It took Diane Schuur a little while to bring it all into focus, but for the past three years she has been on a steady roll. It was lucky that Stan Getz, hearing her sing at the 1979 Monterey Jazz Festival, decided she had star potential. Getz engineered her performance with him in December, 1982, at the White House, where she attracted the enthusiastic reaction of Nancy Reagan. She was invited back in 1984 when the First Lady asked her to perform at a “Ladies of the Senate” luncheon.
Luck prevailed again when the producer Larry Rosen saw her second White House gig on TV. With his partner, arranger Dave Grusin, he tracked down Schuur through Getz. The result was a contract with the Grusin-Rosen GRP label and, in 1984, her first album, “Deedles.” (Schuur has a penchant for cute nicknames; the “Deedles” was self-imposed, and throughout our interview she addressed her manager Paul Cantor as “Paulie-Waulie.”)
Since the release and very substantial sales of “Deedles” there has been a whirlwind ride of prestigious concerts and festivals, a trip to Japan last summer (she’ll be returning in July), and a second LP, “Schuur Thing,” in which she duetted with Jose Feliciano. Getz played two cuts on both albums.
Luck was not always on Deedles’ side. She was born prematurely, weighing less than 3 pounds, and was blinded at birth in a hospital mishap.
Her twin brother (“He’s 15 minutes younger than I am!”) is a pilot in Auburn, Wash., where the family was reared. Born Dec. 10, 1953, she was barely 6, listening to the radio, when the Dinah Washington hit “What a Difference a Day Makes” all but electrified her. “She had such a great sound and perfect enunciation--I just knew that I had to emulate her. She and Sarah Vaughan were my early childhood influences,” she said.
“I listened to my share of rock ‘n’ roll. I guess I was forced to, because everybody else did; but ballads were really my thing. Mom used to listen to a lot of that stuff when she was alive.” Her mother died of cancer shortly after Schuur made her professional debut at the age of 9.
Studying at the State School for the Blind in Vancouver, Wash., and later at public school, she managed to keep a career alive. After putting in a few years of weekend gigs at a Tacoma club, at 15 she was taken by her father, an Auburn police captain, to Lake Tahoe, where an audition led to a lucrative offer to open at Harrah’s. “But the Police Department back home told my dad, ‘Either you go on the road with your daughter or stay home.’ So I went home and finished school.”
After several more years of local action with little headway, she met Ed Shaughnessy, Doc Severinsen’s drummer, backstage at a concert in Seattle.
“Doc’s concert was over,” Shaughnessy said, “and this young, blind girl comes in and sits down at the Fender Rhodes keyboard and starts singing the blues. Well, my hair stood on end!
“She had just the improvisational, black-oriented style I was looking for to sing in a gospel suite Tommy Newsom had written for my own band. I wound up flying her in several times to work with me at Donte’s and other clubs; then when she did the gospel suite with me at the Monterey Festival--this was 1975--she was the greatest sensation of the entire weekend.”
The Shaughnessy connection failed to become the breakthrough Schuur had hoped for. Though Severinsen met and heard her, she did not appear on “The Tonight Show” and soon was persuaded by a manager to move to Tucson, Ariz., buying a house with part of the settlement money awarded for the loss of her vision. After three years there, financially drained, she returned to Auburn. Not long afterward, her second Monterey appearance--this time on her own--proved to be the watershed event, with Getz as the principal behind-the-scenes mover.
Schuur said she has no trouble with being identified as a jazz singer, though in fact her versatility has taken her in several directions. One of the most valuable is gospel: among her later influences were Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, and one of her best recorded works is “Amazing Grace,” on which she accompanied herself. (“I studied Braille music as a kid, but I play mostly by ear.”)
Though obviously a star herself by now, Schuur at times reacts like a star-struck outsider. Recalling her appearance at the Grammy Awards show a few months ago, she said: “I met so many important people that day. In the hallway Dizzy Gillespie shouted out, ‘I love you, Diane!’ and I said ‘I love you too, Diz.’ He was just flabbergasted that I recognized his voice! Emmylou Harris talked to me for a long time; I hate to drop names, but Linda Ronstadt was so nice, and Roberta Flack came over and gave me a big hug during rehearsal.”
Her short stint on that program drew a standing ovation. Dionne Warwick and others were astonished by her extrovert performance, though some singers and musicians felt she tried to do too much too fast, cramming everything she knew into the brief space allotted her.
Her proudest association in recent times involved an accidental encounter with Stevie Wonder, whom she had met briefly in Seattle in 1974.
“Last summer Stan Getz invited me to hear him at the Hollywood Palace. In the middle of the show, in walks Stevie,” she said. “Stan asked me to come up and do a couple of numbers; then I went back down and while I was listening to Stan, Stevie said: ‘Is Diane still here?’ Stan told him yes, so he said, ‘Have her come up and do something with me’ So we did ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life,’ and I’m telling you, people were going crazy! I was on a high from that for days. I think there’s a possibility we may do some recording together.”
Because of the ingenuity with which Grusin has blended commercial settings and jazz elements, Schuur has managed to transcend the barriers that sometimes confine singers with her special qualities to a limited market.
The rest of the year is filled with important bookings. She is set for the Queen Mary Festival in Long Beach, her Las Vegas debut at the Silver Dome, and a July concert tour with a GRP All Stars group that will include Grusin, Lee Ritenour, Billy Cobham and others in England, France, Austria and Italy. “This will be my first time in Europe and I can hardly wait!”
The next album, she said, will be her first with a full orchestra. “We’re going to do it with basically no overdubs, and I’ll do some of the good old standards. That’s gonna be fun. I look forward to the prospect of doing something live.”
She has no regrets about the lost opportunities, the Tahoe job that didn’t happen and the other uneventful years. “I’m still young, I’ve got some experience under my belt now, and I feel mature enough to tackle anything that comes along. Tell you the truth, it’s going good and I just couldn’t be more excited.”