She so impressed legend Dean Martin that when he first heard her sing, he offered her a contract right on the spot. She was linked romantically with Nat King Cole. She was one of the first artists to be offered a residency at more than one nightclub. She was the first woman of color (in 1955) to appear in national magazine wearing a bikini. And she is regarded as one of the most underrated and underappreciated jazz musicians of her time.
And she is from Cumberland, Maryland.
Before catapulting to international success for her sultry vocals and ability to master two instruments which she would often play live, Alice Darr had humble beginnings. She was born in Cumberland on April 22, 1930 to the late James and Gladys (Chandler) Darr. She was raised in a household filled with music and her natural vocal talents were honed at an early age by her father who played various instruments and was a key member of local bands such as the Black Diamonds and Midnight Bellhops. Both of her sisters, Delores and Claudine, were singers too and they sometimes performed as a trio. She also had a favorite uncle named John Darr who was a singer and violinist.
The precocious little Alice, known affectionately to family and friends as “Baby,” eagerly absorbed her father’s musical tutoring and was recognized as a child prodigy for her ability to sing and play the piano. At the age of seven she won $50 in an amateur talent contest at the Liberty Theatre on North Liberty Street, and by the age of 15 she was attending the segregated Carver High School during the day and at night performing at downtown Cumberland nightclubs like the Alibi on North Mechanic Street, or the Cadillac on Baltimore Street.
It was at the Cadillac where she received her big break in the music industry when she performed with Eddie Cole, brother of the world famous crooner Nat King Cole. The Queen City’s young songstress was no longer a secret and at 17 years old Alice signed a full time professional contract with an agent in Pittsburgh.
“Cumberlanders will remember Miss Darr’s piano-and-vocal performances at the old Cadillac and at the Alibi, later Al’s Chateau and now a parking lot. Miss Darr played the two night spots for more than a year, alternating with out-of-town professional acts,” reported the Cumberland News on January 31, 1963.
“She’s been singing in New York, Florida, Chicago and Mexican supper clubs for the past six years and has been at The Toast (1068 First Avenue) in Manhattan for a total of about two years, with a time out for an eight-month engagement at The Left Bank,” the newspaper continued. “An unusual feature of Miss Darr’s career to date is that she hasn't been out of work since her first New York booking. The clubs keep asking her to come back.”
Alice’s amazing voice and charismatic stage presence have taken her around the world. She has performed in a dizzying array of cosmopolitan cities, exotic locales and first class venues: Las Vegas, Chicago, Hawaii, Miami Beach, Mexico City, Montreal and Toronto, and a two year stint playing at the top jazz clubs in New York City. She was singing at the Beverly Hills Hyatt House in Los Angeles when the great entertainer Dean Martin was in the audience. Martin was so impressed with her show he immediately booked her to perform at the grand opening of the Dino’s Den, his brand new Las Vegas nightclub.
But in America, she was emerging as a star during a period of social and civil unrest. While she was performing on shows such as Ed Sullivan and singing on national stages and in front of thousands a night, when the show was over, she was not permitted to join many of her fellow headliners in white hotels and restaurants. The folks who bought tickets to see her would and could be the same people who would not allow her into their businesses when she was not performing.
The attitude was very different in Europe – where the color of one’s skin was not a reason for judgment and so Alice found acceptance and huge success where her star shined brightest during her international appearances. She was received enthusiastically in England, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Japan, Belgium, Australia, Nigeria and the Philippines. She spent three years in Paris where she led her own “Alice Darr Trio.” The group was comprised of Gilbert Rovere on bass, Charles Saudrais on percussion and Marc Hemmeler on the keys, and with Alice’s elegant alto leading the way, they recorded two albums in France and also appeared on a television special with Stephane Grapelli, the world’s foremost jazz violinist.
In 1966, Alice Darr even toured military bases in the Far East in USO and shows for servicemen and women overseas.
Miss Darr’s musical brilliance is only one part of her legend. In her heyday she was one of the most beautiful and glamorous musical divas in the world. And her penchant for writing and performing torch songs only added to her sultry charm. She became the first African American woman to appear in a national publication scantily and scandalous clad in a bikini when Jet Magazine published a picture of Alice pool side in 1955. The caption on the photo describes her as “a curvaceous and shapely beauty.”
