Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Crawford Grill

Photo Thanks to Katrencik at Flickr

Before the Civic Arena tore out its heart, the Hill District was one of the most vibrant African American neighborhoods in the country from the 1930s to the 1950s. Called "Little Harlem," the Hill drew bustling crowds both day and night. Its music scene rivaled any in America.

Pittsburgh was a jazz mecca then, and although it wasn't in Kansas City or New Orleans, Wylie Avenue often was the road that led musicians to New York and stardom.

In the Hill District, there were joints galore to keep things hopping: the Hurricane Lounge, Ritz, Showboat, Roosevelt Theater, Savoy Ballroom, Bamboola Club, Leondi Club, Green Front, Coobus Club, Little Paris, the Flamingo Hotel, Center Avenue Elks, Perry Bar, Granada Bar, Harlem Casino, Collins Inn, Bill Green's Casino and Terraced Gardens, Pythian Temple, Washington Club, and the Black Musicians Club, Local 471.

There were over 600 clubs in all, from one-man gin joints with a jukebox to opulent showcases with a band wailing on every floor. You couldn't take a step without hearing and breathing in the hot licks of jazz and soul wafting through the evening air.

The Hill's crown jewel was the Crawford Grill.

Six nights a week, the place was jumping and jiving. After it started the Friday and Saturday matinee performances, crowds were lined up outside the building both day and night.

Art Blakey, Mary Lou Williams, John Coltrane, Dakota Staton, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, George Benson, Dr. Nelson E. Harrison, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Oscar Peterson, Nat King Cole, Thelonius Monk, Sarah Vaughn, Erroll Garner, Walt Harper, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Stanley Turrentine, Chet Baker, and Max Roach where among those who performed on its 11'x11' stage that bisected a skinny building that was 120' long but only 20' wide.

The club was founded by North Carolina native William "Gus" Greenlee, a giant in Pittsburgh's African-American community.

Greenlee owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords, named after his night club, and dominated the city's African-American sports, entertainment, and gambling scenes. The source of his wealth, according to local lore, was hijacking beer trucks during prohibition and running a lucrative numbers operation.

He was simply the king of the Hill bookies. And in the African-American community, that made him a high-powered businessman and the local banker, too. Greenlee was both the man and an institution.

His original club, the first Crawford Grill (known as the Leader House before Greenlee took over), opened in 1931 at the corner of Wylie Avenue and Crawford Street in the Hill District, where Crawford Square sits today, across from the Civic Arena.

It was nearly a full city block in length. In the main room on the second floor, the audience surrounded a revolving stage and bought their drinks at a glass-topped bar. The third floor was where the real action took place. It was home to "Club Crawford", a sort of VIP Lounge for the glitterati of the era. It was papa of several Crawford grills to pop up in the City.

By 1943, Greenlee had a booming business and his numbers partner Joseph Robinson opened Crawford Grill No. 2 on Wylie Avenue, a companion spot to the original a few short blocks up the street.

After Greenlee's death in 1952, Robinson and his son Buzzy had the only Crawford in town. One story said the original succumbed to flames after Greenlee's death, while others say it fell to the wrecker's ball in 1956 during the Arena construction. (Our guess is the fire closed it and it was eventually demolished.)

Crawford Grill No. 3 opened in 1948 in Manchester, at the corner of Bidwell Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. It was shuttered in 1955, never generating the buzz of its Hill namesakes. "Crawford Grill on the Square" opened in 2003 in the Freight House Shops at Station Square. It fizzled, too, and closed in January, 2006.

But while it may not have been much of a franchise, The Grill on Wylie packed them in. Pittsburgh's steel economy helped local clubs boom.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the mills ran 24/7, and so did the city. Steel workers were shift workers with an irregular, rotating schedule, and their weekend consisted of whatever two days they happened to have off. As a result, the mill hands were looking for weekend entertainment every night of the week. The Crawford gave it to them. And everyone was welcome, black and white, the rich and the working man.

The Crawford Grill beacame a Pittsburgh landmark. Celebrities and politicians of all stripes would stop in, like Ethel Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King. In the evenings, the music drew an audience that included Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, the Rooneys, Kaufmanns, Frank Sinatra and Saichel Paige, all rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi in the tightly packed structure.

