This article was originally published in the July 2018 Trenton Downtowner.
Trenton-based vocalist and bandleader Doris Spears is equally at home singing blues or jazz — as she will make clear when she performs on Thursday, July 5, as part of the Levitt Concerts Series in Trenton’s Mill Hill Park.
Part of the reason for her versatility is she grew up in Gary, Indiana, Chicago, and Detroit and spent a lot of time in the cities’ blues and jazz clubs.
“There were quite a few blues and jazz clubs in Gary, before I left for Chicago when I was 17,” she says, “and one of the first ones I ever performed in was called the Playboy Lounge. It was a place [tenor saxophonist] Houston Person and [late vocalist] Etta Jones used to come through. Through them I met musicians in Chicago who ran the blues circuit there.”
Once in Chicago — Spears spent part of her teenage years in a group home for children from broken marriages — she got to hear and befriend the likes of Von and George Freeman, two brothers, both jazz musicians steeped in the blues — so she considers those years essential to her education as a vocalist.
“I got a lot of practical experience from that because Von would let me sing when they had jam sessions, so I got to know Vernel Fournier and Babyface Willet. I know these are all old names,” she says. Freeman, a bluesy tenor saxophonist, “was always a champion of younger artists and his brother [guitarist] George Freeman is still around at places like Jazz Standard in New York.”
“There were a few unsung female singers on the scene, Geri Mitchum, who never wanted to leave Chicago, and Paula Greer was around then, too. Geri and Paula were star vocalists with Von Freeman, and I was right there to soak all of that up.”
Spears considers her professional debut the chance to sing on a morning radio show in Mishawaka, Indiana, as a 15-year-old while she was still attending high school and living in the group home, where, she adds, her parents visited her frequently.
“I would go to the radio station and sing a tune. At the time I loved Dionne Warwick, and since our voices seemed similar, I’d often sing some of her tunes,” Spears says, adding the whole unpaid internship at the radio station was great experience. “I certainly considered it professional, and I became a local celebrity,” she says.
Of her childhood, Spears offers mixed feelings about her stepfather and mother, Annie Lee Cole. Both worked in the then-bustling Indiana steel mills, not far from Chicago.
“My mother was evangelical religious, and my stepfather and I didn’t get along. I knew at that age it was important for me to be in an environment where I could have some peace,” she says. When she was 13 she asked to be placed in a group home.
“My stepdad was an avid Delta blues fan. My mother was involved with the church, but on another level she also loved straight ahead jazz,” Spears says.
Gospel music was also played at home. “I heard so much gospel music as a kid that I initially didn’t like it,” she says. “Blues was so much more fun than gospel music to someone as young as I was.”
Her biological father lived in Detroit and owned a couple of auto repair shops, but she didn’t meet him until the 1980s.
“It blew my mind when I finally met him, because I didn’t think I ever would. My mom wanted me to complete college so I would be nestled into some kind of respectable profession by the time I was 25,” she says. When Spears began making a name for herself in Chicago clubs in her late teens and early 20s, she used her mother’s maiden name for her own last name.
“I didn’t have a very typical life as a young girl,” says Spears. “I was very very shy and at one point singing became a way for me to come out of myself.
“I didn’t think about becoming a singer until I had moved to Chicago and began singing with Von Freeman. He taught me etiquette with the band, etiquette on the bandstand, and the way the business works. I learned a lot of that from him, and I also learned a lot of that from Lionel Hampton.”
Spears met Hampton, a vibraphonist and bandleader, after she had made the move to New York with her partner and children’s father, who mixed occasional acting jobs with driving a cab, selling CDs as a sidewalk vendor, and trying his hand at real estate.
Speaks worked at the New York Public Library and attended New York University — and at 69 years old she is just a few credits shy of her bachelor’s degree and continues working toward it.
‘I want (people) to know they’ve been thoroughly entertained and that they’ve had a good time.’
She made the move to New York City after a devastating fire in her home on the North Side of Chicago.
“If it was not for the fact that I was working that night and my children’s father had gone by to check on them and the babysitter, I might have lost my kids, too,” Spears says about her daughter, Shahran, an education administrator in Illinois, and her son, Aries, a comedian and actor in California.
