought up in a Baptist Christian family, and began her singing in a church choir.
She first intended to go from high school into social work, but instead chose to become a professional singer. She started her career in America, in New York, in 1922, but in 1929 she went on to Europe - first to Paris and then to London, which became her base for the rest of her life.
After her first appearance in America in Liza in 1922, Elisabeth Welch was the initial singer of the Charleston in the show Runnin' Wild (1923). During the 1920s she appeared in African-American Broadway theatre shows, including Chocolate Dandies (1924) and Blackbirds of 1928 (1928-9). She made relatively few recordings. Before moving to Europe she made only one record – "Doin' The New Lowdown", b/w 'Digga Digga Do", as vocalist for the Irving Mills-assembled Hotsy Totsy Gang (Brunswick 4014, 27 July 1928).
One of these was taken to Paris, where in 1929 and 1930, following artist Josephine Baker, she was in cabaret shows, including performances at the Moulin Rouge.
She was asked to return to New York, where she replaced a singer in The New Yorkers (1930–1931) and sang Cole Porter's controversial song "Love for Sale". The composer met her afterwards in Paris, and later invited her to perform his song "Solomon" in Nymph Errant in London in 1933. That year, before this show was available, Welch was given permission to perform in London in Dark Doings, in which she sang "Stormy Weather", newly written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. She subsequently took the song as her signature tune.
Welch's show-stopping performance in Nymph Errant was seen by Ivor Novello, and in 1935 he gave her a part in his show Glamorous Night, in which she stood out again singing his blues song "Far Away in Shanty Town". In 1931 she had included in her cabaret act the new song "As Time Goes By", almost a dozen years before it achieved screen fame in Casablanca.
In the late 1930s Welch entered two media: she appeared in films – usually as a singer, including two with Paul Robeson – and was also one of the first artists to perform on television, appearing on the BBC's new TV service from Alexandra Palace.
During World War II she remained in London in spite of the Blitz. She entertained the armed forces along with many other artists.
After the war she was in many West End theatre shows, including revues. She continued on both television and radio, and was even in one pantomime, Aladdin. She also had a series of one-woman shows, until 1990. She was in the Royal Variety Performance in 1979 and 1986. In 1979 her recording of "Stormy Weather" was used by Derek Jarman in his film version of Shakespeare's The Tempest.
In 1980 she returned to New York to appear in Black Broadway after an absence of nearly fifty years, and she appeared there again in 1986, when her one-woman show earned her an Obie Award. She was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood.
She was the subject of This Is Your Life in October 1985 when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews outside London's Palace Theatre.
Her final performance was in 1996, for a television documentary, in which she sang "Stormy Weather", at the age of 93.
In 1928 she was married to Luke Smith, a musician, and remained with him until his death in 1936; they had no children.
She died at the age of 99 in Northwood, London, on July 15, 2003.
In February 2012, writer Bonnie Greer unveiled an English Heritage blue plaque at Ovington Court in Kensington, London, where Welch lived from 1933 to 1936.
She was twice a guest on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs, on February 26, 1952 and November 18, 1990; her latter appearance is now part of the programme's online archive.Liza – 1922 – on Broadway
Running Wild – 1923 – on Broadway
Chocolate Dandies – 1924 – on Broadway
Blackbírds of 1928 – 1928 – on Broadway
Blackbirds of 1929 – 1929 – at the Moulin Rouge, Paris
Cabaret – 1930 – at the Le Boeuf sur le Toit, Paris
The New Yorkers – 1931 – on Broadway
Dark Doings – 1933 – at Leicester Square Theatre, London
Nymph Errant – 1933 – at Adelphi Theatre, London
Glamorous Night – 1935 – at Drury Lane Theatre, London
Let's Raise the Curtain – 1936 – at Victoria Palace, London
Its in the Bag – 1937 – at Saville Theatre, London
All the Best – 1938 – at the Opera House Theatre, Blackpool
No Time for Comedy – 1941 – at Comedy Theatre, London
Sky High – 1942 – at Phoenix Theatre, London
Happy and Glorious – 1944 – at London Palladium, London
Twopenny Coloured – 1947 – review
Oranges and Lemons – 1949 – review
Penny Plain – 1951 – review
The Crooked Mile – 1959 – London
Cindy Ella – 1962 – London
Pippin – 1973 – London
Black Broadway – 1980 – on Broadway
Death at Broadcasting House (1934) - Elisabeth Welch - Singer
Soft Lights and Sweet Music (1936) - Herself
Song of Freedom (1936) - Ruth Zinga
Calling All Stars (1937) - Herself
Big Fella (1937) - Amanda 'Manda'
Around the Town (1938) - Elisabeth (uncredited)
Over the Moon (1939) - Cabaret Singer
This Was Paris (1942) - Cabaret Singer (uncredited)
Alibi (1942) - Singer
Fiddlers Three (1944) - Nora
Dead of Night (1945) - Beulah
Our Man in Havana (1959) - Woman
Cleopatra (1963) - Children's Nurse (scenes deleted)
Girl Stroke Boy (1971) - Mrs Delaney
Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) - Mrs. Wu
Arabian Adventure (1979) - Beggarwoman
The Tempest (1979) - A Goddess (Last appearance)