East End Stories: Damita Jo - Austin's Ella

 By , on his site athttp://www.michaelcorcoran.net/east-austin-history

(from 2004)

Damita jo


When native East Austinite Josephine Dukes heard that Janet Jackson’s new album was called Damita Jo, her jaw dropped. The only Damita Jo she knew of was her cousin, a dynamic singer who had a couple of pop hits in the early 1960s.

Then Dukes started putting it all together. Damita Jo DeBlanc had told her that Janet Jackson’s mother was a fan who named her daughter Janet Damita Jo Jackson. That info’s right there in the funeral program for DeBlanc, who died in Baltimore on Christmas Day 1998 at age 68, of respiratory illness.

A 4-foot-11-inch spitfire who lit up showrooms and living rooms alike, DeBlanc had hits with “answer songs” to “Save the Last Dance For Me” by the Drifters and to “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King. But she really wanted to be the next Ella Fitzgerald, and Damita Jo, as she was billed, could scat like her idol.

Born in Austin on Aug. 5, 1930, the only child of Creole chef Herbert DeBlanc and schoolteacher Latrelle Plummer DeBlanc, Damita Jo was dancing and singing as soon as she could walk and talk. “She was a natural entertainer, the life of the party,” Josephine Dukes recalls.

She also possessed comedic flair and was a regular on Redd Foxx’s 1977 TV variety show.

Damita Jo’s father, who grew up speaking French in Iberia, La., and never lost the accent, enlisted in the Navy during World War II and was stationed in Santa Barbara, Calif., where Damita Jo attended high school. But she’d often return to Austin, where her grandmother Mathilde DeBlanc had a house at 1010 Olive St.

“I just adored Damita,” says Josephine’s daughter, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes of Austin. “She was the sweetest, warmest person you could ever meet. She’d say ‘Hot dog!’ and slap her thigh and everybody was ‘darlin’ and ‘sweetheart.’ ” Dawnna Dukes has become the DeBlanc family historian in recent years, tracing the Austin clan as direct descendants of Louis Antone Juchereau de St. Denis, a French explorer from Quebec who founded Natchitoches Parish in Louisiana in 1714.

In an entirely coincidental aside to the Janet Jackson/Damita Jo connection, Luther Simond, married to Damita Jo’s aunt, was an assistant principal at Norton High School in Gary, Ind., in 1966 when Jackson was born. “I knew the family well,” Simond says of the musical tribe that put Gary on the map. “Those (Jackson) boys started off singing in the church choir. Then, when they got their act together, I called my stepson (Motown arranger Gil Askey) in Detroit and said, ‘You need to come down here and check these guys out.’ “Damita_Jo-JetMag_01-14-1960 copy

Simond says Askey took Diana Ross to see the Jackson 5 and they were soon signed to Motown. “Janet’s parents didn’t know I was related to Damita Jo,” says Simond, whose late wife, Ada DeBlanc Simond, was a noted author and activist.

Damita Jo’s Austin relatives were important to her. She spent a few weeks in Austin in 1983 when her aunt Audrey DeBlanc Shannon was dying of cancer. “I spent almost every day with her,” says Dukes, who was in college at the time. “She was very unassuming, but if I prodded her, she’d tell stories about all the celebrities she had worked with — Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., Ray Charles, Count Basie, Billie Holiday — people like that.”

Damita Jo’s life had its share of tragedies. Her mother died when she was 19 and she moved back to Austin, ditching dreams of Hollywood stardom to be near relatives and to attend Samuel Huston College. In 1970, her father was shot to death by a man he’d lent money to who didn’t want to repay. Eight months pregnant and living in Baltimore, a grieving Damita Jo was forbidden by doctors to travel to the funeral.

The daughter she gave birth to in 1970 died of sickle cell anemia at age 3. Damita Jo was on the road when she got the news. After that, she rarely toured and doted on her only son, John Jeffrey Wood, whose father, Biddy, married Damita Jo in 1961 and managed her career.

Her first husband was band leader Steve Gibson, whose Red Caps featured Damita Jo as lead vocalist. The couple divorced in 1958 after four years of marriage.

Signed to a solo deal with Mercury, Damita Jo hit the pop charts in late 1960 with “I’ll Save the Last Dance For You.” Six months later she had a No. 12 pop hit with “I’ll Be There,” a response to “Stand By Me.” Ironically, “I’ll Be There” was also the name of a Jackson 5 hit, though the tunes are different.

The pop hits stopped there, as Damita Jo transformed herself into a portrait of elegance, singing jazz standards at swanky bistros and casino nightclubs for the remainder of her career. She recorded several albums for the Mercury and Epic labels.

Mayor Lester Palmer declared May 9, 1967 “Damita Jo Day” when the singer returned to her hometown to perform.

Damita Jo retired from performing in 1984, after an eight-week run with Joey Bishop in Atlantic City.

Twenty years later, the name “Damita Jo” is everywhere — on TV shows, on billboards, in full page ads in trade publications. It may currently refer to Janet Jackson’s middle name and sexy alter ego, but seeing and hearing that name again so prominently has also rekindled many memories among those who knew the original Damita Jo.

“She was everyone’s favorite person,” Dukes recalls. “She was the family’s little china doll.”