A powerful, versatile, big-voiced singer, Varetta Dillard was rated by many pundits as very nearly the equal of peers like Dinah Washington, Lavern Baker, Ruth Brown and Big Maybelle. However although she undoubtedly possessed a magnificent voice, Varetta was, sadly, physically handicapped, which greatly restricted her career. Consequently, although she registered a trio of big R&B hits during the early 50s, she failed to achieve any significant crossover Pop success and as a result, remains something of a cult figure, little known outside of specialist, collectors’ circles. Her recording career covered some ten years, from 1951-61, during which she released twenty-eight singles. All appear on this unique compilation, Disc 1 comprising her Savoy recordings, 1951-55, whilst Disc 2 features her Groove, RCA, Triumph and Cub releases between 1956-61. Also included are a trio of bonus sides, including a cancelled Cub single.
Born in Harlem, New York, on February 3rd 1933, Varetta spent much of her childhood in and out of hospital due to a bone condition called congenital pseudarthrosis, which affected her right leg. In those days it was usual to amputate the affected limb, but her mother was able to persuade doctors to perform experimental surgery in order to save the leg. Eventually, following a series of bone grafts - a total of sixteen operations, over a twelve-year period - Varetta was left severely crippled but able to walk, albeit with the aid of crutches or other assistance. She was also left badly scarred, which ultimately meant that she was rarely seen - and certainly never photographed - in anything other than full-length skirts or dresses, throughout her life.
Varetta first started singing as an infant, encouraged by nurses whilst in hospital. By her early teens she was winning local amateur singing competitions and she first appeared at The Apollo Theater at the age of sixteen, eventually going on to win their dedicated midweek amateurs/newcomers competition twice. In 1951 she was spotted by Savoy Records’ head of A&R Lee Magid, who signed her both to the label and to a personal management contract, and she debuted in late ’51 with ‘Love And Wine’/‘Please Come Back To Me’.
In keeping with fairly standard record company ‘policy’, Varetta’s Savoy discs invariably comprised an upbeat side and a ballad (in most cases the upbeat song started out as the plug side). Her first couple of releases caused sufficient a stir that Alan Freed invited Varetta to appear on what has become acknowledged as the very first major R&R concert - The Moondog Coronation Ball - in Cleveland, Ohio, in March 1952. This was followed by a week at The Apollo - her first booking there as a professional recording artiste - and a tour of the South alongside The Five Keys, backed by Oran ‘Hot Lips’ Page’s band. Meanwhile her third release, ‘Easy, Easy Baby’ had begun to take off, initially in the South, on the back of her tour. It sold heavily over several months (it would reach #8 R&B, in July), effectively killing off the pair of follow-ups which Savoy rushed out onto the market, rather too hastily.
By 1953, Varetta was hot. Having consolidated her popularity as a live performer with a series of one/two-week bookings in prestigious venues like New York’s Club Baby Grande, Washington DC’s Howard Theatre, Detroit’s Flame Show Bar, and Providence, Rhode Island’s Club Downbeat, she undertook major tours of the South and Midwest with Larry Darnell, and Wynonie Harris (she impressed Wynonie sufficiently that he booked her as ‘Special Guest Star’ for his week’s stint at The Apollo, later in the year). Record-wise, she enjoyed regional success with ‘Double Crossing Daddy’/‘I Cried And Cried’ and ‘Three Lies’/‘Getting Ready For My Daddy’, following which she registered her biggest-ever hit with ‘Mercy, Mr Percy’, which spent three months on the R&B chart, peaking at #6 late that Summer. Once again Savoy jumped the gun by issuing follow-ups whilst it was still in the Top 10, so sides like ‘I Love You’ and ‘I Ain’t Gonna Tell You’ missed out.
But by now Varetta had married actor Ronald Mack, and her career began to take something of a back seat. Indeed, by the time of her third - and final - national R&B hit in early ’55, she was already expecting her first baby. In truth, ‘Johnny Has Gone’ (a cash-in ‘tribute’ to the recently-deceased Johnny Ace) was probably only successful due to its controversy/novelty status; nonetheless it spent a couple of months on the charts, peaking at #6, which is quite remarkable as Varetta was unable to promote the disc herself, due to her being eight months pregnant.
Shortly afterwards she terminated her contract with Savoy and signed with RCA’s specialist R&B subsidiary, Groove, who surprisingly, were unable to carve out a hit record for her. Inexplicably, sides like ‘Got You On My Mind’ and ‘One More Time’ were only regional successes, although perhaps the less said about ‘I Miss You Jimmy’ - another cash-in ‘tribute’, this time to James Dean - the better. In early ’57 the Groove imprint was discontinued and Varetta transferred to the main RCA label, but releases like ‘Leave A Happy Fool Alone’, ‘That’s Why I Cry’ and ‘Star Of Fortune’ fared little better. They all had commercial arrangements, and sound like they could have been hits. But in hindsight, perhaps they fell between two stools; not quite raw enough for the R&B market and subsequently, unable to cross over.
In 1959 Varetta signed for Herb Abramson’s Triumph label, where she cut perhaps her finest disc, ‘Scorched’/‘Good Gravy Baby’, and the following year she moved on again, to MGM’s R&B subsidiary, Cub. By now, musical styles were changing radically and Varetta found herself increasingly regarded as something of a 50s-oriented misfit (as, indeed, were the likes of Ruth Brown and Lavern Baker) and so, as good as they were, ‘Teaser’, ‘I Don’t Know What It Is But I Like It’ and even an updated version of ‘Mercy, Mr Percy’ failed to register.
Astonishingly, Varetta’s recording career ended in 1961. She subsequently became involved in the Civil Rights movement and latterly worked with children, as a music therapist. She died in 1993, from cancer.
Acknowledgments: thanks to Colin Escott/Norbert Hess, Stu Colman and Dave Timperley.