One of rock’s more prominent female singers throughout the Nineteen-Fifties who had extended stints with two record companies – Savoy and RCA/Groove – just as the former was on the way down as major players in the field and the latter were still struggling to gain a footing beyond a single headliner.

Varetta Dillard was born in 1933 and spent much of her childhood struggling with a congenital leg condition requiring extensive surgery to allow her to walk. Singing provided a creative outlet for her physical struggles and in the summer of 1951 she won two amateur contests at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, drawing the notice of Savoy’s Lee Magid who signed her to a contract and had her in the studio before the fall, releasing her debut a month later.

Though she possessed a strong natural voice and showed good control and technique from the start, she never really developed her own style and at the urging of Magid her records became increasingly reliant on replicating the sounds of others who were popular at the time, most notably Ruth Brown who was her favorite singer and not coincidentally the most popular female rock act of the day. Her chameleon-like approach was impressive technically but never allowed her to establish an image of her own to draw listeners and even her biggest hits were at risk for being thought of having come from another act altogether. Her final hit was the exploitative “Johnny Has Gone” wherein she mourns the loss of rock idol Johnny Ace after his Russian Roulette shooting death on Christmas 1954.

With Savoy’s commitment to rock ‘n’ roll growing weaker each year as their once mighty roster of talent in that department left and they weren’t able to replace them with stars of the same magnitude, Dillard’s sporadic success with them – three Top Ten hits in four years – at least ensured she’s have plenty of opportunities to release records. When her contract came up in 1956 she switched over to RCA who first put her on their Groove subsidiary that had been designed to house the bulk of their rock acts. But when their other big signing at the time, Elvis Presley, rocketed to the top on the major label, it meant the black artists on Groove were not given quite the same priority and her records failed to click.

RCA soon shuttered the Groove label for another called Vik, but Dillard managed to impress someone there enough to be “called up” to RCA itself where her lack commercial returns continued. By 1959 her career as a potential star was over and she released some records on smaller labels over the next few years before joining her husband in a group that frequented Greenwich Village clubs called The Tri-Odds in the early 1960’s. Without much demand for minor artists whose only national hits were more than a decade old by that point, Dillard’s career as a professional singer came to an end sometime in the mid-1960’s.

Dillard passed away in 1993 at the age of sixty, maybe not completely forgotten by history but still mostly an obscurity to the majority of rock fans who came of age after her brief brush with fame in the early 1950’s.
VARETTA DILLARD DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Savoy 822; October, 1951)
Though Dillard puts in a good showing vocally the song’s arrangement is not doing her any favors while the musical choices are rather messy in its construction as well, and as a result the record doesn’t make much of an impression beyond a good voice at its core. (5)

(Savoy 822; October, 1951)
A song which is far too straightforward lyrically for its own good, robbing Dillard of the chance to explore any underlying meanings on the subject despite a good performance with what she has to work with, while the band is hardly adding anything notable of their own. (5)

(Savoy 839; February, 1952)
A good vocal in what we assume is her natural voice can’t overcome the pop-jazz leanings shown in the arrangement capped off by a truly weak alto sax solo which undercuts the performance of Dillard who shows good controlled power on a decent composition. (4)

(Savoy 839; February, 1952)
A livelier and more appropriate backing track by the same musicians comes across well as Dillard turns in her patented Ruth Brown imitation and sounds fairly good in the process, but it’s never smart to copy someone else which only ensures you’ll suffer by comparison. (5)

(Savoy 847; May, 1952)
The pinnacle of Dillard’s Ruth Brown impression on a song written by Rudy Toombs who gave Brown so many of her hits, with this racy come-on wherein Dillard is in complete control of the song and situation within, showing she learned her lessons well studying the best. (8)

(Savoy 847; May, 1952)
A nice change of pace – and change of persona – as Dillard uses her own natural voice to deliver a generic old school rock record from the days when the juke joint crowd was the most visible audience while Mickey Baker’s guitar adds plenty of color. (4)

(Savoy 851; June, 1952)
It’s never a very promising sight to have an up and coming rock singer forced to cover two pop hits on a single, but unlike the flip which suffers from a bad arrangement she does more with this than all of the pop versions put together while even the re-worked music lends a hand. (4)

(Savoy 859; August, 1952)
A thorough re-working of a jazz standard that is made all but unrecognizable in Dillard’s capable hands as she romps through this with confidence that wasn’t apparent in other versions while the band matches her every step of the way with an arrangement that defines the rock attitude. (8)

(Savoy 859; August, 1952)
Though it’s nice to see Dillard get a chance to sing a song she wrote herself in her own natural voice which remains strong here, the song itself is rather generic and the arrangement is not doing it any favors with the horns clashing with the rhythm section. (4)

(Savoy 865; September, 1952)
Though her credited appearance on this H-Bomb Ferguson record amounts to little more than a cameo on what is a pretty stale song, it’s still Varetta who provides the best moment with her snarky spoken interjection mid-way through. (4)

(Savoy 871; November, 1952)
Though it’s another blatant attempt to channel Ruth Brown thanks in large part to using the same songwriter, Rudy Toombs, this is a good song and performance even if Dillard surely wishes she got to sing it using her own natural voice. (7)

(Savoy 871; November, 1952)
Maybe the vocal tics drawn from Ruth Brown are slightly downplayed here, but they’re still visible which can’t help but detract from what otherwise isn’t a bad effort even if the arrangement pulls in too many stylistic directions at once. (6)