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Jean DuShonimage

"The Fourth Dimension" was one of Jack McDuff’s albums he recorded in the ’70s. On that record was a soulful singer called Jean DuShon, a woman that Del Shields had welcomed into "the club" a few years before. "The Club" was a group of female jazz singers that included Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Gloria Lynne, Nancy Wilson, Peggy Lee and Dakota Staton. Like me, Mr. Shields was very impressed with the glorious sound of the Detroit native.

Jean DuShon is a superb singer. Early in her career, Dinah Washington scolded her for "trying to sing like me". DuShon quickly developed her own style which was so impressive, her rise to stardom was inevitable.

Jean started singing professionally while still in her teens. Like other natives of the city, she entered talent shows, most of which she won, and started getting paid gigs locally. The singer was headlining the Flame Showbar when Berry Gordy was still taking pictures of the patrons and his sister was selling cigarettes.

Luck walked through the door when John Levy became her manager. Among his other clients were Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, George Shearing and Ramsey Lewis. Jean was now being booked into swank nightclubs and working with many of the professionals (such as Nipsey Russell at the Club Baby Grand) she had heretofore only read about in the papers.


When Nancy and John had a big falling out, Levy took to the press, reporting that he would make DuShon and even bigger star than Wilson. Later, when Wilson and Levy patched up their differences, they both split for Los Angeles. Undaunted, Jean DuShon continued on her own with her husband becoming her manager. She signed as star vocalist with Cootie Williams Band and travelled the country. While appearing with Williams at New York’s Roundtable, she was spotted by Ahmet Ertegun, who was so impressed, that he took her to Atlantic Records where he assigned the young Phil Spector to record Jean. Among the recordings was a remake of Little Willie John’s "Talk to Me" backed with DuShon’s own, "Tired of Trying". These recordings brought her to the attention of Chess Records in Chicago, who signed her to do an album, "Make Way for Jean DuShon" which was met with critical acclaim leading to a second album, "You Better Believe Me" with the Ramsey Lewis Trio. By the time she recorded her third album, "Feeling Good", she was famous. On "Feeling Good", she worked with the famed Oliver Nelson and a future "Grammy Producer of the Year", Phil Ramone who was then a record engineer.

At one point, Jean sang with Lloyd Price’s band. Later, Fats Domino wanted her to work with him at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. The engagement was a smash, leading her back East to share the bill with Count Basie, Joe Williams, Ramsey Lewis and Hank Crawford at the New Jersey Jazz Festival and fabled New York spots like Birdland (with Miles Davis and Sonny Stitt), Small’s Paradise, The Blue Note, Apollo Theatre and Fillmore East.

She worked with the legends, including Cannonball Adderly and Wes Montgomery at the Northrop Memorial Auditorium, Dick Gregory and her old friend, Ramsey Lewis at Philharmonic Hall in New York, Ray Charles at the Village Gate and with Little Jimmy Scott and Charles Brown at one of President Clinton’s Inaugural Balls in D. C. Other shows were with Marvin Gaye, Etta James, T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, The Marvelletes, Herbie Mann and Smokey Robinson. It’s not well known, but Jean had the first recording of "For Once in My Life".

At the urging of actor Dick Anthony Williams, who caught one of her shows at NY’s Wells one evening, she went into the theatre. Even though she had never acted, she adapted easily to the genre and appeared off-Broadway in "Helen of Troy" and "The Crystal Tree". During this period, she also made appearances on the Merv Griffin Show and continued her nightclub work.

Eventually, Broadway called and Jean went into a leading role in "What the Wine Sellers Buy" at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, co-starring Glynn Turman and Dick Anthony Williams (Tony Nominated as Best Actor). She then went into the acclaimed musical, "Bubbling Brown Sugar" starring opposite Cab Calloway, and stayed with the show, off and on for eleven years. After touring with "Bubbling" in Europe, ending in Paris, France, Jean was called back to New York to replace the ailing Ruth Brown three weeks before the Broadway opening of the musical, "Blues in the Night" co-starring Leslie Uggams. DuShon received rave reviews from the likes of Frank Rich of the New York Times who said "Miss DuShon is sassy, yet elegant" and from Clive Barnes who called her "indelibly randy" had great things to say about her performance. Others felt that she made history while singing Bessie Smith’s "Wasted Life Blues". Audiences gave her standing ovations, the same way they had with Jennifer Holliday’s "And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going". It was an astonishing performance prompting The Princeton Town Topics to say, "Our nominee for star of the evening is Jean DuShon…she is not only a gifted singer but a gifted actress whose songs are not simply sung, but performed." The Spectrum reported, "The show-stopper is Jean DuShon…hers is a bravura performance which brings down the house".

"Blues in the Night" was so good, it was nominated as best musical of the year at the Tony Awards against "Cats". Strangely, the producers of the show did not push to get DuShon a best actress in a musical nomination which could have saved the show from closing after six months.

Returning to nightclubs, Jean appeared at New York’s swank Sign of the Dove and appeared as one of the stars of Dick Clark’s Academy of Arts with Patti LaBelle, Bill Cosby and Frankie Avalon in Philadelphia. Miss DuShon’s only regret during her long theatre run was that it took her away from the recording studios. She did manage to work with Brother Jack McDuff, Roy Ayers and Gene McDaniels during this period, but her stage career was strong and demanding. An offer to do a television special, "Precious Memories: Strolling Down Forty-Seventh Street" resulted in Jean’s receiving an Emmy Award. She played a prostitute in the film, "Claudine", but her scene ended up on the cutting room floor.


While in Chicago for the special, DuShon signed to star in the musical drama, "Little Dreamer: A Nite in the Life of Bessie Smith" which ran for over a year. Jean was invited to tour the world in 1991. She perfomed concerts in Mexico, China, India (where she sang gospel with 500 Indian voices behind her), Monaco (for Princess Grace), Canada, France and Australia. Also, she toured in "Blues in the Night" all over South America.

Today, Miss DuShon is preparing a one-woman show for the theatre and plans to return to the studio to record a blues album. A Miller Beer tv commercial she filmed is currently running nation-wide and she just finished a film in Hollywood, "Can’t Buy Love", which will be released later in 2001. Mainly, what she wants to do is record. Whenever she appears in person, she brings audiences to their collective feet. "Basically, I’m a singer" she says, "who acts". As a member of "the club", Jean realizes that she is one of the last of a dying breed, the female jazz singer. Sadly, Jean sang at Betty Carter’s memorial. She, Dakota Staton, Gloria Lynne and Nancy Wilson are all that remain from that exclusive club and it is fitting that Jean DuShon continues to record. There is nothing that she hasn’t mastered, blues, jazz, ballads, show tunes and pop. On all of them, she puts her uniquely distinguishable mark on the music.

–Ralph McKnight

New York City

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