Jean DuShon: A Lifetime of Blues on the Road
“ One of the premiere jazz and blues singers ever., DuShon also starred on Broadway three times. ”
It is not well known, but Detroit native, Jean DuShon (born Anna Jean Harris) was the very first artist to record the legendary Ron Miller/Orlando Murden classic, "For Once in My Life. Others have claimed to be the first, but it was DuShon who was invited to Miller's home to interpret the tune. So pleased with her ideas and dynamic rendition, he allowed her to record the song first, which came out in early 1966 to great acclaim, especially in her hometown of Detroit. The song was chosen "pick hit of the week" by the city's WXYZ radio station. Jean's record company, Chess Records, did not promote the record, thus allowing other singers to pick up the ball and run with the songnamely Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, The Temptations, Carmen McRae and Tony Bennett.
DuShon started singing gospel as a child in a Baptist church and later won numerous talent contests which inspired her to go professional at 15. Borrowing an older sister's clothes and makeup, she passed as 18 and began appearing in places like the Frolics Showbar, Twenty Grand and the Flame Showbar. Like countless young singers, DuShon was fascinated by the artistry of blues queen Dinah Washington, whose "home away from home" was Detroit. As her reputation as a fiery soul shouter grew, the word got out to Washington about "a girl who sounds just like you." An outraged Washington confronted DuShon one night backstage at the Flame ("she nearly scared me to death," DuShon admits), prompting the young girl to develop her own style. Years later, DuShon sensed someone in the audience at Birdland staring at her intensely and her gaze zeroed in on an evil-eyed "blond" woman, who turned out to be the Queen of the Blues herself, Dinah Washington!
After studying voice at the Detroit Conservatory, DuShon caught the attention of famous agent, John Levy, who was managing he likes of Joe Williams, Dakota Staton, Cannonball Adderley, Sarah Vaughan, Ramsey Lewis, Wes Montgomery, George Shearing and his new star, the dynamic Nancy Wilson. He secured many class engagements across the nation for DuShon and her national fame grew. Unfortunately, Levy and Wilson had a professional rift, a lawsuit ensued and things got ugly. An angry Levy told newspapers that he intended to make DuShon an even bigger star than Wilson. Later, Wilson and Levy patched things up and headed for California. DuShon's well-to-do husband, Freddie Atwell, became her manager and they relocated east to New York City.
Being talented and attractive, DuShon's husband found work for her easily. She was invited to join the Cootie Williams Band as star vocalist. While appearing with him at the Roundtable, she was spotted by Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic Records executive, who offered DuShon a contract and paired her with young producer, Phil Spector. She recorded a version of Little Willie John's "Talk to Me, Talk to Me, which was backed with the DuShon-penned "Tired of Trying. This led to recordings with a number of labels including Lenox Records ("It Won't Stop Hurting Me ), Columbia/Okeh ("Second Class Lover ) and ABC-Paramount, where she recorded the Creed Taylor-produced "Is It Wrong To Be Right.
Jean's soulful nightclub act brought her to the attention of Chicago's Chess Records, which offered her a record deal. Her first album, Make Way For Jean DuShon (1964), was a critical success and led to a second with the famed Ramsey Lewis Trio, You Better Believe Me (1965). By the time of her third release, Feeling Good (1966), she was a bona fied star. Jean was thrilled to work with famed arranger Oliver Nelson and producer Esmond Edwards on this project. It was at Chess where Jean became the first artist to record the Miller/Murden composition "For Once in My Life. She was devastated when the record did not become a hit (lack of company promotion) and she took the song out of her popular nightclub act.
For a brief period, DuShon sang with Lloyd Price's Band and the legendary Fats Domino invited her to tour the nation with him. They played the best places, culminating in Las Vegas at the lavish Flamingo Hotel, an engagement that was attended by many famous stars, many of whom wanted to work with DuShon. One of them who became a life-long friend was the late Nipsey Russell. DuShon also shared marquees with comics Dick Gregory, Slappy White, Redd Foxx and, back in New York at Birdland, jazz greats Miles Davis and Sonny Stitt. During this period, she wowed audiences at the Blue Note and Basin Street East. While she was with ABC-Paramount, she appeared at the Village Gate with label-mate Ray Charles and was the sole female vocalist at the 1967 New Jersey Jazz Festival with Count Basie, Joe Williams and Ramsey Lewis.