Born 3 February 1933, Harlem, New York City
Varetta Dillard was one of the great female R&B vocalists, right up there with Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker, although she never achieved their fame. In his masterful book “The Sound of the City”, Charlie Gillett writes : “Faye Adams, Little Esther, Varetta Dillard and Big Maybelle were all committed too firmly to the conventions of the blues to be able to make the transition to rock ’n’ roll, despite great reputations as rhythm and blues singers” (p. 129-130). But in my opinion, quite a few of her recordings can be classified as rock and roll.
Born with a rare bone disease of the legs that required numerous operations, Dillard spent much of her childhood in hospital. There she developed her singing talents by performing for the hospital staff and other patients. After competing in a variety of amateur singing contests throughout New York, Dillard won two consecutive competitions at the prestigious Apollo Theater in 1951. There she was discovered by Lee Magid of Savoy Records, who signed her to the label and became her producer. Her third Savoy single, “Easy Easy Baby” (Savoy 847, released in May 1952), became the first of her three chart entries (# 8 R&B). The other two were “Mercy Mr. Percy” (# 6, 1953), which became her signature song, and “Johnny Has Gone” (# 6, 1955), the latter being a tribute to the late Johnny Ace. Dillard also recorded a few duets with H-Bomb Ferguson. The fact that Varetta could not walk without crutches did not prevent her from going on tour with some of the major R&B artists of the day.
Towards the end of 1955 she left Savoy for RCA. At first her records were released on the Groove subsidiary. After that label was discontinued in early 1957 she was moved to the parent label. The advent of rock and roll caused her to adjust her style, though not much. The Groove/RCA recordings have a more commercial sound than the Savoy tracks. During this period Dillard was accompanied by top New York session men like Mickey Baker, King Curtis and Panama Francis, but she did not return to the charts. Some of the highlights from this period include “Mama Don’t Want”, “Got You On My Mind”, “I’m Gonna Tell My Daddy” (all 1956) and “That’s Why I Cry” (1957). Not so good was another tribute record, “I Miss You Jimmy” (1956), this time in memory of James Dean. Allegedly she hated the song, but was pressured to record it. On the 1958 single “Star of Fortune”/“The Rules of Love”, produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, she received vocal support from the Cookies. The A-side was a modest hit in Canada.
Varetta released only one record in 1959, but it was a powerful rocker, “Scorched”, on Herb Abramson’s Triumph label. Then she moved to Cub, a subsidiary of MGM. Three Cub singles came out in 1960-61, including a remake of “Mercy Mr. Percy”, but compared to her earlier recordings, these sides were rather poppy and not very strong. She did not record after 1961.
Soon thereafter, Dillard joined her husband’s gospel group, the Tri-Odds, who were active in the Civil Rights movement. After this group disbanded in the late 1960s, she quit her professional career as a singer and worked a variety of jobs, including work as a music therapist with chronically ill children. In 1989 Bear Family released two CDs by Varetta (“Got You On My Mind” and “The Lovin’ Bird”) with the complete post-Savoy recordings (51 tracks), including no less than 23 previously unissued numbers. Varetta Dillard died of cancer in 1993, in Brooklyn, at the age of sixty.
More info : http://home.earthlink.net/~jaymar41/varetta.html
Discography : http://wdd.mbnet.fi/varettadillard.htm
CD : The best overview is “Mercy Mr. Percy”, a 2-CD set on the British Highnote label, with 59 tracks from 1952-1961. It omits several titles from the Bear Family compilations, but includes the best Savoy recordings.
Acknowledgements : Erin Stapleton-Corcoran, J.C. Marion, Wikipedia.
Dik, October 2016
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