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HT Jazz History Vol 3: Damita Jo Wood “Austin’s Ella”

Damita Jo DeBlanc was known to her family as the kind of woman who’d say “‘Hot dog!’ and slap her thigh and everybody was ‘darlin’ and ‘sweetheart,’’ to her. But to the world, and Austin, Texas, she was a comedian, singer and performer, known for her singing ability and hits.

Damita Jo DeBlanc was born on August 5, 1930 in Austin, Texas. Her family moved to Santa Barbara, California, but she came back to Austin to visit her relatives from time to time. After her mother passed away, DeBlanc moved back to Austin at the age of 19 and attended college at Samuel Huston College (later known as Huston-Tillotson University) and the University of California at Santa Barbara.

DeBlanc started performing at Club Oasis in Los Angeles in 1949 and by 1951, she joined the group Steve Gibson and the 5 Red Caps. She married Steve Gibson in 1954 and continued to be in the group after their divorce in 1958. In 1960, she left the group and signed with Mercury Records. Damita Jo had two hits in the 1960s that were famous “answer songs” to “Save the Last Dance for Me” by the Drifters and “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King. These two hits increased her popularity, and on May 9, 1967, Austin’s mayor and city council named this day “Damita Jo Day,” and also had a street named in her honor. In the 70s, DeBlanc started incorporating comedy acts into her performances. She worked with artists such as Ray Charles, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton. In 1977, she began touring with Redd Foxx, also starring in his comedy TV show.

A notable trait of Damita Jo aside from her success as a singer, was her willingness to push through any obstacle that came her way, with grace. In one story, covered by The Austin American Statesman in 1967, DeBlanc came back to Austin for a homecoming performance. A scheduling error occurred due to the daylight savings time, making the performance time printed on tickets and posters an hour earlier than scheduled. With a dwindling audience waiting to see this international star and no rehearsal before her performance, DeBlanc came onstage with lively songs and a powerful performance “even more exciting and jazzy than her records,” as if either of those obstacles had no effect on her as a performer. Even when her performances had slight hiccups backstage, she managed to come onstage, and “overcome the situation with such dignity,” reminding audiences the dedication and time DeBlanc always had put into her work.

In her personal life, family was always important to Damita. She was “the life of the party,” according to her cousin Josephine Dukes, and she always stayed connected to her relatives in Austin. DeBlanc also had one son, John Jeffrey Wood, with her second husband, James “Biddy” Wood. She gave birth to her daughter in 1970, but her daughter passed away at age three due to sickle cell disease. After her daughter’s passing, DeBlanc didn’t tour as much, and she focused on spending time with her family. In 1984, Damita Jo retired from jazz performing and focused on gospel music for the rest of her life. On December 25, 1998, Damita Jo passed away in Baltimore, Maryland, but she is still remembered by her family and the people of Austin. In 2008, the Women in Jazz Association performed a tribute in her honor at the George Washington Carver Museum.

Here is “I’ll Save the Last Dance for You”:

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