Denise King: Making the Tradition New

Victor L. Schermer By

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Denise King is a Philadelphia vocalist who has made the world her oyster with her unique ability to navigate between rhythm and blues and sultry jazz standards. Discovered in the 1980s by an R&B songwriter-producer, King quickly found her way in the City of Brotherly Love with some of the top musicians in both popular and jazz settings. In the New Millennium, she has been shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and Europe delivering stellar performances on both continents. With her smooth and sultry voice, impeccable sense of timing, interpretive depth, and immersion in the tradition of the great singers, King brings out the best in any genre. For example, in just one of her albums, Fever (R.E.D.D. King, 2001), she is equally at home with Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave," the unsung ballad, "Never Let Me Go," the Shirelles' pop song, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," and the rocking "I've Got My Mojo Workin.'" She takes each song on its own merit while adding her unmistakable personal stamp. Among her various projects, she does a traveling Tribute to Sarah Vaughan, one of her idols with whom she shares many fine qualities. King also has a strong personality and life story that can be entertaining and at the same time cut deeply into the soul.

All About Jazz: For a warmup, tell us a few of your all time favorite record albums.

Denise King: I love Sarah Vaughan Swings the Tivoli (Mercury, 1963). Then there's Nina Simone: Wild is the Wind (Phillips, 1966). I could listen to that one all the time. Then it's Ben Webster and Harry "Sweets" Edison, Ben and Sweets (CBS Records, 1962). And anything by Chet Baker. I love Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours (Capitol, 1955). And I also dig the way Sinatra does the songs "Where or When" and "That Old Feeling."

Early Musical Influences

AAJ: I'd like to go back to your childhood, and then move forward in time, bringing us up to date. Am I right that you were born in Philadelphia?

DK: Yup, born and raised in West Philadelphia.

AAJ: Were there jazz clubs in that neighborhood then?

DK: I don't recall whether they were in West Philly when I was a youngster. But I do remember Peps and the Showboat around Broad Street. Philly was a hot town for jazz at that time (late 1950s-early 1960s) Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue) in North Philly was jumpin.' But I didn't get involved in jazz until I was much older. I do know there was a lot of stuff on Broad Street then.

AAJ: At some point, jazz clubs were popping up on 52nd Street in your neck of the woods.

DK: 52nd Street was jumpin.' I know that because my father and my aunt Curtice used to hang out on 52nd Street. It was a very hip place to be. The super-star athletes and everybody who was anybody would hang out at Mr. Silk's Third Base Lounge at 52nd and Spruce. And there was the Acqua Lounge. Things were poppin' then in Philly, but I missed all that. I was still a little kid.

AAJ: What were your earliest exposures to music?

DK: Growing up in a mainly black neighborhood in Philadelphia, most of my early exposure was to R&B, gospel music, and soul music. During my pre-teen years, my sister, who was seven years older than me, was an avid record collector. She ran to the record store and bought every new record that came out. My brothers and I would spend hours listening to Anthony and the Imperials, the Paragons, Gary "U.S" Bonds, who I had a massive crush on, and of course that whole Motown experience and James Brown. Those were my favorites, but once I became a teen-ager, junior high school changed everything about the music I was exposed to. I was one of ten black kids who had to integrate an all-white school in Northeast Philly. The change in music was like night and day. It was the first time I had been exposed to music like the Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Nazz, and The Who. And of course, the Beatles. And my siblings thought I was from outer space when I was listening to Incense and Peppermint! I think those years shaped my approach to music. And around that time, at age 13, I was first introduced to jazz.

AAJ: How did that happen?

DK: I would go and stay with my uncle, Herbert Tatum. He was a jazz fan and a record collector. His favorite horn player was saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman. He lived in the suburbs and had this massive collection. One wall of his recreation room was filled with all jazz records! One hot summer day, I was goofin' off at his place, and I found myself in the room with his records. The first one I pulled off the shelf was Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder (Blue Note, 1964). From that moment I was hooked on jazz.

AAJ: What about that recording hooked you?

DK: It was just the groove of it, the feel of it. The music appealed to me in a different way from what I'd been listening to previously. It made me think, it made me introspective. I think it taught me how to really listen. It was incredible how the musicians interacted with one another! It was the most amazing thing I had ever heard.

