Dakota Staton was a captivating story teller who sang in the idioms of Jazz, R&B, and the Blues. She came to international fame in 1957 with her hit cross-over album “The Late, Late Show”. With a string of acclaimed hit albums on Capitol Records from 1957 through 1961 she was as popular as Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. Critics describer her voice as bright bold tough brassy and sassy. She had a natural feeling for blues and swing. You can feel her powerful anguish when she belts out the pain of being wronged in blues songs like “I Stood By”, “I did Everything Right with the Wrong Man” and It's The Talk Of The Town”. Stayton recorded more than thirty critically acclaimed albums on several labels during her career working with arrangers Nelson Riddle, Sid Feller, George Shearing, Benny Carter and Groove Holmes. Music historians write that she influenced a generation of African-American female singers by creating what the New York Times called “a stylistic link between the earthiness of Dinah Washington and Big Maybelle and Chaka Khan's note-bending pop-funk iconoclasm". Filmaker Gabriella Morandi honored Staton in 2000 featuring her in the documentary Jazz Women along with legends Etta Jones, Abbey Lincoln, and Annie Ross. In 2001 Staton was honored in Pittsburgh with her inducted to the Gallery of Stars at Kelly-Strayhorn Theater and with a star on the walk of fame in front of the theater.
What the Critics Say
“One of America’s great vocal stylists.” - Robert Sherman New York Times 1998
"She belted. She swung. She caressed the ballads. She invented new ways to phrase old lyrics. ... Like the greats, she made singing seem natural and easy," - Rob Mariani All About Jazz
“A dynamic song stylist recalling at times elements of Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan.” - Leonard Feather in the late 1950s.
“Staton’s upbeat style incorporated whoops, squeaks, sobs, British vowels, a fluttery vibrato, and a pseudo-operatic head voice. Sometimes she slipped into the latter-day rasp of Billie Holiday, the little-girl coyness of Sarah Vaughan, or the police-siren wail of her idol, Dinah Washington. Her looks were as over the top as her voice: Staton’s Zaftig hourglass figure, poured into lace or beads, recalled Mae West, and she favored fur stoles and huge bouffant hairdos. “I came from that era of glamour,” explained the singer, who was in her twenties. “I was a showgirl … and I’m not like other people.” -- James Gavin, New York City, 2006 Jamesgavin.com
“She could be a charismatic, charming, emotional and profoundly skilful performer of what came to be dubbed the "blues-ballad". Staton could catch the telling balance of romanticism and defiance that a style concocted out of a mix of torchy ballads, blues and soul-music could achieve at its best, expressing the ambiguity of emotion strung across a chasm between despair and the determination to survive. – The Guardian John Fordham The Guardian, Sunday 15 April 2007
Beginnings in Pittsburgh
Dakota Staton (pronounced STAY-ton) was born in Pittsburgh on June 3, 1930. She grew up in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh. At four years old imitating Shirley Temple she sang and danced for her neighbors. She formed a singing trio with her two older sister at age 7. In her teens she studied classical voice at the Filion School of Music in Oakland. Attending Westinghouse High School she sang with Carl McVicker’s Kadets swing band. Her band mates were the future jazz superstars Ahmad Jamal on piano, Grove Mitchell on trombone and vocalist Adam Wade. At 16 she starred in the Bogey Fowler's production of Billy Strayhorn’s 1935 musical “Fantastic Rhythm”. Seeing Dakota in that show Joe Westray hired her to be the vocalist for his popular orchestra. Graduating from high school in 1948 at age 18 she sang with Wespray’s Orchestra in the clubs of the Hill District.
From Detroit to the Big Apple
During her time singing with Westray Dakota was influenced by the powerful soul-jazz style of torch-singer Dinah Washington. After two years with Westray. Dakota moved in 1950 to Detroit. There she performed as a solo act singing R&B and blues. She had a long engagement at Detroit's landmark Flame Show Bar. She then toured for several years on the Midwest club circuit appearing in Indianapolis, Cleveland, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Canada.
In 1954 Dakota moved to New York City staying with her older brother Fred who was working in the city as a jazz saxophonist. Appearing in a long run at Harlem’s Baby Grand Club she came to the attention of radio host Willie Bryant. Bryant praised her talents on his radio show, which in turn convinced Capital Records's head of A&R Dave Cavanaugh to come to the club to hear Dakota perform. Cavanaugh invited her to audition for Capitol Records and subsequently signed her to his label. Dakota recorded her fist single :What Do You Know About Love? / You’re My Heart’s Delight” on November 24, 1954. Disc jockey Alan Freed played the single regularly on his daily WINS radio show. Freed also featured her in his first New York City rock ‘n roll show along with Fats Domino and Big Joe Turner. Attracting popular attention with her single and live performances Downbeat Magazine named her the "Most Promising New Comer" of 1955.
