2005-03-17 - 1:32 a.m.
Mark mailed a post which said that Dorris Henderson died on 3 March. Her wake was today in Isleworth – not that far from where I first heard John Renbourn. I first saw DH playing on TV with JR and then met her again when I was 18.
Over the years there have been many female singers, but few really distinctive ones. The voices that are immediately recognisable have a style and intonation totally unique to themselves and nobody else. Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Randy Crawford, Odetta, Aretha Franklin, Miriam Makeba and Mahalia Jackson spring to mind. Dorris Henderson has this same distinctive voice quality. Whether she’s singing a traditional folk song, a blues, or a self penned composition, it’s definitely Dorris, there is no mistaking that unique vocal sound.
Dorris was born in Lakeland, Florida, U.S.A. Her paternal grandmother was pure Blackfoot Indian and her father, a Reverend, who established three churches when the family moved across country to Los Angeles.
On leaving school, Dorris joined the civil service. One evening Dorris went to The Ashgrove to hear Odetta sing, this single event was to change her career and the direction of her life. She bought an autoharp and set about teaching herself numerous songs from what she calls her bible – Alan Lomax's “The Folk Songs of North America”. Alan Lomax http://www.alan-lomax.com/home.html
Whilst still holding down the civil service job, Dorris started to visit the many jazz clubs that lit up Sunset Boulevard and to sing some jazz standards on the open nights. It was at this time she heard such jazz greats as Oscar Peterson, Gerry Mulligan, Nat King Cole, Carmen McCray, and many others.
With a bit of experience on the autoharp, Doris turned her attentions towards the folk music scene; she started performing at The Ashgrove, The Troubadour and San Francisco’s “The Hungry I”. One night during the interval, she visited a club across the road where Ketty Lester was performing; Dorris was totally knocked out by the show. At this period, Dorris started to meet and make friends with such established artists as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Wee Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim.
It was at The Ashgrove that Dorris met Bob and Zoe DeWhitt a couple who ran a restaurant and music venue in Topanga Canyon, some describe it as more a ‘health food cafe.’ It was a well known hangout for the alternative musicians, painters, poet’s, potters and eccentrics. Not surprisingly, this was one of Lord Buckley’s favourite spots for holding court. http://www.lordbuckley.com/
Buckley quickly recognised Dorris's talents and asked her to join him in a three day concert at the Los Angeles Ivar Theatre. The place was packed out and fortunately one of the live performances was recorded for posterity by World Pacific Records. It was during this recording that Lord Buckley dubbed her “The Lady Dorris”. (See Folk Roots magazine nos. 194/195 excellent article by Ian Anderson).
At this time, Los Angeles ran a city wide music contest for civil servants. Dorris entered singing “Five Hundred Miles From My Home” accompanying herself on autoharp and won! Winning this event helped Dorris to make up her mind as to what direction she should take in life. So Dorris quit the civil service walking away from her newly promoted senior position and went full time into a musical career
Things changed rapidly. One of her girlfriends had just been presented with a brand new MG sports car by her father as a birthday present. The pair of them decided to drive across the country to visit friends and relatives in New York. At the end of the three day journey, they arrived in Greenwich Village and Dorris embarked on a six week round of visiting and performing in every folk club she could find. Settled in this environment Dorris soon made friends with Bob Dylan (cameo appearance in Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Look Back” movie), Fred Neil, Mark Spoelstra, Dave Van Ronk, Paul Simon (released single of Paul Simon’s “Leaves That Are Green”) and virtually everyone on the scene at that time.
On her return to L.A. Dorris got talking with one of her brothers who had been stationed in England when he was with the U.S.A.F. He’d enjoyed his stay and Dorris decided to save up her money and seek her fortune in England. She sailed from New York and arrived in Southampton without knowing a soul. Fortunately she met a fellow passenger on the boat who invited her to stay with her in Tottenham, London whilst finding a place of her own.
This was 1965 and in those days Blacks, Irish, dogs and children were not welcome in the capitals boarding houses. So much for “swinging” London. After nearly a week of refusals, Dorris finally found a student’s hostel in Belsize Park and met a fellow American over breakfast. In conversation, Dorris remarked that she was a folksinger and he in turn produced a copy of the Melody Maker, the major music paper of the day, with interviews, the charts and details of all of the London pop, jazz and folk venues.
Dorris found her way to “The Troubadour” in Earls Court, which was presided over by Redd Sullivan and Martin Windsor; the good lady did a guest spot with her faithful autoharp and went down a storm. At that time, folk music was very much divided into the traditional British camp and on the other side, the people who had been listening to black American blues records, catching the occasional visiting blues package and then trying to imitate them or put their own interpretations on what they had witnessed. In the middle of all this was a young, black, American lady called Dorris Henderson singing Appalachian ballads to her own accompaniment live in the clubs of London!
Redd and Martin introduced Dorris to Curly Goss, who was running his own clubs, The Student Prince, The Roundhouse on the corner of Wardour Street and Brewer St and Les Cousins at 49 Greek St. London’s Soho was the main centre of jazz, skiffle and folk music. Dorris did a spot at The Student Prince, Curly had invited down a BBC 2 Television producer, who was in charge of a new music show “Gadzooks, It’s All Happening”. The producer was highly impressed. Dorris did the first show and was asked if she would like to be the resident artiste. She signed a six month contract, performing her own choice of material and free range in the wardrobe department!