So after that, I found myself on a lot of days in uncle Herb's family room listening to the collection. But I wasn't exposed to the jazz vocalists until a little bit later when my cousin Cynthia told me she was crazy about Nina Simone. The first song I heard her sing was "Wild is the Wind." It blew my skirt off! Her voice and her interpretation were fantastic. I was kind of a Bohemian and artistic kid, and listening to Nina Simone just took me there. So, after that, listening to the jazz singers was a whole new world.

And then, when I heard Sarah Vaughan, it was over!!! I was cooked! This may sound bizarre, but I had dreamed a melody when I was young, and didn't know where it came from, and then I heard Sarah Vaughan sing it! It was "The Nearness of You." To this day, it's my favorite song. I recorded it, and it was the top tune in Philly for fifteen weeks. So Sarah was my inspiration. And my jazz education didn't come from music school; it came from listening to these great singers.

AAJ: Your voice is so fine, transparent, and artful, that I can't believe you haven't had voice training and a formal musical education.

DK: No. I somehow became my own teacher. It comes from listening. I listened to Nina, Sarah, and Frank Sinatra, who is one of my favorite singers. I would always listen to Sid Mark's radio shows, "Friday with Frank" and "Sunday with Sinatra." I listened to Frank's and Sarah's phrasing and interpretation, and what I learned from them was that you had to tell the story. You don't need vocal gymnastics or pyrotechnics, just tell the story. The person who penned the particular song was telling a story, and I feel that the singer's job is to convey that story in the tone that the song was written. I started my career rather late compared to some other singers. I was an old lady by then!

AAJ: Now wait a minute! Your bio says that you got your start when were sitting on a stoop singing, and some guy from Philadelphia International Records heard you and encouraged you to do it professionally. It's unlikely that happened so late in life.

DK: I was thirty years old at the time. By industry standards, I was an old lady. I was raising my kids. I was actually sweeping the front of my house, and I sang all the time!

AAJ: So you had no intention of being a professional singer until that guy came along?

DK: Even when he came around, being a singer wasn't even something that was on my radar. His name was Rahman Rasheed from Philadelphia International Records. When he walked by, I had a job as a medical assistant at a major teaching hospital. He was a good friend of mine, and he stopped in his tracks and shouted, "Hey girl, you can sing!" And I was like, "I can?" And then he said, "I have this gig comin' up, and I want to audition you for it." I had no idea what he was talking about, but he said the magic words "I will pay you." I was raising three boys who inhaled food like a vacuum cleaner, and I'm thinking, wow, I can buy more milk, cereal, tennis shoes, for my boys. So I agreed to do the audition.

AAJ: Philadelphia International was all R&B back then.

DK: It was all R&B. The first thing I did with him was an outdoor festival at a park in downtown Philadelphia. He was part of the writing team at Philadelphia International, and he invited me there to demo his songs for him. And there I met Dexter Wansel, the keyboard player and composer/arranger who had a big influence on the "Philly Sound." We became good friends, and I started doing some live performances and recordings with him. Then, at one point I did a horrible gig that I didn't even get paid for, and I was thinking of quitting, but that's where I met the jazz saxophonist Sam Reed. Years before we met, he had been the band director for the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, which was a "must play" venue on the chittlin' circuit. ["The 'Chitlin' Circuit' is the collective name given to the string of performance venues ... that were safe and acceptable for African American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers to perform in during the age of racial segregation in the United States ..."—Wikipedia.] Sam heard me at a place called Dino's, and called me for a gig. It's like every time I would be ready to walk away from this business, something good would happen and it would keep me locked in. And the gigs kept getting better and better. And then one day, I realized that I liked it! It hit me like a ton of bricks that this is kinda cool! I think this is what I should be doing with my life! And then I started to take my career much more seriously.

The Jazz Career

DK: Then, I had an opportunity to work with some of the more experienced Philly jazz musicians like Sam Dockery, Arthur Harper, Jimmy Oliver, Lex Humphries, Wayne Dockery, Jymie Merritt, Bootsie Barnes, the list goes on and on. And these older guys told me, "Look, if you want to sing, you better step up to the mike, and really hit something!" I've always had a really good ear, and I could tell when it was my time to step in, but I still had a lot to learn, and these guys taught me well.



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