Dolores Parker Morgan, who performed with Duke Ellington and other jazz greats, dies at 99

Dolores “Dee” Parker Morgan stood at the bandstand with many of the greats of jazz and American music behind her. As a jazz vocalist aka “a girl singer,” Parker Morgan lent her honeyed, vivacious voice to performances and recordings of titans including Duke Ellington, Earl “Fatha” Hines and Fletcher Henderson. Although Parker Morgan, who died Monday at age 99, was part of an amazing time in American music history and befriended many legendary performers before settling in Akron, she treated everyone as if they were stars themselves.

“It sounds silly and sophomoric to say this, but she was so popular,” said her daughter, Dr. Melodie Morgan-Minott, a local psychiatrist.

“Why would I say that about a 99-year-old woman? Because she made everybody feel so good about themselves when they were around her," she said. "She gave them unconditional positive regard. She treated them like they were the only person in the room and they felt special around her.”

Parker Morgan, a Chicago native, won an amateur contest fresh-out-of-high school in 1939 and received an offer to join the “Rhythm Debs,” a female trio who toured and performed with innovative pianist and arranger Henderson’s big band. A few years later, in the mid-1940s, Parker Morgan and her then-husband, trumpeter Vernon Smith, joined the orchestra of pianist Hines. They decided to settle down when Morgan-Minott was born. But a few years later, in 1947, an opportunity to sing with Ellington beckoned.

"I auditioned with Billy Strayhorn at the piano, singing his famous `Lush Life,’ which I did not know," Parker Morgan said in a 1998 interview with WMV News Cleveland. "He said, 'You can read the music, sing it!' "

"He said, ‘Now that you’ve sung it, I want you to sing it for Ellington on the phone.' And I said, `What?’ "

"So he got him on the phone. I sang it to Ellington and thought I did terribly because I did not know the song. Somehow, I was hired on the spot."

One of Parker Morgan’s best-known recordings with Ellington is the 1947 tune “Take Love Easy,” on which Parker Morgan’s young, lilting voice swings lightly alongside a few of Ellington’s legendary soloists. It’s her daughter’s favorite recording.

“It represents her philosophy," Morgan-Minott said. "She didn’t sweat the small stuff. And her voice itself is so youthful, so young."

Parker Morgan traveled with Ellington across the United States and toured Europe. The young Morgan-Minott loved to see her mother perform whenever she was allowed.

“If we’d be in a hotel and she was singing at that hotel, the baby sitter would sneak me downstairs so that I could see her sing," Morgan-Minott said. "And she sounded just great.”

During her time with Ellington, Parker Morgan rubbed elbows with many famous folk and was even briefly engaged to heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. The association earned her the Nov. 13, 1952, cover of Jet Magazine — billed as the possible “Brown Hope” of the famed “Brown Bomber.”

Parker Morgan left Ellington and her singing career behind in 1956 and moved to Akron with her husband, Dr. E. Gates Morgan. Parker Morgan never expressed any regrets about giving up her career, but Morgan-Minott said she kept music playing in the house all the time.

“She gave up her career for 30 years. She did nothing but do charity work, fashion shows, boards here in Akron and then we decided to put up a scholarship at the Kent State Department of Music. So we established the Dolores Parker Morgan Music Scholarship with an emphasis on minority students,” Morgan-Minott said.

The scholarship dedication became a big event with old friends and former co-workers, including bebop-era trumpeter and educator Clark Terry coming to Kent and filling an auditorium for a musical tribute. That event sparked Parker Morgan’s desire to perform onstage again — with the caveat that she stay close to home.

“So she did concert after concert, benefit after benefit, right around here in Cleveland and all around Ohio,” Morgan-Minott said.

Despite being gone from the bandstand for decades, Parker Morgan — usually adorned in one of her fine beaded gowns earning her a coveted spot in the Beacon Journal’s Best Dressed Hall of Fame — enjoyed being back on stages and performing with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, the Akron Symphony Orchestra, the Fat Tuesday Band, the Kent State University Gospel Choir and others.

“She absolutely loved it and her voice actually got better over time. It got better and more seasoned over time,” Morgan-Minott said.

When not singing at benefit concerts, Parker Morgan enjoyed mentoring young singers.

“That made her feel very, very good. She and [her husband] wanted to make sure that something would be remembered of her legacy and that this music would be remembered,” Morgan-Minott said.

Private services for Parker Morgan have taken place, but Morgan-Minott said plans are in the works for a June celebration of her mother's life — with the hope that all who were touched by her life will treat each other with the unconditional positive regard that she offered to everyone she met.

 

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml, and follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.