Her smoky vocal stylings and simmering ballads made her irresistible to the opposite sex. In today’s celebrity world Alice Darr’s combination of raw talent and physical attractiveness would make her comparable to a Taylor Swift, Alicia Keys, Diana Krall, or Mariah Carey. In the 1950s and 60s, comparisons were often made to Eartha Kitt, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald.
“As the album’s subtitle indicates, all the numbers are new and blue,” reported the Cumberland News more than 56 years ago. “Miss Darr’s mother said Alice, primarily a ‘pop jazz’singer, found making the album a challenging experience. Her next, still to be titled, will have six new songs and six standards with Alice fronting a full band. Her parents, justly proud and happy about her success, are hoping for ‘that one chance’ on television that could some day make their daughter a top-ranking star.”
Being a true sophisticated lady, Miss Darr has always been coy about discussing her suitors—especially when they have been of the celebrity variety -- but several people close to her have noted Dean Martin had a romantic crush on her – although high profile interracial dating was frowned upon in those days. And the Cumberland News reported that she was more than “just an acquaintance” of Nat King Cole. At one point she served as a chauffeur for Cole, driving him daily to the horse racing tracks in Miami. The always canny Alice used the time spent with Cole to her advantage, “I learned a lot about the entertainment business just by observing him,” she said.
After three successful albums recorded between 1962 and 1972, Alice Darr felt “called to come home.” Her parents were getting older and larger cities seemed more violent and turbulent during that decade. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Allegany County would prove a safe retreat for awhile. And so she returned to Cumberland. She opened a women’s clothing store called Boutique Alice on Greene Street. She was semi-retired, but her musical services were still in high demand – especially overseas. During the winter months she would escape the harsh Western Maryland weather by taking singing engagements in some of Europe’s finest nightclubs. And when she came back in the spring she would stock her boutique with the latest European fashions – items that were not even available in metropolis locations like Washington DC, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Jazz aficionados worldwide still remember the name Alice Darr. Her 1962 debut album I Only Know How To Cry – Music for Lovers and Losers, that she recorded on Charlie Parker’s record label, was re-released on CD in 2011, and is selling well on Amazon.com and other streaming websites.
“Alice Darr's I Only Know How to Cry was recorded for Charlie Parker Records,” says jazz historican and writer, Marc Myers “Yet little is known about Darr. According to the liner notes, the album’s cozy concept was conceived first. Then producer Aubrey Mayhew went looking for a voice to match. Many singers were auditioned but failed to impress. The agent steered Mayhew to a small club where Darr was singing. She was perfect. This is a brilliant album on so many levels. It’s hard to understand why Darr wasn’t a bigger name except that labels had shifted to rock and soul, leaving her stranded in jazz.”
Stranded maybe. But even 57 years after it was initially recorded, the album continues to enjoy brisk digital exposure and has a 4-star rating on Amazon. The music of Alice Darr is finding a new relevance and a new audience.
“Alice Darr … was a low key but thoroughly professional singer,” says one posted review of her work on Amazon. “Her first album was recorded in one day which is somewhat of a minor miracle in itself. Miss Darr was probably thinking I may not get a second chance at this. There is not a standard in the bunch which by no means is a bad thing, just that one song tends to meld into another without any great distinction… but Darr’s singing is so apropos of the time she transcends the so-so songs into sweet poetry.”
“Alice Darr’s debut 1962 LP is a concept album in the vein of Frank Sinatra's Only the Lonely. Accompanied just by Mundell Lowe on guitar and George Duvivier on bass, she sings in a mellow and intimate manner that carries hints of Carmen McRae, though Alice's tone is warmer,” says Jazz writer and author Steve Hoffman. “Leaving aside any positive or negative opinions about the quality of the songs, the results are tasty.”
“Unfortunately, the female pianist developed crippling arthritis in her later years,” Hoffman says. “I would assume after she left the business, she settled somewhere in a warmer climate, living somewhere on the sunny West Coast.”
But that would be the wrong assumption.
Miss Alice Darr is now 89 years old and living quietly and comfortably at the Allegany Nursing and Rehabilitation Facility in Cumberland. Yes, right here in our very own community resides a home-grown international super star.
Editor’s Note: Allegany Magazine’s Managing Editor Shane Riggs also contributed to this piece.