Damita Jo, 68, singer who recorded international hits

December 28, 1998|By Devon Spurgeon | Devon Spurgeon,SUN STAFF

Damita Jo -- a supper club jazz singer who recorded international chart-toppers while performing on five continents -- died of respiratory illness Friday morning at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center in Baltimore. She was 68.

The only child of a chef and schoolteacher, Miss Jo was born in Austin, Texas, and raised in Santa Barbara, Calif. She became interested in show business in school, joining her first band, Steve Gibson and the Red Caps, in the early 1950s. For the past 30 years, she lived in Baltimore.

Performing in beaded, handmade gowns, Miss Jo headlined at major clubs and hotels and made recordings popular in the United States, Sweden, Norway, Australia, Puerto Rico and Japan.

In the United States, her 1961 single, "I'm Saving the Last Dance for You," sold a million copies. Miss Jo's 1964 duet with Billy Eckstine, "Love's a Ball," shot to No. 1 in Australia.

On May 9, 1967, she returned to Austin to play a show. The mayor, Lester E. Palmer, proclaimed it "Damita Jo Day" and named a street after her.

In 1977, she toured with the Red Foxx Revue and appeared on the comedian's ABC television show. In 1979 and 1980, she received standing ovations at the first two Atlantic City Jazz Festivals.

She performed extensively at Atlantic City hotels and casinos, sharing billings with Johnny Ray, the Lionel Hampton Band, Count Basie and Ray Charles. In 1979, she performed with Mr. Charles at Towson State University.

Her last performance was in 1984, at the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City, where she closed an eight-week run with Joey Bishop. In July 1985, she released her first contemporary gospel recording.

Miss Jo made more than 20 television appearances on talk and variety shows starring Mike Douglas, Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson and Steve Allen. Mr. Allen wrote her first single, "It Takes a Little Loneliness," which she performed on his show when she was eight months pregnant.

She wrote and recorded a song called "The Color of Your Skin Makes No Difference," which was taught in the public schools and churches of Baltimore in 1983. She wrote the song in half an hour, hoping that it would inspire people to overcome their differences, said her husband and manager of 40 years, James "Biddy" Wood Sr.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at Pennsylvania Avenue African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Pennsylvania Avenue and Dolphin Street.

In addition to her husband, Miss Jo is survived by a daughter, Stephanie Shelton of Montclair, N.J.; a son, John Jeffrey Wood of Oakland, Calif.; and three stepchildren, Frances Murphy and James E. Wood Jr., both of Baltimore, and Susan Barnes of Biloxi, Miss.

Pub Date: 12/28/98

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