White musicians who played downtown clubs would head uptown to The Grill after their gigs to jam into the night with black musicians. You could run across just about anyone at the Crawford, and you couldn't beat the music that never seemed to stop.

The Grill was immortalized by Hill District native August Wilson, who included it in his 1985 play "Fences," part of his Pittsburgh Cycle of works and a Pulitzer prize winner.

Now, the Hill wasn't a exactly a slice of heaven, even then. It was still segregated to a large degree, many of the homes were shacks, and a lot of the spots were for locals only. But at night, it was another world, as close to Broadway as Pittsburgh would ever get. The streets were filled with people, and nobody worried too much about their backs.

All good things come to an end, and in this case, the Crawford Grill suffered the common fate of its home, the Hill. The first blow was struck when the City demolished the Hill District in the late 50s, and the MLK riots of 1968 sealed the deal. The Hill looked like a war zone with shuttered buildings and vacant lots, and the clubs - and more importantly, the sense of community - were gone.

After the death of Joseph Robinson in 1982, the club was passed on to his son, William "Buzzy" Robinson, and the music reflected the times, with reggae, rap, and urban music being served. It wasn't enough, and The Crawford Grill closed in 2003.

The building sits forlorn now, empty with lots full of weeds alongside it. It's been for sale for years, with a price tag of $300,000 for it and a bundle of adjoining properties.

The Young Preservationists Association called the Crawford Grill one of its "Top Ten Best Preservation Opportunities in the Pittsburgh Area," in hopes of attracting a buyer who would develop the space with respect for its role in Pittsburgh's history.

But the rickety building would cost much more than that to a new owner. It needs gutted to get it back up to code, and with redevelopment popping up all around it, the fear is that some enterprising young entrepreneur will tear it down and put up...well, something that's not the Crawford. Funny how one Arena led to its eventual closing, and another may lead to its demolition.

Finding any buyer has so far been a challenge, Buzzy Robinson said. He's hoping for someone that respects the soul of the place, and at least keeps the facade intact. It's said that if you look closely, the stones outside the windows have the names of musicians that played the Grill etched into them.

Dr. Nelson E. Harrison called The Crawford Grill a "Spirit House," meaning that it was more than mere brick and mortar, but a depository of history and the souls of the men and women that filled its room.

We can only hope that someone with deep pockets, a love of jazz, and a sense of the past ends up with the deed. And it may have been; in April, 2010 a group of investors led by Franco Harris purchased the building, with plans to renovate it and return the club to its former glory.

(The history of the Crawford Grill is in Pittsburgh Magazine's "The Hill Was Alive With the Sound of Music" by Rick Sebak.)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Jack Stanizzo & Paul Lowe

Hey gang - one of my favorite music men, Jack Stanizzo of the Contrails, is gigging with long time collaborator, guitarist Paul Lowe, this weekend. The show starts at 6:30 on Saturday, November 29th, at the Seton LaSalle HS auditorium, and they'll host a reception afterwards. The proceeds will go towards the Seton Performing Arts Center project. See ya there!


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Not To Be Cynical

cynics no way
Renaissance Fair

In September 1983, the punk-rock cover band Jetsons guitarist Gregg Kostelich struck out on his own and formed the Psycho Daisies with Mark Keresman (vocals), Pam Reyner (bass) and Bill Slam (drums).

Slam quit in a snit when he found out he wasn't gonna be the front man. Bill von Hagen took his place pounding the skins, and they changed the band's name. It was the birth of the Cynics, perhaps the best garage band to ever come from Pittsburgh.

In 1985, the Cynics released their first 45 on California's punk rock Dionysus label, "Painted My Heart" b/w "Sweet Young Thing" (ID 074501) with Keresman doing the lead vocals. It was Dionysus first vinyl ever, and it got them off on a good foot. The label is still going strong today.

That's also the year they shared the stage with Michael Kastelic, sound engineer of the Wake. Wake, a promising band, broke up after some in-house sniping, and Kastelic joined the Cynics, not as a roadie but a full-fledged member of the group and singer. It would prove to be a hook-up made in rock 'n' roll heaven.

