Dakota Staton - vocals; John Malachi - piano; Sonny Wellesley - bass; Khalil Madi - drums
A dynamic performer with a dramatic delivery, the under-appreciated vocalist Dakota Staton was a wonderful interpreter of ballads as well as an inveterate swinger. And while she may not have enjoyed the widespread acclaim and commercial success as such jazz vocal legends as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, the sheer expressive power of her voice was undeniably compelling and her stage presence commanding. Staton's performance at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival was one of the highlights of that all-star Saturday evening, which also included performances from Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, the Horace Silver Quintet, and headliner Ray Charles.
Backed by a tightly-knit trio consisting of bassist Sonny Wellesley, drummer Khalil Madi, and veteran jazz pianist John Malachi, who came up in Billy Eckstine Bebop Orchestra in the mid-1940s before working as an accompanist for such regal singers as Pearl Bailey, Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughan, Staton energized the Newport crowd with a scintillating set.
They open with a swinging rendition of "The Best Thing for You," which appeared on the singer's 1959 Capitol recording Time to Swing. Staton holds nothing back here, oozing personality from bar to bar as she makes her way through Irving Berlin's lyrics. From that uptempo ditty, they segue smoothly into the deep blues of "I Need Your Love So Bad," a hit in 1956 for R&B singer Little Willie John, who also composed the tune. Dakota channels her inner Dinah Washington in delivering the painful lyrics, and she belts out with cathartic gusto at the tag of that earthy torch song. Moving right along in their fast-paced set, Staton and company launch into the oft-covered Vincent Rose number "Avalon," a tune introduced in 1920 by Al Jolson and subsequently covered by such Swing Era jazz stars as Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt, and Cab Calloway. This uptempo burner has remained in the repertoire of modern day jazz stars and has more recently been covered by the likes of John Pizzarelli, James Carter, and Harry Connick, Jr. Dakota sails through it with bristling momentum, dropping in a few bits of scat singing along the way.
Shifting the mood radically, she next settles into a luxurious interpretation of Erroll Garner's gorgeous ballad "Misty" before heading into the raucous jump blues number "Seems Like You Just Don't Care." Then it's on to the melancholy torch song "Where Flamingos Fly," a John Benson Brooks original covered by such other elegant song stylists as Chris Connor, Helen Merrill, and Peggy Lee. Continuing to shift moods from track to track, she and her interactive trio then return to swing with "Broadway," which has Dakota playing fast and loose with her phrasing while also hitting those high notes with clarity and confidence. Then it's back to ballads with a heart-wrenching, practically operatic reading of the Rodgers & Hart classic, "My Funny Valentine." Staton commences her well-paced set with a rocking rendition of her 1957 hit, "The Late, Late Show," the title track of her first full-length album. But the crowd yells for more, and she delivers with a series of exhilarating encore numbers. First up is a blazing rendition of Jesse Stone's "Idaho," which gives pianist Malachi a chance to show off his bebop chops. Their second encore is a soothing take on "Trust in Me," a torch song from The Late, Late Show. For her third encore, Stanton and her crack crew launch into a highly-charged uptempo rendition of "Cherokee," a longstanding jazz jam vehicle penned by British bandleader Ray Noble in 1938 and subsequently covered by everyone from Charlie Barnet and Charlie Parker to Clifford Brown and Bud Powell. Malachi again gets an extended solo on this scorcher, and Staton belts with rare gusto without dropping a beat. She leaves the stage to a wild ovation from the appreciative Newport crowd and to strains of Clifford Brown's hard bop anthem "Daahoud" (showing just how hip this backing trio was).
Following her triumphant appearance at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, Stanton would record two more albums for Capitol before cutting a live album at George Wein's nightclub in Boston, 1961's Dakota at Storyville, which led to a recording contract with the United Artists label. After relocating to England in 1965, her stock dropped somewhat Stateside. She returned in 1970 and launched a comeback in the early '70s with a series of recordings on the Groove Merchant label, including 1972's Madame Foo Foo, featuring the great soul-jazz organist Richard "Groove" Holmes. Stanton continued to tour and record through the '80s and '90s. Her final studio date was 1999's A Pocket of Love Letters on the High Note label.
Born outside of Pittsburgh on June 3, 1930, Dakota Stanton began singing and dancing as a child, later attending the Filion School of Music, where she starred in the stage show Fantastic Rhythm. She got her first professional experience in 1948 with local bandleader Joe Wespray and later had a lengthy residency at Detroit's landmark Flame Show Bar. After years of traveling the Midwest club circuit, she settled in New York City and began performing at Harlem's Baby Grand, where she captured the attention of Capitol Records producer Dave Cavanaugh, who signed Staton to the label in 1954. She debuted with the single "What Do You Know About Love?"and a year later was named "Most Promising Newcomer" for 1955 in Down Beat magazine's Critics Poll. While Staton was certainly comfortable in a jazz setting - she swung confidently with some of the finest players on the scene - she also had the ability to cross over convincingly into the R&B camp, performing on showcase bills with the likes of Big Joe Turner and Fats Domino during the 1950s. Staton burst onto the scene in 1957 with her first full-length album, The Late, Late Show, which proved to be an enormous crossover hit. She followed up that success with 1958's The Dynamic Dakota Staton!, which scaled the R&B charts and marked the first of many collaborations with arranger Sid Feller.
After marrying trumpeter Talib Ahmad Dawud in 1958, Staton converted to Islam and for a time performed under the name Aliyah Rabia. She was also an active member of Dawud's advocacy group the Muslim Brotherhood, which existed in large part to combat the radical politics of black supremacist Elijah Muhammad. The resulting media attention interrupted Staton's commercial momentum. And though Crazy He Calls Me made an impressive showing on the charts in 1959, it paled in comparison to the crossover success that greeted her previous recordings. After 10 recordings with Capitol, she jumped to United Artists for 1963's From Dakota with Love and followed up with Live and Swinging and Dakota Staton with Strings. She did not cut another record for eight years, then mounted a comeback in the 1970s. She performed into the late '90s before suffering a triple aneurysm. Her health was in serious decline for a few years before she finally passed away in 2007, at age 76. (Milkowski)
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