The Dandridge Sisters were an African-American all-girl singing trio, started in 1934 in Los Angeles, California, and ended in 1940, comprising the sisters Vivian and Dorothy Dandridge together with their friend Etta Jones (not the more well-known Jazz vocalist, Etta Jones (1928-2011). They had a short period of fame traveling around the United States performing for night clubs, theatres, radio shows, and eventually left the US to tour in Europe. Dorothy Dandridge, however, decided to become a solo artist, so the band split up and each woman then pursued small projects individually.
Claim to fame
Both Vivian and Dorothy Dandridge originally made up the band "The Wonder Children", organized by their mother, Ruby Dandridge (also a performer) in Cleveland, Ohio. When they added Etta Jones to the group, they changed their name to “The Dandridge Sisters,” and moved to Los Angeles, California. They originally began performing as aspiring dancers, after studying at the Loretta Butler School of Dance and the Nash Dancing Company in Los Angeles, as well as the Mary Bruce School of Ballet in Chicago, Illinois. However, the trio decided to enter into a radio show contest at KNX Radio in Los Angeles just for the fun, and ended up winning over more than 30 white contestants. This brought them recognition in the music world as singers. They began performing shows around Los Angeles in various night clubs and theatres, and then were invited by Joe Glazer (the promoter for the Cotton Club) to perform at the Cotton Club in New York City alongside other famous musicians. They decided to move to New York with their mother, Ruby Dandridge, although they were each only 14 years old at the time. They were so well-liked at the Cotton Club that they were given a regular spot on the show.
The trio became highly recognized as a musical trio at the Cotton Club and were often compared to another famous group, the Andrews Sisters. Although the Dandridge Sisters studied as dancers, their music career led them to study music more technically so as to be more stable artists. After working in New York, they began to be chaperoned by their aunt, Geneva Williams, rather than their mother. They moved to the islands of Hawaii for five months performing a show, and then moved back to Hollywood to work on musical shorts. In Hollywood, they worked for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and appeared in a short film including Louis Armstrong called Going Places. They then went back to New York to perform at the Cotton Club and other nightclubs and theatres. They eventually went to Europe in 1939 to perform and travel around in cities in England and Ireland. They performed at the London Palladium in a show with the Jack Harris Orchestra and a comedian named Jack Durant. However, Europe was recovering from war at the time and the sisters admitted to many dangers on their trip. When they came back, they hit the height of their stardom in 1940. They toured around with Jimmie Lunceford and his big band orchestra, and recorded four songs with them.
The Sisters' relationship
Vivian Dandridge acted as the leader of the group, in that she arranged all the meetings, rehearsals, and was the group’s spokeswoman. The sisters all mentioned that they spent much of their spare time (when not performing) dancing and making scrapbooks. The three were all seemingly religious (Etta was Catholic) and attended church each Sunday in every city they visited. They claimed to make all of their decisions as a musical trio after consulting in a group, but on the whole, the three girls were very similar. They claimed to have very similar opinions on everything including the way they dressed and their daily habits. They also said that they all preferred to be successful women in their musical career rather than seek out love and marriage.
After the trio broke up and stopped performing together in 1940, Vivian performed in a few movie roles. She was an extra in the movie Stormy Weather, and the voice "So White" in a controversial animated cartoon called Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. She then released an album called The Look of Love in 1968, but it was unsuccessful. She lived in Seattle for the last eight years of her life, but changed her stage name to “Marina Rozell”, after her third marriage. She seldom performed any longer except at open-mic nights. She died at the age of 70 in 1991 from a very sudden stroke.
Dorothy often went by the nickname "Dot" while in the Dandridge Sisters. After quitting the group, Dorothy became the most successful of the trio. She began getting many minor roles in Hollywood films and became known as the African-American Marilyn Monroe. She was the first African-American woman to receive a nomination for an Academy Award for the lead role in the film Carmen Jones in 1954. Porgy and Bess, in which Dorothy played Bess, was another large role for her, after which her career went downhill. Her second marriage, to Jack Denison (after her first husband Harold Nicholas), ended poorly, and she developed an alcohol problem. On September 8, 1965, she was found dead in her apartment, poisoned from an overdose of barbiturates. She had written her will four months earlier and given it to her manager.
Etta Jones was born in 1919 (but is often confused with the other jazz singer Etta Jones born in 1928). She attended both of Dorothy Dandridge’s weddings. Little other information is known about her whereabouts after the splitting up of the Dandridge Sisters.
The sisters performed in a few short films, including:
- The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1936)
- A Day at the Races (1937)
- Easy to Take (1937)
- It Can't Last Forever (1937)
- Going Places (1938)
- Snow Gets in Your Eyes (1938)
- Irene (1940)
The only known recorded songs that the Dandridge Sisters made on vinyl were "Undecided" (1939), and "If I Were Sure Of You" recorded for the Parlophone label while they were in London, and "Minnie the Moocher is Dead", "You Ain’t Nowhere", "Ain’t Goin to Study War No More", and "That’s Your Red Wagon", which they recorded in 1940 with Jimmie Lunceford and his big band orchestra while they were on tour with him.
The Cotton Club
The Cotton Club was a club for white audiences only, but featured many famous African-American entertainers. It was most popular during the prohibition era. At the Cotton Club, The Dandridge Sisters performed alongside many famous African-American artists and entertainers, including Cab Calloway, W. C. Handy, and Harold Nicholas, a dancer who was later to married Dorothy Dandridge (1942–51).
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- "Starring at Cotton Club,"The Chicago Defender, December 3, 1938, p. 19.