A second 45 on Dionysus, "No Place to Hide" b/w "Hard Times" (ID 074504) was their first with Kastelic on vocals. The band formed its own label, Get Hip, and released its debut single "69," a cover of the Arondies hit, b/w "Friday Night" (GH 100) with Keresman on vocals. Released may be too strong a word; it was actually a fans-only disc, sold mainly at the their shows.

In all, the Cynics would release 25 big 7" records, mostly on Get Hip.

They cut their first LP in 1986, "Blue Train Station Sessions," recorded on Skyclad (NAKED 2). The Cynics were then made up of Kostelich, Kastelic, Beki Smith on organ, Steve Magee on bass and von Hagen on drums. Remember Kostelich and Kastelic. They and future drummer Tommy Hohn are pretty much the only constants in the band, which has gone through nine or ten configurations since its Psycho Daisy days.

"The day it hit the streets in New York," Kostelich recalled while talking to the Post Gazette. "I got a call from a promoter who said 'This record is great. I want to talk to Gregg from the Cynics,' because we put our phone number right on the back of the album. This is before you had faxes and e-mails." It led to The Cynics making their first New York appearance.

The wax was followed by 1987's "12 Flights Up," (NAKED 5) and late 1989's "Rock and Roll," (NAKED 25) their biggest-selling album, both on Skyclad (The Skyclad sessions would be reissued by Get Hip). R&R featured an original ballad, "Close To Me," and rockers "Girl, You're On My Mind" and "You Got the Love."

The popularity of "Rock and Roll," sent the Cynics to Europe in 1990, where audiences still pack the house to see them gig.

The LP also caught the notice of the major labels - eleven offered the Cynics recording deals. They spent 1990-92 touring and pondering going on a major label, but ended up empty handed.

But their recordings kept coming. A Spanish label, Impossible Records, released a live recording, "Stranded in Madrid," (017) in 1991. Get Hip later reissued it as "No Siesta Tonight," (GH 1014) in 1994. Get Hip cut the live "VPRO Radio Broadcast" LP (GH 1002) that same year. In 1992, a compilation, "Cynicism," was put out by 1 + 2 Records, a Japanese label (1 + 2 CD 15).

In 1993, they followed up R&R with "Learn to Lose" (GH 1008). Kostelich says it was more grunge than garage. Old Mon can't really tell the difference, but apparently the fans can - it fizzled.

A year later, the Cynics released "Get Our Way," (GH 1030), returning to their garage roots. It was to be their last hurrah for a while.

On New Year's Eve, 1995, Kastelic left the band. It was widely credited to burnout, which was indeed a major contributor, but actually, it was the flu that lit the fuse that blew up the Cynics. The story, according to the Post Gazette's Ed Masley:

A week or two before he left the band, Kastelic and Kostelich had a major blowout on the way home from a Detroit gig. And he was still upset that Kostelich had let stomach flu keep him home from a Cynics appearance at Cavestomp, a garage-rock festival in New York City that went on to play a major role in the current revival of interest in all things garage.

Kastelic was already in New York with the other two guys in the band hanging out at the club when Kostelich decided he was just too sick to load the van and drive the whole way there alone.

As Kostelich recalls, "That was the straw that broke the camel's back for Michael. He thought I blew him off. And that's where the argument started. And the backstabbing. If they would have stayed in Pittsburgh and we'd all gone up together and I bundled up, I could have done it. We used to take pride in not missing shows, but when you're left alone in Pittsburgh and you get the flu that bad, you can't be driving. But Michael, 'til this day, he doesn't believe it."

Told that Kostelich has said that, Kastelic replies with a laugh, "Well, to this day, even if he wasn't faking, he should have come."

Still, all's well that ends well. Kastelic sees his four-year separation from the group as a good thing in the long run.

"If we wouldn't have taken that break," he told Masley, "we probably would have kept plugging away that whole time, and by now, we would have been burned out and definitely broken up. And then, we would have missed this whole resurgence of interest in what we were doing."

