~by Penny Landau
Dawn Hampton‘s family had a very musical background and she was on stage from early childhood on. Her father, Clark Deacon Hampton, Sr., led a family band comprised of 12 children, with the youngest being “Slide” Hampton on trombone. The family left Ohio early on in her life and traveled through the country as “Deacon Hampton and the Cotton Pickers,” playing Ragtime, Blues, Dixieland and Polka. In 1938, they settled in Indianapolis, where the children attended the McArthur School of Music.
During World War II, Dawn founded a short-lived group called The Hamptonians, along with her sisters Carmalita, Aletra and Virtue. After the war, she played with her brother Clark “Duke” Hampton‘s jazz band on saxophone, mainly touring the west and south United States. In 1950, she performed in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Apollo Theater and the infamous Savoy Ballroom. She also played in the house band of Cincinnati’s Cotton Club, eventually performing with her sisters as The Hampton Sisters.
In 1958, she moved to New York to start a career as a songwriter and cabaret singer and soon became part of the Off-Broadway production Greenwich Village, USA, which took up residence at The Bon Soir.
In the early 1960’s, Dawn had a long-term contract as a singer at The Lion’s Den. Even after suffering damage to her vocal chords in 1964, she continued to perform in New York cabarets for another 20 years, although she experienced a loss of vocal volume. She also increased her work as a songwriter, writing her signature song “Life Is What You Make It.” In 1972, Dawn appeared at the infamous Continental Baths, where she performed with artists such as Cab Calloway, Bette Midler and Barry Manilow.
In the 1980’s, Dawn would sit-in regularly at Waverly Waverly, Oh! Johnny, The Five Oaks and several other piano bar/cabaret rooms.
In 1986, Dawn began to write with Bobby Peaco and they seemed to click. From 1986 – 1988, they wrote over 150 songs together, with “Bring Back the Spring” their most well-known collaboration. Many performers put the song it in their cabaret acts and a few people recorded it, resulting in a MAC Award nomination, with Michael Guerrette singing it at the award show that year. “Mary, Mad Mary” became another well-known song of theirs and became a signature song for Marta Sanders and Pamela Warwick-Smith recorded it on her Work, Fight, Pray album.
There were three revues of their work, as well as solo shows of their music. Aaron Lee Battle did a show at Jason’s Park Royal and Mark Nadler did another at Don’t Tell Mama.
The first revue was called We and the Light at the 5 Oaks in 1987, with a cast that included Aaron Lee Battle, George Bogeazis, Jack Devine, Joyce Griffen, Lisa Hall, Walter Holiday, John Kenrick, Judy Premus, Don Swanson, Ron Wlodarczyk, along with Dawn and Peaco. The second revue was Life is What..? at Panache Encore, the following year, again with Aaron Lee Battle, Joyce Griffen, Judy Premus, Ron Wlodarczyk and Paula Hampton.
The third revue and the most successful, was Crossroads, at the Castillo Cultural Center in Soho on Greenwich Street in 1990, conceived and directed by Don Swanson. That cast included Evan Bell, Steve Mattar, Peter Oliver-Norman, Kevin Pettito, Judy Premus, Gena Ramsel, Marta Sanders and Terri White.
Said Peaco, “One reason we started writing was because Dawn was tired of performing in the cabaret scene. She didn’t like what it had become, having been around when the Mafia owned the clubs and the performer didn’t have to do any self-promotion. As Dawn said, ‘Say what you will about the Mob, they paid their performers!’ She was coaxed back in the early ’90s, and I became her accompanist for a sold-out 2-week run at the Jewel Box on 44th Street. We did a few other things as well, including a run at Adam’s Rib, but she gradually hung up the cabaret performing and got more involved with her other love, swing dancing.”
In 1989, Dawn collaborated with Mark Nadler, writing music and lyrics for the honky-tonk mini-opera Red Light, which won the 1990 MAC Award from the Manhattan Association of Cabaret and Clubs. Dawn and Mark also collaborated on An Evening with Dawn Hampton, which enjoyed an extended run at Don’t Tell Mama. She also wrote the music and lyrics for the play Madame C. J. Walker.
She appeared in Spike Lee’s movie Malcolm X (1992) as a dancer, together with Frankie Manning. Since the Swing Dance revival in the late 1980’s, she has worked more and more in the Lindy Hop scene, teaching workshops all over the world, including the Herräng Dance Camp in Sweden.
For her 80th birthday, Dance Manhattan organized a gala in her honor, where she danced and sang.
Hampton received the Lifetime Achievement in Cabaret Award and was nominated for the Distinguished Achievement Director and Composer Award from MAC in 1988. In 2011, The Unforgettable Hampton Family, a documentary about her family, aired on PBS.