Dawn Hampton was brought up in a family of entertainers in Ohio that toured and played jazz and dance music. Dawn was introduced into the act as a singer at the age of three, and eventually joined the instrumental part of the family band as a saxophone player.
In the 1950s, Dawn Hampton and sisters Aletra, Virtue, and Carmelita would break off from the family act to record together as The Hampton Sisters.
Dawn Hampton worked on Broadway for a while and tried her hand as a solo singer before surgery on her vocal chords in 1964 limited her vocal range.
She then took on the demanding artform of cabaret singing for the next two decades. Even with limited vocal range, she was able to connect with the smaller and more intimate audiences that cabaret licensing laws in New York City afforded them. One reviewer called her “The Queen of Cabaret.”
On the side, she began teaching the kind of vernacular jazz partner dance that she loved as a child, swing dance. She was selected to help with the choreography for one of the opening scenes for the Spike Lee movie Malcolm X, then she began a third act in her entertainment life as a dance teacher.
I first met Dawn Hampton in Washington Square Park in the late 2000s. The party was a collection of seemingly unconnected and dispirate folks. There was a rollerblader with a gossamer outfit that made her look like a silver hummingbird. There were people dressed in grass skirts, others in 1940s-era garb.
Even in that crowd, Dawn Hampton stood out. She wore a sequined cap with silver shoes and a hand-lettered sweatshirt with a motivational saying on it.
Later that evening, we danced in a small space catty-corner from Madison Square Garden. For being eighty-something years old, she did everything well. Heck, for any age, she did everything well.
After our dance, she hugged me. I thanked her.
We’d run into each other every once in a while at events along the mid-Atlantic, and she’d treat me like an old friend even though I barely knew her.
Dawn Hampton died late yesterday. As one of the last living legends of swing dance, a significant voice has been lost. Fortunately, a short documentary on the Hampton Family Band has preserved her voice and thoughts. Take some time to watch this.