Kastelic played with the Honeyburst after the divorce, along with former Cynics bassist Mike Michalski on guitar and current Cynics bassist Smith Hutchings on bass. Kostelnic ran Get Hip, and the life of a business dude was boring him silly.

But after an invite to play a sweet garage-fest arrived, K&K buried the hatchet, picked up drummer Tom Hohn and guitarist Woody Bond of Highway 13 to play bass, and the reunited Cynics headed west.

In July 2000, The Cynics were back at the Las Vegas Grind, a brief-lived festival held in 1999 and 2000, staged at the Gold Coast Hotel. The show starred bands that were part of the garage rock scene of the 1960s, like The Remains, The Standells, Lyres, and other regional acts from across the country and world. It was a perfect place for the Cynics to reemerge.

It launched them on the second half of their career. Two months later, they were off to Spain (Kastelic's wife, who serves as the band's business agent, is Spanish) to gig, this time with Smith Hutchings on bass, and have been touring like dervishes ever since. In fact, it became their main stage.

They do extremely well as artists in Europe, but Pittsburgh shows are rare things anymore, due greatly to the fact that their bassist and drummer live in Spain.

In 2002, the Cynics released "Living is the Best Revenge," (GH - 1050), produced by R&R guru Tim Kerr in Austin's Sweat Box Studio. It was their first session album in 7 years, and covered the gamut of Cynic sound, from uptempo folk to fuzzed out psycho-garage beats.

In fact, a 2003 gig in Madrid almost altered the singing dynamics of the Cynics for good. Kastelnic did a split on stage, and landed on his "unmentionables." It took several weeks for the singer to recover after slicing his urethra. And while the nearly sex-changing accident wasn't funny to him, their Euro promoter waxed ecstatic over the incident - it kept them in the news for weeks!

They got an added and much less painful boost when their records got some love on "Little Steven's Underground Garage," the nationally syndicated show that features Steven Van Zandt's personal rocker list. He plays the old stuff that lights his fire, not the suits, sorta like the Porky/Mad Mike era with guitars.

They got to strut their stuff and fame on August 2004, when they joined acts like the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop & the Stooges, and the Strokes, at Little Steven's International Underground Garage Rock Festival in New York.

The Cynics cut "Here We Are" in 2007 (GH - 1141), produced by Jorge Explosion, who recorded it in mono at his Circo Perrotti Studios in Gijon, Spain. USA Today called it "one of the best neo-garage-rock albums in years."

The Cynics have been keeping the garage torch burning since 1983. Along with bands like the Sonics, the Lyres, the Chesterfield Kings,? and the Mysterians, the Shadows of Knight, New Breed, DMZ, the Fuzztones, the Chocolate Watchband and the Standells, they're keeping it real, 60's style.

Though Old Mon has obsessed (as usual) on their discography, the Cynics have a great live show, honed by countless gigs in Europe, Japan, and at home (In 2010, The Cynics played Russia, Norway and Finland). If you're looking for some nosh-pit energy, catch a performance. Rock 'n' Roll is here to stay, and hey - The Cynics are supposed to have a new album out in 2011.

Kastelic says it never gets old for them. He told the Post Gazette's Scott Mervis "How many chords are there? There's about four or five. Five tops. Three that are good. The thing that garage rock has is that primal beat. It's the drumming of Mo Tucker, it's the drumming of the Standells, that really primal caveman beat. Bah bah bah. It's three chords. It's verse-chorus-verse-chorus, double-chorus-out. Something that's so innate, it's like stick against stone. That's why it will never die. It was around before punk rock."

"People as old as me and Gregg are still finding new things to do with same formula. It's always been the best music to me."

The Cynics - "Girl, You're On My Mind"

Friday, November 14, 2008

Frank Cunimondo

Cover from Dusty Groove.

Frank Cunimondo was born in East Liberty in 1934. He began tickling the ivories at the age of 6, studying classical piano, and as a teenager he made the transition to jazz at where else but Homewood's George Westinghouse High School?

He attended the home school of pianists Ahmad Jamal and Errol Garner. Like them, Cunimondo was mentored by music guru Carl McVicker Sr., who turned so many of his Bulldogs into musical lions. He went on to study at Carnegie Tech, now CMU.

