Jean DuShon

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Jean DuShon grew up in Detroit enthralled by the voices of singers Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. So into Washington, Dushon began her professional career in clubs sounding so much like her it drew…
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Jean DuShon grew up in Detroit enthralled by the voices of singers Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. So into Washington, Dushon began her professional career in clubs sounding so much like her it drew the ire of Washington herself. The paid club gigs came as a result of the numerous talent shows Dushon had won. She was headlining at the Flame Show Bar when Berry Gordy and his enterprising sisters, Anna and Gwen, were fisting dollars via concessions and photographs. About the time Berry Gordy had Motown cooking, DuShon was pursuing her dreams in New York City. But she has no regrets. Star maker John Levy became her manager and got her some prized gigs at some major jazz clubs.

While the association with Levy didn't last as long as expected, she found numerous career opportunities in New York including a stint as vocalist with the Cootie Williams Band; her husband now managed her. A one-off deal with Atco Records in 1961 resulted in "Talk to Me," produced by Phil Spector. It didn't do much, but Spector went on to create the Wall of Sound on hits for the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love, the Righteous Brothers, and others. The flipside of "Talk to Me," "Tired of Trying" (written by DuShon), is well-liked by many soul collectors. DuShon cut an obscure 45 for Lennox Records called "It Won't Stop Hurting," as well as a few others small label productions. Her biggest non-hit 45 is "Second Class Lover" (Okeh Records). For the most part these early recordings didn't reflect DuShon's love for jazz; they were R&B/soul concoctions forced to compete with recordings by contemporaries who benefited from more promotion.

She inked what seemed like a promising deal with Chess Records in 1964. Three albums resulted (two on Argo and one on Cadet Records, both Chess subsidiaries); though all were critically acclaimed, Chess' promotion program was anemic. She debuted with Make Way for Jean Dushon, recorded with members of Lou Donaldson's quintet, and followed with the most-known of the three, You Better Believe Me, where she's accompanied by the Ramsey Lewis Trio. A third album, which featured her with Donaldson's pianist, bassist, and drummer again, Feeling Good, suffered the same fate as the previous two despite sterling arrangements and caviar vocals.

While still at Chess, fledging Motown writer Ron Miller sought a polished singer to demo a song he'd written with Orlando Murden called "For Once in My Life," and contacted DuShon. He was so impressed that he decided to let DuShon do it; Chess released it (on Cadet) and it started making noise in Detroit. It caught the ear of Berry Gordy, who discovered that Miller co-wrote it. According to a book by John Levy, Gordy knifed the record and had Miller whip up a version by Stevie Wonder. (It's also possible that Chess just dropped the ball promotion-wise.) Since most never heard DuShon's rendition, it's often mistakenly believed that Wonder cut the original. Gordy had other reasons for allegedly torpedoing the record: Roquel "Billy" Davis aka Tyran Carlo (his old songwriting partner) was Chess' A&R man and the two had a spirited competition going as to who was going make the best records and have the most hits. Gordy emerged victorious, but Davis cut some timeless records for Chess before making an even bigger impact in advertising.

Ironically, "For Once in My Life" doesn't appear on any of DuShon's three Chess albums. The malarkey hurt and soured DuShon on the recording industry, but she moved on and did shows with countless artists, playing all the top venues in New York: Birdland, Small's Paradise, the Apollo, the Blue Note, and Fillmore East. An actor, Dick Anthony Williams, brought about a career change for DuShon. He encouraged her to try acting, something she had never done before. And, by 1970, she was appearing off-Broadway in Helen of Troy and The Crystal Tree. Some television work came via The Merv Griffin Show.

In 1971, she sang on Jack McDuff's The Fourth Dimension album. But her heart wasn't into recording anymore; she still worked the clubs when time permitted but let her recording career languish.

The off-Broadway work prepared her for Broadway, where she had a leading role in What the Wine Sellers Buy, which co-starred Williams and Glynn Turman. She co-starred with Cab Calloway in Bubbling Brown Sugar; that gig lasted 11 off-and-on years. DuShon's other acting credits include Blues in the Night, which was nominated for a Tony as the best musical of the year, and Little Dreamer: A Night in the Life of Bessie Smith, which ran for more than a year in Chicago.

Nightclub gigs were always there for her, and she worked at the Sign of the Dove and other spots when theater work slacked off. She appeared in the television special Strolling Down Forty Seventh Street and portrayed a prostitute in Claudine starring Diahann Carroll, but unfortunately her part was cut from the movie. DuShon toured the world in 1991 and later made commercials for Miller's Beer and appeared in the movie Can't Buy Love.