McNeil Wrote Pop Songs but Kept a Vocal Career True Blue : Jazz: The singer will appear Monday at the Cafe Lido in Newport Beach as part of the Benson & Hedges Blues festival taking place next week.
As a secretary back in Detroit, Dee Dee McNeil didn’t think she’d become a singer. A talent for writing poetry led to a job as a songwriter for Motown Records, where she penned tunes for Diana Ross and the Supremes (“Discover Me”), Gladys Knight and the Pips (“Somebody Stole the Sunshine”) and the Four Tops (“What Is a Man”). She was on her way.
But McNeil, who will appear Monday at the Cafe Lido in Newport Beach as part of the Benson & Hedges Blues festival taking place next week at several Southland venues, didn’t become a pop singer. She had grown up listening to Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday and Dakota Stanton, music that her parents played around the house, and had other ideas.
“I loved jazz and blues,” she said recently, “and the songs I was writing all used blues and jazz changes.” With encouragement from Motown record producers, the secretary began to sing.
McNeil moved to Los Angeles in 1970 “looking for a career break.” She gained some visibility after joining the Watts Prophets, a vocal ensemble that did ethnic poetry and original music. Their album, “Rappin’ Black in a White World,” was her first recorded work.
Now living in San Diego, the singer is in demand at Southern California clubs, having lately appeared at Monteleone’s and the Biltmore Hotel’s Grand Ave. Bar, both in Los Angeles, and at Elario’s in La Jolla. She has also performed in Japan and New Zealand and appeared at the International Jazz Festival in Vienna in 1982.
Sunday, McNeil played at the Cafe Lido, where she’ll continue each Monday through June. Backed by a satisfying trio of drummer Harold Mason, bassist Louie Spears and pianist Lanny Hartley, the singer showed an apparently boundless supply of enthusiasm for performing as well as for the material she sang.
She said she likes to think of herself as a song stylist, and--like Nancy Wilson, whose voice her voice sometimes resembles--McNeil can pack a phrase with musical twists and turns without ever losing sight of the lyric’s meaning. She gets warm and breathy in the lower registers, sweet and crystalline in the upper. Her scatting is quick, sharp and inventive.
McNeil, who teaches classes in jazz appreciation through the city Cultural Arts Department in Los Angeles to students ranging from preschoolers to senior citizens, can also be instructional on the bandstand. She preceded her rendition of “Lover Man” by explaining that Billie Holiday’s recording with “fiddles,” as Holiday reportedly called them, was the first by a black female vocalist to use strings. In a couple of lines during the song, McNeil recalled not only Holiday’s phrasing, but her tonal quality as well.
McNeil, who also has a taste for Latin and Brazilian numbers, said she has a special fondness of the blues: “The blues developed from the slave songs, and that music was transformed into gospel and jazz. It’s the roots of American music, and that’s why I love it.”
Dee Dee McNeil appears with pianist Dwight Dickerson, bassist Louis Spears and drummer Harold Mason Monday at the Cafe Lido, 501 30th St., Newport Beach. Information: (714) 675-2968.