In his early teens, he began to play professionally at the clubs around town. At 19, he began to tour, gigging in burgs like Atlantic City and Miami. At home, he played the local jazz hot spots like The Crawford Grill, often sharing a stage with the young George Benson.

In the 1950s, Cunimondo moved to New York City and immersed himself into the jazz scene, getting down with progressive sounds of artists like Miles Davis. He landed a date on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and a local booking agent saw him on the tube and called to see if he'd like to gig at home.

He eventually took him up on the offer, returning to Pittsburgh for good, tired of the "rat race" in the Big Apple. The pianist had seen what national fame did to players - it trapped them in a box. If they wanted to sell records, they had to stick to one sound. And he was having none of that; his tastes were too eclectic, and he needed breathing room for his keyboard to wander.

Cunimondo had another point to prove, too. He thought that you should be able to make a decent living and record as a jazz artist in Pittsburgh.

And in the fifties and sixties a player could: Cunimondo worked six nights a week, sometimes leaving one job at 2AM to begin another at one of the many after-hours clubs in his East Liberty stomping grounds, such as the Bachelors’ Club and the Hunting and Fishing Club.

So he came back and formed a trio with local musicians John Heard on bass and Roger Humphries on drums. Ever since, the Frank Cunimondo Trio, in its various configurations, has played clubs and festivals throughout the region virtually non stop. He also gigs with his his salsa band, Mondo Latino.

In addition, he has shared the stage with a number of jazz stars including Sonny Stitt, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Urbie Green, Lee Konitz, Louie Bellson, Joshua Redman, Phil Woods, Frank Rosolino, Nathan Davis, Phil Woods, Lee Konitz, and Dakota Staton.

In the 1980s he owned a jazz club in Pittsburgh called "Cunimondo's Keyboard Jazz Supper Club" in Verona. And he's not only mastered the Steinway, but is one of the nation's foremost electric piano virtuosos. In 1989, he was voted "Best Jazz Pianist" by In Pittsburgh Magazine. And yes, he's part of the Westinghouse Wall of Fame.

Cunimondo has a long discography, and to drive home his point, the albums have virtually all been released on his local Mondo label (not to be confused with the Brit Mondo studio, which issues trance music.) His first trio recorded an LP that was buried in a vault and never saw the light of day, and that may provided him with the final nudge for founding his own label.

Mondo's initial album was 1968’s "Communication" (M-101), and was recorded at Gateway studios. "Communication" featured the pianist accompanied by Ron Fudoli on bass and Spider Rondinelli on drums (who now plays every weekend at Martini's in Jefferson Hills on Clairton Road with his band, the Jazz Giants), and was in the modal jazz vein, ala his NY influence, Miles Davis. Its top track is Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life."

Cunimondo’s second LP, "The Lamp Is Low" (M-102), was released in 1969. He recorded for the first time with bassist Mike Taylor and drummer Roger Humphries. The "Lamp is Low" was a mainstream record, with the tracks being mainly jazz and bossa nova standards.

The LP’s title track received a lot of local radio love, and fans began to identify the tune with Cunimondo. It was a big request number at his live shows.

Cunimondo’s next studio session, in 1971, provided the material for his next two LPs. They were "Introducing Lynn Marino" (M-103) and "Echoes" (M-104), both released the same year.

"Introducing Lynn Marino" featured Cunimondo, Taylor, and Humphries backing up Marino, a local singer with a girlie voice that he found gigging at a local Holiday Inn. The record’s quirky tracks included “Animal Crackers in My Soup” which had been popularized by Shirley Temple, as well as pop songs, show tunes and two originals by his bud R.M. DiGioia.

Cunimondo later regretted cutting such a commercial collection of tracks. But his most popular recording, the bouncy "Feelin' Good," was off the LP and became an international hit. It's still being distributed by MoviePlay Gold, Luv 'n' Haight, and Underonesun labels in Europe under the title of its big track, "Feelin' Good."

The song has also been heavily sampled and used in a number of European dance mixes, becoming a staple of the club jocks and acid jazz DJ's across the continent.

