Like many of us, I am still reeling from the news that one of the guiding lights of swing passed away this weekend. Dawn Hampton left us too soon at 88 years young - and I had the distinct privilege to call her my mentor and my friend. She had the sharpest wit, the wisest soul, the warmest heart, and was also the biggest ham, of anyone I have ever known.
If I am being completely honest, the potential of talking with Dawn was one of the very reasons I started this podcast. So instead of my normally scheduled episode this month, I am re-releasing my conversation with Dawn, when we sat down in April 2015 not far from her East Village apartment in New York City.
As I said on the original episode, it is no exaggeration to recognize Dawn as a National Treasure. Her amazing life began traveling from town to town of the American South in a carnival, singing and playing saxophone with the Hampton Family Band, followed by stints at Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater, and the Savoy Ballroom in New York City. Dawn became a legend of the Greenwich Village Cabaret in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, coaching the likes of Bette Midler and singing alongside Barry Manilow at the infamous Continental Baths. Only decades later did Dawn become a legend of another kind to swing dancers the world over, sharing her story and wisdom from Sweden to South Korea.
I am struggling to find the words to describe the incredible woman who was my friend, but I think this excerpt from the New York Times review of her 1982 cabaret show perfectly captures what made Dawn, ‘The Lady’ -
In superficial terms, she is a singer.
But her voice, a strong but seemingly uncertain instrument full of quavers, growls, husky descents and high, shimmering airiness, is simply one element in a projection that is built even more on emotional intensity, high good humor, dramatics taken to almost corny extremes, zest and exuberance, all kept in such sensitive balance that one aspect adds flavor to another as she builds her songs into brilliant vignettes.
A key factor in the way Miss Hampton does things is a marvelously mobile, warmly expressive face that projects her lines even more than her voice does. Her huge, vital eyes and an unusually agile mouth can suddenly change, underline or add unexpected shading that cuts into the mood of a song to change the emphasis briefly, to lighten what threatens to be overly heavy dramatics.
Miss Hampton has a deep well of emotional energy and spends it recklessly and joyously.
That was the Dawn Hampton I know. She was a singer, a dancer, and a diva, but was also so much more and the world is a better place for having had her in it.
The Dawn Hampton Fund has been organized by The Frankie Manning Foundation to support Dawn's last wishes and arrangements.
I am grateful that I once again have the opportunity to share our conversation. As Dawn would say, The Light is On.