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Denise King: Taking a Chance on Love

Suzanne Cloud profiles singer with roots in Philadelphia jazz scene

The song “Taking a Chance on Love” by Vernon Duke was written as a vehicle for Ethel Waters for the film Cabin in the Sky in 1940, but its vibe certainly fits the emotion behind singer Denise King’s life and career. A Philly favorite from almost the first time she set foot on a bandstand, King started her career late by traditional standards. But then King has never been traditional.

As a single mom with three sons to keep track of, this dynamo was in her 30s – taking classes at Delaware Community College, running a deli in West Philly, and working as a medical assistant at the University of Pennsylvania ?- when someone happened to overhear her singing as she swept her front stoop (a long-time favorite ritual in this city of row homes, roaming children, and worried moms). Raymond “Rahman Rashied” Welsh, a studio guitarist, was that someone. Calling Denise by her local sobriquet, he said, “Hey Nee, you can sing, girl. You need to let me audition you for a gig.”

As soon as King realized she might get paid for what she had loved to do since she was a girl glued to her uncle’s jazz record collection, she snapped to the challenge with gusto. Quickly rearranging her life to accommodate this fortuitous event, the singer concentrated on chiseling out a full-throated career in music – a courageous move: “I quit everything else. I took a huge chance and moved my kids and me back in with my mom.”

It looked like blue skies as, one by one, King met the Philly musical mainstays that she needed to bring her dream to life, legends like saxophonist Sam Reed, drummer Butch Ballard, saxophonist Bootsie Barnes, saxophonist Cecil Payne, and bassist Jymie Merritt. These giants were crucial to her development and they taught her how to harness her improvisational energy. Soon, it was evident that Denise King could sing just about anything.

Ah, but a singing life isn’t a fairy tale. Never has been, no matter what anyone sees on American Idol. And Philly never has had enough gigs to keep anyone’s body and soul together. But King always seemed to keep one step ahead of whatever disaster loomed, always pushing, always keeping the devil squarely in her rear view mirror.

About 12 years ago, Denise King did a gig with pianist/composer Olivier Hutman in Paris. It was a week of sold out appearances at La Villa, the club the New York Times once called the Village Vanguard of Paris jazz venues, booking the best of American jazz artists, and this Philly gal was loving it. But to originally get the gig, and in typical Denise King fashion, this intrepid singer had bombarded the club owner with requests. “He brought me over because I sent him over a million press kits!” But then, after promises that she’d be asked to return for another engagement, King never heard from the fickle French again until Hutman found her years later on Facebook and essentially pledged, “Hey, if you come to Paris again, I’ll find you work.”

He did, and after three tours and a recording deal with Cristal Records, Hutman and King produced No Tricks, a CD nominated for the Academie du Jazz Award for “Best Vocal Performance” last year. Recorded in La Rochfort, France with bassist Darryl Hall (another expat from Philly), drummer Steve Williams and tenor saxophonist Olivier Temime, No Tricks is a sublime effort with lots of meaningful moments from the opening voice and drums on “That Old Black Magic” to the heartfelt Django Reinhardt tune “Nuages” to King’s own beautiful “Remember,” the result of her being inspired by the bittersweet body language of lovers in a train station.

Denise King will be leaving her hometown again at the end of this month for another tour in Europe, but before she does, she’ll be celebrating with all of her friends – pianist Aaron Graves, bassist Lee Smith, and drummer Khary Shaheed- in concert at the Society Hill Playhouse on February 16th.

She took a chance on love when the cards came up aces and it’s finally paying off.

Originally Published