"Echoes" was a funk filled album, and the last done by the Cunimondo-Taylor-Humphries trio. But Mondo Records and Cunimondo have kept on churning out tracks on a pretty regular basis over the years.

Cunimondo, on his Mondo label, has also recorded and released "Sagittarius," "Frank Cunimondo Plays George Benson," "It's You, It's Me," with Lori Russo, the out-of-print "Choice Cuts," "Totally Frank," (he made all the music for this LP, playing piano and electronically adding drums and bass on the Latino-flavored record), and "Sound Painting," his last and perhaps most mellow recording, issued in 2003. He's working now on his latest project, "Isle de Romantica."

Cunimondo was also featured on "Top Shelf Collection," released by Sound Idea (S90175) in 1975, and backed local sax man Nathan Davis on 1976's "Suite for Dr. Martin Luther King," issued by Davis' Tomorrow International label, and re-released on CD in 2006 by the Pony Canyon label.

His recordings have been included in the top ten selling and airplay lists in England, the Benelux Union (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), and Japan.

Besides performing, Cunimondo has a long career as a piano tutor. He's taught at Duquesne University and currently teaches Jazz Piano at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as privately. He numbers actor Jeff Goldblum among his many students, and his name is prominently displayed on a lot of local artists' resumes.

The Frank Cunimondo Jazz Chord System was released in the late 1960's and published in 1970. It was considered as one of, if not the first, formally organized systems of jazz harmony and theory.

Frank Cunimondo is living proof that life as a big fish in a small pond ain't all that bad of a gig. He's one of the few artists to migrate back home, and the city's music scene is far richer and vibrant because he did choose the path less taken.

Old Mon thanks Carlos Pena for his on-line 2007 thesis on Pittsburgh Jazz Recordings for providing a great deal of info not only on Cunimondo (pages 37-43), but several local jazz greats.

Visit the Frank Cunimondo's MySpace page or Wikipedia for more on the pianist.

"Feeling Good" - Lynn Marino/Frank Cunimondo Trio

Friday, November 7, 2008

Dakota Staton

Dakota Staton from Swing Music

Dakota Staton (Stay-ton, not Staten, please!) was born in Homewood on June 3, 1930. She began singing and dancing as a child, emulating screen star Shirley Temple. She learned the basics of her craft at the Filion School of Music.

Staton went to Westinghouse HS and belonged to the renowned Kadets, a swing band that played music ranging from Glenn Miller's "String of Pearls" to Coleman Hawkins' "Body and Soul."

Carl McVicker Sr., a trumpet player, music teacher, and legend at Westinghouse since the 1920s, led the band and taught local greats like Earl Garner, Billy Strayhorn, Ahmad Jamal, Nelson Harrison, Frank Cunimondo - and Dakota Staton.

And along with them, she's memorialized as a member of the Bulldog's Wall of Fame.

When Staton was sixteen, she was in a stage revue called Fantastic Rhythm. Thanks to her show-stopping performance, she was chosen to be a vocalist with Joe Westray and his orchestra, a popular band that made the rounds of Hill District nightspots.

She graduated in 1948, and Staton started singing with other show bands. Staton followed her muse to Detroit, where she headlined a regular gig at the Flame Show Bar. She was a rider on the Midwest club circuit, doing shows in Indianapolis, Minnesota, St. Louis, and even Canada before moving to New York City.

While singing in a Harlem nightclub called the Baby Grand, Capitol Records producer Dave Cavanaugh caught Staton's act and signed her to the label.

In 1954, Staton recorded the single "What Do You Know about Love?" b/w "You’re My Heart’s Delight" for Capitol (Cap #T1170) and toured the East Coast. In 1955, Down Beat magazine voted her "the most promising jazz vocalist of the year."

Never strictly a jazz act, she was also a rollicking R&B singer and performed alongside Big Joe Turner and Fats Domino at Cleveland DJ Alan Freed's early Rock 'n' Roll Party showcases.

Freed regularly played Staton's "My Heart's Delight" on his daily WINS show, and when her long-awaited debut album "The Late, Late Show" hit the shelves in 1957, it became a huge crossover hit, charting at #4.

