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Denise King: Making the Tradition New

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

AAJ: And you got guidance on the job from some of the best of the best musicians.

DK: I learned a lot from them, including bandstand etiquette. I learned not just how to be a singer, but to be a player, to work along with the musicians as part of the group.

AAJ: I like the phrase "bandstand etiquette." You can tell when the singers and the group are working together rather than flouting their own egos. It's important that you all connect with and respect one another.

DK: It's important to know how to conduct yourself on the bandstand. This is a collective effort; we are creating something together. You have to learn the rules and learn how to share the stage.

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