During 1955 and 1956 Dakota toured performing at R&B revenues. Dave Cavenaugh continued to support her career releasing about 20 singles on Capital Records including the songs “My Babe” and “A Little You”. Cavenaugh also recommended Dakota to George Shearing’s manager, John Levy, who became her manager. In his book “Men, Women, and Girl Singers: My Life As a Musician Turned Talent Manager” Levy wrote “When I first met with Dakota, she had a few singles out and was working with Dean Curtis’ group…but nothing much was really happening to further her career. Dakota’s singles were somewhat popular, but not in the jazz field. “I would rather be doing rhythm and blues,” Dakota told me. “I’m better at it, but they don’t have any rhythm and blues material over at Capitol.”
Rise to Stardom
John Levy and Dave Cavenaugh convinced Dakota to record a jazz album. To arrange and conduct Dave bought in Van Alexander, who had arranged Ella Fitzgerald’s signature song "A-Tisket, A-Tasket". The orchestra included Jazz Hall of Fame trumpeter Jonah Jones and pianist Hank Jones who had accompanied Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker. Dakota’s first album “The Late, Late Show” was released in 1957. The title track “The Late, Late Show” quickly rose to heavy airplay on jazz stations and crossed over to Pop radio stations. The single was her biggest hit and the album reached number 4 on the Billboard Top 100. The album is considered a jazz classic with its memorable versions of the songs "Broadway," "A Foggy Day," "What Do You See in Her," "My Funny Valentine" and "Mooney". Dakota, at age 25, was suddenly one of the hottest stars in the country.
Seeing Dakota as one of its brightest stars Capitol teamed her with its other major jazz star George Shearing to record them album "In The Night," late in 1957. Allmusic calls In The Night “one of the finest teamings in either's career.” Dakota sang post-bop vocals backed by the Shearing Quintet with Toots Thieleman on guitar. Dakota toured the country during most of 1958 with an ensemble led by pianist Joe Saye.
On Jan 7, 1959 Dakota was featured on the live CBS television special the “Timex Jazz All-Star Show”-The Golden Age of Jazz that was hosted by Jackie Gleason. She appearedwith jazz royalty Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa, and George Shearing. Dakota sang three songs on the show including “Body and Soul” backed by a sextet that included superstar Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins. A recording of the show was released as the “All Star Jazz Show #4: Rockin' in Rhythm” on the Sound Great label in 1987.
To capitalize on her Dakota’s success Capitol Records teamed her with top arrangers and conductors to released three hit albums in 1959. To record Dakota’s second solo release Dynamic” Capitol brought in its top in house arranger Sid Feller, who later worked with Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, and Ray Charles. Capital released “Dynamic” in January of 1959. With the hit songs “Anything Goes” and “Too Close For Comfort” the album reached number 22 on the Billboard Top 100.
In March of 1959 Capital released Dakota’s third album “Crazy He Calls Me”. Featuring arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Sid Feller, and Howard Biggs, the album reach number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Time Magazine praised the album saying “Singer Staton is an ample woman with a more than ample voice and a gaudy spectrum of moods…What makes her album a delight, though, is its sheer exuberance, suggesting that nobody is getting more kicks than Dakota herself.”
Allmusic raves about the Crazy He Calls Me” album saying: “Staton delivers top-quality interpretations with a dazzling and usually well-gauged array of vocal nuances…the impressive Crazy He Calls Me should not be missed.”
Capitol Record Dakota’s fourth album “Time to Swing” released in September of 1959 reached number 47 on the Billboard Top 100. Arranged and conducted by Benny Carter the album featured warm arrangements of “But Not For Me”, “Gone with the Wind” and “When Lights are Low”
Staton concert career blossomed. In 1959 she headlined a major jazz concert at New York's Town Hall, starred at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 3rd, and on August 21 performed for 70,000 at the Fenway Park jazz festival. Her Newport performance was released on the CD Dakota Staton Concert Newport Jazz Festival 1959. She toured with Benny Goodman's big band and Ahmad Jamal in 1960. In October of 1960 she performed at the first ever Australian Jazz Festival with appearances in Sydney and Melbourne along with Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, and other stars. With her string of four hit albums in the space of three years and acclaimed major concert appearances, Dakota Staton at age 27 was a popular as Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughan, and Dinah Washington.