The title track became her most famous number. Other hits on the LP were “Broadway” and “My Funny Valentine.”

Staton’s next album was “Dynamic!” (Capitol, 1958), which charted at #22 and featured "Anything Goes" and "Too Close For Comfort." They were to be her two best sellers off the LP.

In all, she recorded 29 albums and was loved by the critics. Staton worked with the cream, pianist George Shearing and arrangers Nelson Riddle and Sid Feller. She was a brilliant jazz and blues singer, known for her bright, trumpetlike sound and tough, sassy style.

But Staton never reached the fame of singers like Dinah Washington, whom she cited as a model, and Sarah Vaughan. First, she was tough to pin down stylistically, slipping into pop, R&B, standards, jazz, gospel, and the blues effortlessly, and every genre had its own separate audience to sell.

Secondly, she was an album artist, and didn't really focus on cranking out hit singles, the new benchmark of her times. And finally, she was caught in a Black Muslim firefight.

She married trumpeter Talib Ahmad Dawud in 1958, converted to Islam, and for a time performed under the name Aliyah Rabia.

She became an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamic movement that ran counter to the radical stance of Elijah Muhammad. The Brotherhood found itself the eye of the storm when Muhammad claimed "they should be ashamed of trying to make fun of me and my followers while serving the devil in the theatrical world."

The resulting media flap hammered both sides, and put a serious hurting on Staton's commercial appeal. Islamic backlash wasn't unique to the George Bush era, and the black power struggle she was involved with lost her a portion of the record-buying public.

1959's "Crazy He Calls Me" still charted, but she never again enjoyed the crossover success of her previous discs, and her star began to dim.

1961's live "Dakota at Storyville," was her last Capitol session, and she jumped to United Artists for 1963's "From Dakota with Love." After two more UA albums, "Live and Swinging" and "Dakota Staton" with Strings," she left the label and didn't cut another record for eight years.

She moved to England in 1965 and worked hotels across the continent and cruise ship gigs. Staton was yesterday's news by the time she returned to the U.S. in 1971.

She signed with Groove Merchant and cut a 1972 comeback LP "Madame Foo Foo" with Richard "Groove" Holmes. Dates for Muse and Simitar followed, and in 1999 she signed with High Note for her final studio date, "A Packet of Love Letters."

She continued to perform live well into her 60s. Writing for The New York Times in 1998, Robert Sherman called Staton “one of America’s great vocal stylists.”

Over the years, Staton would periodically return to Pittsburgh for concerts, performing with pianist and brother Bulldog Frank Cunimondo at his old place, the Cunimondo Keyboard Club in Verona, and Per Favore restaurant in Oakland. Her last hometown appearance was in 1996, when she performed at the Hill House Auditorium as part of the Mellon Jazz Festival.

In 2001, Staton was inducted to the Gallery of Stars, hosted in the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater lobby, with a star block on the sidewalk in front of the theater. If you're ever passing the Kelly-Strayhorn on Penn Avenue, look down, and there it'll be. She's also a member of the Pittsburgh Jazz Society Hall of Fame, a pretty impressive group by any standards.

Dakota Staton died April 10, 2007 at the Isabella Geriatric Center in New York at the age of 76, and was buried at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. She had been going downhill ever since suffering a triple aneurysm in the 1990s.

Caffe Jazz, a label out of Westlake Village, California, released a 14-song concert recording, "Dakota Staton Live at Milestones," a Buffalo nightclub, that was originally a 1986 radio broadcast. Among its highlights is one of Dakota’s few compositions, the upbeat blues tune “Play Your Hand,” and the old favorite “What Do You See in Her?” It came out a month before her passing.

Staton was one of the great vocalists of her era, belting out show tunes, R&B, jazz, blues and gospel with equal ease. Along with her ever-shifting musical identity, Staton got caught in the crosshairs of a political struggle. She had a sweet career, even though it never got the wind in its sails that it deserved. But if Dakota Staton isn't the best female vocalist from Pittsburgh, she's surely on the short list.

Her bio is available at

Dakota Staton - "Round Midnight"