Blues singer Valerie Wellington

January 05, 1993|By Janita Poe | Janita Poe,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Valerie Wellington, 33, known for her feisty renditions of "Million Dollar Secret," "Let the Good Times Roll" and "Sweet Home, Chicago," died Saturday of an aneurysm at Loyola University in Maywood, Ill.

She was a latecomer to blues music, but Ms. Wellington -- through her stomp-and-shout nightclub performances, stage portrayals of blues greats like Bessie Smith and raucous romp through a popular Chicago Tribune commercial -- played a key role in keeping the blues alive in Chicago.

"I think Valerie sang the blues, but I don't think she was ever blue," said her father, David W. Hall, a retired U.S. Customs administrator. "She was always very happy."

Ms. Wellington, who had just returned from the first leg of a six-month tour of Japan on Dec. 24, became ill on Thursday after complaining of a headache while preparing for a New Year's Eve show at a South Side lounge. She was taken to Jackson Park Hospital, where she went into a coma in the emergency room, and later was taken to Loyola.

Friends and family described Ms. Wellington -- whose repertoire covered songs by Bessie Smith, Elmore James and Little Richard and included urban, country, classic and Delta blues -- as a lover of all types of music and a spokeswoman for the plight of working musicians.

"Valerie came onto the blues scene relatively late," said harmonicist Billy Branch, a longtime friend of Ms. Wellington's. "But she accomplished a lot in a short period of time. She developed not just a love for it [blues], but a general respect for it."

A trained opera and classical piano performer who graduated from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, Ms. Wellington switched genres about 14 years ago and exploded onto the blues scene after meeting several local blues artists.

Shortly after switching to blues music, Ms. Wellington won the 1984 roles of Ma Rainey in "The Heart of the Blues" at the Kuumba Theater and "The Little Dreamer: A Night in the Life of Bessie Smith" at the Ivanhoe Theater. That year, she also placed second in the category of female blues artist in the International W. C. Handy Awards.

Ms. Wellington performed regularly in such local clubs as Kingston Mines, Rosa's, Artis' and Blues Chicago. She recorded three albums on the Chicago B.L.U.E.S. and Alligator labels. She also appeared in several films and documentaries, including "Survivors," a 1984 tribute to the late blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield with Bob Dylan, Dr. John and other artists, and "Great Balls of Fire," a 1989 movie on Jerry Lee Lewis' life starring Dennis Quaid, in which she portrayed 1950s blues singer Big Mabell.

She made the Tribune commercial, titled "Fat Is Where It's At," in 1986, and became known as the "Tribune Lady."

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