The weekly guests were among the top pop stars of the day. Tom Jones, Lulu, Sandie Shaw, Georgie Fame and The Everly Brothers. This period of reasonable financial security enabled Dorris to fly back to California every so often, to keep in contact with her family.
On one occasion, still dressed in cut down jeans and red top, straight out of a taxi from London Airport, she arrived at rehearsals to be told by the producer – “Don’t change a thing! Keep that outfit on!” They built a haystack on set and Dorris sat on top of it singing “Wake Up Darling Corrie” surrounded by the resident dancers doing a hoe-down. In between the Gadzooks appearances, Dorris was still doing the London folk scene. It was at the Roundhouse in Wardour Street that Dorris met John Renbourn and they began to work together, producing one of the most distinctive and accomplished sounds yet heard.
Dorris invited John Renbourn onto the TV show and they also cut their first album, “There You Go” for E.M.I. (Since re-released on Ace/Big Beat CDWIKD 186).
Also at The Roundhose, Dorris met Cobi Schreijer, pioneer Dutch folk singer (later awarded Queen Juliana’s medal for cultural services to the Netherlands); Cobi invited Dorris to perform in Harlem. Dorris was an immediate success and Tom Tolen, a film producer, asked her if she would write and perform the title song from his documentary film on the rebuilding of Rotterdam. “Rotterdam Blues” was on jukeboxes throughout Holland.
It was at Cobi's club that she also met Peter and Vicky Blanker. He was a well known Dutch folk artist and she was a photographer. Peter had arranged a tour of thirteen countries, sponsored by Daf Cars and Dorris joined the band of minstrels to Turkey, Germany, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Greece. It was in Athens that Dorris received a telegram asking her to return immediately to Holland. The film had won the Golden Bear Award and Dorris had a special thank you present.
Back in England, Dorris continued to tour the country with John Renbourn and they cut their second album – “Watch The Stars” for Fontana along with Danny Thompson on Bass.
Dorris appeared at a couple of the early Cambridge folk festivals and then was approached by Trevor Lucas of the group Eclection. Their vocalist, Kerry Lee, had decided to return to Australia, Trevor asked Dorris join the band and replace Kerry as Lead Vocalist?
In spite of Eclection and Dorris doing numerous gigs at Universities, Colleges, venues up and down the country, a tour with The Beach Boys and the Isle of Wight festival, not much appeared on the recording front. So Dorris signed up with Warner Brothers and Eclection split. Strangely enough, Warner's never released any of the singles Dorris recorded for them, including Ralph McTell`s “Streets Of London”. And this was before Ralph recorded it for himself and had his massive hit!
Dorris started to work with Eric Johns on guitar, Renbourn had joined Pentangle and was no longer available for gigs, so Dorris and Eric went out on the road, including a couple of trips to Holland. Having enjoyed the flexibility and potential of working with a band, Dorris set about forming her own “Dorris Henderson`s Eclection”, with Eric on guitar, Dave Liddle on bass, Mick Smiles on drums ans Vispi Mistri on congas. Later, Tim Penn joined on keyboards and at various times Ollie Blanchflower and Tony Cousins took over the bass role. The band continued to play the University, College and club venues.
Some of the guys were based in Hounslow and they introduced Dorris to a Sunday lunchtime venue where Mac McGann and John Joyce, two ex-members of Beverly Martyn`s group “The Levee Breakers” ran a session. Dorris and Mac got on well and he managed to get Dorris some TV advertising jingle work in between the band gigs.
Eclection 2 finally broke up. Eric went on to join the highly successful band “Heatwave” of “Boogie Nights” fame, Tim joined Kevin Coyne and Dave Liddle became Paul Weller`s guitar technician.
There now began a period where Dorris got back to jazz, first with Bob Kerr`s Jazz Friends and later with John Rodgers` House Band. They were all good readers and arrangers as well as improvisers.
As disco and karaoke had replaced live music in many British venues, the bands worked mainly in Germany and Switzerland. Dorris was vocalist with an all star band at the Duke Ellington Memorial Concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and at one point, at short notice, took over leading Johnny Mars` Sunflower Boogie Band on a German tour when Johnny was taken ill.
It would be interesting to know if anybody made a bootleg recording of the fantastic evening at The Half Moon, Putney when Dorris joined her old friend Memphis Slim for a few numbers and brought the house down. This was to be one of Memphis Slim's last public appearances before he died.
With the 1999 re-issue of “There You Go” on Ace, a whole new audience got to hear Dorris for the first time and were amazed at the vitality and virtuosity of the voice. The new release on Market Square sees Dorris back together with Eric, Mick and Tim from Eclection, Mick`s daughter Sophie Smiles on Electric Bass, Mike Peters from her jazz days on Trumpet, ex Marvelette Audrienne on Backing Vocals, husband Mac McGann on Guitar and Harmonica and, of course, John Renbourn joins Dorris on a couple of tracks.
Dorris now a sprightly seventy has stated that her new album “Here I Go Again” is a musical autobiography. It`s an album of traditional folk, blues, poetry, and self penned numbers performed and delivered by that unique beautiful voice that can still be heard in the music venues of this country.
They missed the bit out where she teams up with Goldsmiths based acid-rockers – Tintagel – and play Cousins, Horshoe, Middle Earth , a nudist camp and RAH.
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