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Jean DuShon: A Lifetime of Blues on the Road


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One of the premiere jazz and blues singers ever., DuShon also starred on Broadway three times.
Jean DuShonIt 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 song—namely 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.

Jean DuShonHer nightclub schedule was grueling as she worked in all types of venues with a plethora of performers including Chess label-mate Etta James, Motown's Marvin Gaye, The Marvelettes and Smokey Robinson. In southern states she shared bills with T-Bone Walker, Screamin' Jay Hawkins. At New York's Apollo Theatre, she graced the stage with Big Mama Thornton, Big Maybelle, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

DuShon's sultry nightclub act at Harlem's Wells prompted movie actor, Dick Anthony Williams to suggest that Jean try theater. Always open to new ideas, DuShon got coaching from Ophelia DeVore and eventually made her stage debut in No Strings Attached, followed by The Crystal Tree and Helen of Troy, all favorably received. These successes led to Broadway with the dramatic What The Wine Sellers Buy with Williams, Debi Morgan and Glynn Turman. A big break came when she was invited to join the Broadway cast of Bubbling Brown Sugar, an association lasting off and on for eleven years. She co-starred with Cab Calloway, Avon Long, Honi Coles, among other leading male stars.

During a hiatus from Bubbling, she was called to Chicago to replace Odetta in the musical Little Dreamer: A Nite in the Life of Bessie Smith. The show was in trouble and needed revitalizing. DuShon's vibrant performance did just that and the critics raved about her singing and acting. The play enjoyed an additional year of standing room only crowds. Rev. Jesse Jackson used the show as a fund-raiser for his PUSH organization and was photographed with the star. During the show's run, DuShon filmed a TV special, Precious Memories: Strolling Down Forty Seventh Street, an Emmy award-winning special.

DuShon made time for several TV appearances, most notably PBS's Soul! (with B. B. King), The Merv Griffin Show and her old friend Nipsey Russell's short-lived variety series. After returning to the touring company of Bubbling, DuShon received a call in Paris, France from the producers of Blues in the Night, which was set to open in New York in four weeks. Famed R&B legend, Ruth Brown had become ill and was unable to continue. DuShon had just played her final performance in Sugar and flew to New York and went into rehearsals with Leslie Uggams and Debbie Shapiro. They opened three weeks later on Broadway. DuShon garnered glowing notices from theatre critics. Her scorching rendition of Bessie Smith's heart-breaking "Wasted Life Blues had the same impact on audiences as Jennifer Holliday's show-stopping "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going.

DuShon missed appearing in clubs and after Blues closed (losing the Tony Award for Best Musical to Cats) she appeared at Sign of the Dove and other swank spots. During a European stint, she sang for Princess Grace of Monaco and was invited to perform for King Hussein of Jordan, where 50 Indian voices backed her in a gospel concert. Returning home in 1992, she performed at one of President-elect Bill Clinton's inaugural galas with Little Jimmy Scott and B. B. King.

"I've played the world," DuShon says. "Everywhere from Tulsa to Tokyo and I've got the reviews and pictures to prove it." DuShon received a standing invitation from the Bessie Smith Theatre in Tennessee to open the one-woman show she is currently writing, tentatively called Blues on the Road.

Still performing, DuShon is ready to record again. Wisely, she taped many of her live nightclub shows, which should be released to a public constantly checking record stores for anything they can find on DuShon. She also owns other recordings (never released) that she'd like to share with her fans.

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