"There's nothing I sing that doesn't have the blues in it somewhere," vocalist Dakota Staton told Patricia Smith of the Boston Globe. During her heyday in the late 1950s and early 1960s Staton was classified as a jazz singer, but her voice, tough and passionate, broke through genre barriers. Influenced by Dinah Washington, she in turn influenced a generation of African-American female singers who aimed toward success on pop and urban contemporary radio and recordings but had jazz sophistication in their vocal approaches. Never as famous as her talent would suggest, Staton nevertheless remained active as a singer for most of her long life.
Dakota Staton (pronounced STAY-ton) was born in Homewood, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, on June 3 of either 1930 or 1931 (most sources indicate 1930). Her older brother Fred, who became a jazz saxophonist, told Jacki Lyden of National Public Radio that her career started as early as age seven, when "[s]he'd go around in the neighborhood, entertaining the neighbors from time to time." By her teens she was taking classical singing lessons at Pittsburgh's Filion School of Music and performing in small clubs. The emotional jazz-blues style of Dinah Washington, who was more closely connected to the jazz world than to pop in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was a major influence on the budding singer.
After a two-year stint with Pittsburgh's Joe Westray Orchestra in the early 1950s, Staton became a regional headliner at a number of prime Midwest jazz clubs, including Detroit's Flame Bar. By 1954 she had moved to New York, initially staying with her older brother. Her shows immediately began to gain attention from jazz fans, and she released a single, "What Do You Know About Love?" Bandleader Willie Bryant was an early backer of her career. The influential jazz magazine Down Beat chose her as its most promising jazz vocalist of the year for 1955. Capitol label executive Dave Cavanaugh took charge of her career after hearing her perform at the Baby Grand club in Harlem, and in 1957 Staton's debut LP recording, The Late, Late Show, was released.
The album gave Staton something that was already rare for a jazz musician in the era of rock and roll and rhythm-and-blues: a hit single in the form of the title track, a sweet song about the natural world coming alive late at night to witness the antics of a pair of kissing lovers. "The album's title track was a significant pop hit, but Staton revealed a swing-singer's talent for cruising freely over a jazz pulse," noted John Fordham of England's Guardian newspaper. The Late, Late Show album rose to the number-four spot on sales charts, and a follow-up, Dynamic!, cracked the top 25. The rough edge of Staton's voice drew rock and blues fans even on quiet pieces like "The Late, Late Show," and in the late 1950s Staton's name was mentioned along with those of Washington and Sarah Vaughan in lists of the top female jazz vocalists of the day.
Pure jazz fans also flocked to buy Staton's recordings, attracted by the presence of top sidemen such as trumpeter Jonah Jones (on The Late, Late Show) and Harry "Sweets" Edison of the Count Basie Orchestra (on Dynamic!). One of her most sympathetic collaborators was British-American pianist George Shearing, with whom she recorded the In the Night in the late 1950s. Her talents extended to recordings with string orchestras as well as small-group material, and top-rank Capitol arrangers Nelson Riddle and Sid Feller worked on her albums. Staton headlined a major jazz concert at New York's Town Hall in 1959 and toured with Benny Goodman's big band the following year. In 1963 she appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival.
By that time Staton's career was about to enter its second phase. In 1958 she had married jazz trumpeter Talib Ahmad Dawud and converted to the Islamic faith. She changed her name to Aliyah Rabia and performed under that name for a short time. Dawud, Staton, and pianist Ahmad Jamal, however, soon ran afoul of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, who condemned their involvement in the world of secular entertainment; they in turn were among the founders of a splinter group called the Muslim Brotherhood. Staton moved to United Artists in 1963, recording From Dakota with Love and two more albums for the label, but jazz in the mid-1960s was in commercial decline. Disillusioned with both politics and the music business, Staton moved to England in 1965 and made a living as a live performer. "I didn't want to be limited to (the same) 12 tunes, and that's all anyone wanted to hear here. I wanted to go somewhere where it didn't matter and I could stretch out and sing the songs I wanted to sing," she explained to Michael J. Renner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The marriage to Dawud ended in divorce.
In the early 1970s Staton returned to the United States and to a jazz scene commercially rejuvenated by soul-jazz and other fusion styles. Although her name had been largely forgotten, she was signed to the Groove Merchant label and recorded a pair of raw, soul-oriented albums, Madame Foo Foo (featuring organ work by Groove Holmes) and I Want a Country Man. Those albums, like most of Staton's earlier work on Capitol, were reissued on CD and remain highly valued by jazz collectors. Staton later recorded for the small Muse and Simitar labels, and her final album, 1999's A Packet of Love Letters, was released on the High Note label.
Staton remained notable as a live performer during her later years. Rob Mariani of the All About JazzWeb site heard Staton at Scullers jazz club in Boston in the late 1990s. "And the voice, the very same identical voice I'd heard over forty years ago in the Village Vanguard, emerges, unchanged, strong and full of beautiful, lyrical energy," he wrote. She sometimes returned to her hometown of Pittsburgh, performing with pianist Frank Cunimondo, who told Nate Guidry of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that "Dakota was very demanding musically. She was one of the innovators when it came to the jazz vocalists. As she matured, her voice got deeper and better." In poor health in the early 2000s, Staton died in New York City on April 10, 2007.
The Late, Late Show, Capitol, 1957.
Dynamic!, Capitol, 1958.
(With George Shearing) In the Night, Capitol, 1958.
Ballads and the Blues, Capitol, 1959.
Time to Swing, Capitol, 1959.
Dakota, Capitol, 1960.
Softly, Capitol, 1960.
Dakota at Storyville (live), Capitol, 1961.
Round Midnight, Capitol, 1961.
From Dakota with Love, United Artists, 1963.
Live and Swinging, United Artists, 1963.
Dakota Staton with Strings, United Artists, 1964.
Madame Foo Foo, Groove Merchant, 1972.
I Want a Country Man, Groove Merchant, 1973.
Dakota Staton, Muse, 1990.
Darling Please Save Your Love, Muse, 1991.
Ms. Soul, Simitar, 1997.
A Packet of Love Letters, High Note, 1999.
The Ultimate Dakota Staton, Capitol, 2005.
At a Glance …
Born on June 3, 1930 (some sources say 1931) in Homewood, PA; died on April 10, 2007, in New York, NY; married Talib Ahmad Dawud, a jazz musician, late 1950s (divorced); used name Aliyah Rabia after conversion to Islam. Education: Attended Filion School of Music, Pittsburgh, PA, studied classical voice. Religion: Islam.
Career: Joe Westray Orchestra, Pittsburgh, PA, singer, early 1950s; Flame Bar, Detroit, and other Midwestern venues, singer, 1952-54; Capitol Records, singer, 1957-61; United Artists, singer, 1963-64; England, singer, 1965-71; Groove Merchant, singer, 1972-73; Simitar, Muse, and High Note labels.
Awards: Down Beat magazine, most promising newcomer award, 1955.
Boston Globe, January 18, 1991, p. 42.
Guardian (London, England), April 16, 2007, p. 37.
New York Times, April 13, 2007, p. A17.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 13, 2007, p. A13.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 13, 1999, p. E3.
"Dakota Staton," All Music Guide,www.allmusic.com (June 5, 2007).
"Dakota Staton," Swingmusic.net,www.swingmusic.net/Dakota_Staton.html (June 5, 2007).
"The Great, Late Show with Dakota Staton," All About Jazz,www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=23755 (June 5, 2007).
Weekend Edition, National Public Radio, April 14, 2007 (transcription).