Talib Dawud Takes Charge
Her career began to change direction with her marriage to Talib Dawud in 1958. Dawud, a trumpeter who had been a member Dizzy Gillespie’s band, changed his name from Al Barrymore to Talib Dawud when he became a follower of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam movement. He converted Dakota to Islam, changed her name to Aliyah Rabia, made her give up drinking, and took control of her life and career. Dawud told Dakota that they were exempt from income taxes as he was a Muslim preacher getting her into trouble with the IRS. He convinced her that as a Muslim he was permitted to have multiple wives. He moved his ex-wife and his children into their home. Dawud bizarrely made Dakota sing looking over the heads of her audiences insisting that she must avoid eye contact with everyone.
Dawud budded into Dakota’s career during the recording of Dakota’s fourth album, Time to Swing., First he wanted to fire the musicians the producer Benny Carter had hired for the session replacing them with all Muslim players. During the taping he kept stopping the session, accusing the musicians of playing incorrectly. Producer Carter told Dakota’s manager John Levy, “If you don’t get Talib out of this studio, I’m going out there, and I’m going to break his neck.” Talib was ejected from the studio. Dakota’s reputation and standing within Capitol Records suffered from that incident. Capitol did not cancel her contract, but the focused their attention and efforts supporting other musicians on their roster. Dawud’s interference in her career also led to the dissolution of Dakota’s business relationship with manager John Levy. Frustrated with constant arguments with Dawud and Dakota Levy released Dakota from her management contract. Levy went on to manage Nancy Wilson to stardom.
Dakota received negative national publicity when Dawud got into a battle with Elijah Mohammed. Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, condemned the secular entertainment careers of Ahmad Jamal and Dakota Staton saying that they served the devil. Leaving the Nation of Islam Dawud and Dakota founded a splinter group called the Muslim Brotherhood. In an interview with Mike Wallace of CBS Staton questioned Elihah Muhammed's authority as the voice of Islam. Jet magazine devoted a large cover story to the controversy. Some music writers believe that the controversy and negative media attention may have undermined Staton's commercial appeal.
Dakota released four albums on Capitol in 1960: Ballads and the Blues, Softly, “Dakota” that was arranged by Benny Carter, and Round Midnight. Her last Capitol Records album Dakota at Storyville” recorded live at the George Weins Storyville jazz club in Boston was released in 1961. Although critically acclaimed, none of those albums reached the Billboard charts. Dakota moved from Capitol to United Artists in 1963 to record “From Dakota with Love.” She released two more albums on United Artists Live and Swinging (1963), and Dakota Staton with Strings (1964). In 1963 she appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival again where she wowed the audience. Dakota’s career declined in the mid-1960s as the market for jazz was in decline with rise of Rock and R&B.
In Exile in the U.K
Dakota and her husband moved to England in 1965. Two reasons were given for their move. One was to flee the volatile politics of the Nation of Islam that heated up with the murder of Malcolm X in February of 1965. Dakota told Michael J. Renner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she was tired of performing the "Late Show" songs and she wanted to sing for new audiences where she could stretch out. Dakota made the U.K. her home base for live appearances around the world. She performed on cruise ships and at Intercontinental hotels. She introduced her foreign audiences to the blues. Dakota recorded the album Dakota ’67 on the London label using three arrangers and an all star cast of UK jazz musicians like Tubby Hayes and Kurt Edelhagen's orchestra. Her marriage to Dawud ended in divorce while she was in the U.K.
Return to the U.S.A.
Returning to the U.S. in the early 1970s Staton found a jazz scene that was rejuvenated with jazz fusion and soul-jazz. Working with soul-jazz great Richard "Groove" Holmes she released the “Madame Foo Foo” album in 1972, the “I Want a Country Man” album in 1973, and Ms. Soul (1974) on the Groove Merchant label. Dakota toured in the late seventies performing with pianist / music director Bross Townsend. She recorded with several labels from 1985 through 2007 including Muse, Verve, Columbia, and Caffe Jazz. She released “No Man Is Going To Change Me” in 1985 on the GP label. Other notable recordings from this period include three releases on the Muse: Dakota Staton (1990), “Isn't This a Lovely Day” (1992), A Packet of Love Letters (1999). Her last album on Caffe Jazz “Live at Milestones” was released in 2007.
Dakota continued to be a notable as a live performer into the late 1990s appeared at Skuller's club in Boston and Danny’s Skylight Room in Manhattan. In Pittsburgh she worked with pianist Frank Cunimondo at the Keyboard Club in Verona and Per Favore in Oakland. She made her last hometown appearance at the 1996 Mellon Jazz Festival with a performance at the Hill House Auditorium.
After she suffered a triple aneurysm stroke in 1999 her health slowly declined. In poor health she stopped performing. Staton died at the Isabella Geriatric Centre in New York City on April 10, 2007.
Dakota Staton Play List
To play entire list use this linked Daktota Staton Gems
Flame Show Bar Detroit
The Late, Late Show