“The amazing thing was, as I was on stage, the news was broadcasting this fire, and people were talking about how horrible this was. I began to recognize that it was my house and there was a lot of snow and slush on the ground,” she says. Spears got off the bandstand, the club’s owner drove her over to her house, and “thankfully, James had gotten my kids and the babysitter out safely.”
It was then she thought about relocating to New York, the jazz capital of the world, then and now.
“My mom took the kids for a few months while James and I came to New York to see if I could make a go of a singing career,” she says.
She recounts her meeting Lionel Hampton as follows: She was working at the New York Public Library and spoke to Hampton while his band was setting up one afternoon in a park near the library. Hampton asked her to come by his office the next day. The office was across the street.
“I went over there and sang a couple of tunes. He didn’t say much but told me to go over to his apartment across the street and wait there with John Coliani, his pianist, and he’d be over shortly. When he arrived we went over some tunes. He asked me if I could sing arrangements and if I had any gowns. I told him certainly, I had a whole closet full of them,” Spears says.
“I had no gowns, but I ran out and bought two weeks’ worth. The first gig was that weekend in Louisville, Kentucky. The greatest lesson I learned from Lionel is to do what you say you can do, have high expectations about yourself and the people you hire, and, professionally, give your boss what he wants.”
Spears lived in North Brunswick for a time in the late 1980s and then — after finding opportunities to perform in Philadelphia — purchased a home midway between the two cities in Trenton in the late 1990s. During that time she was the house vocalist at the Peppermint Lounge in East Orange for a long time with Hammond B-3 organist Radam Schwartz and his trio.
Schwartz was also heavily involved with the New Brunswick Jazz Collective in the 1980s. Spears made her first tours of Europe under her own name in the 1980s and ’90s, doing shows to support her albums, which include “The Duchess: Jazz & Juke Joints,” “A Tribute to Billie Holiday,” and “Blues for Grown Folks.”
Once in Trenton in 1997, it was Spears who began the jazz shows at the Candlelight Lounge on Passaic Street. She began booking musicians she had befriended while living in New York and North Brunswick.
“When the Candlelight was owned by Bill Powell, I booked Charles Earland, Houston Person and Etta, Grady Tate, Dakota Staton, and Jimmy McGriff,” she says.
Her longtime community music presence got some attention last year when the I Am Trenton Foundation included her on its annual billboard project celebrating people making a difference in the capital city.
Spears’ current release is something she recorded last year, and it was released at a fortuitous time. “Whorology” is a collection of songs about relationships and sexual harassment. When she was recording it, she had no idea of the kind of news that was about to break later in 2017 and into this year, an avalanche of sexual harassment charges against prominent entertainment industry figures. “Whorology” was released in January, 2017, just a few days before her birthday on January 19.
“I wanted it to be a gift to myself. I wanted the album to touch on love, redemption, misogyny, and things that are offshoots of those issues,” she says.
“Somebody said ‘Why don’t you call it ‘Womanology,’ so you don’t turn people off?’ At my age, I’m kind of past that. Right now it’s important that this piece be called ‘Whorology,’ because both men and women can be whores.”
“When I did the CD release party last winter at Champs (a club on Chambers Street), the word whore, the way I explained it at the CD release party was the word WHORE is an acronym that actually stands for Women Honoring Ourselves Respectably Everywhere,” she says.
“If anybody had a problem with ‘Whore,’ I gave them something to think about.”
Like her Chicago mentor Von Freeman, Spears understands the importance of blues in traditional jazz. Appropriately for a woman who’s always freely mixed up blues and jazz tunes on the bandstand and on her recordings, she closes “Whorology” with an old jazz standard, “You Must Believe in Spring,” accompanied by trumpeter and West Belmar-based record producer Steve Jankowski.
“I’ll be 70 next January,” Spears says, who is single and also works for AAA Automobile Club. “One of my goals is I’d really like to start touring with this disc, I want to be able to do some shows in Europe. But if not, I’ll do some shows right here in America,” she says.
“I’m beginning to see if I want to do this project the way I want to do it, it involves some blues singing,” Spears says.
“I want people to hear that, because I want to know they’ve been thoroughly entertained and that they’ve had a good time.”
For more information on Spears, visit her website.