Karen Dalton 1937 - 1992
I was introduced to Karen Dalton’s music by Ronnie Scott in 1971. He had just returned from New York where he was supposed to be tracking down new talent to ship over to the club. He struck gold, at least as far as I was concerned.
“You should listen to this” he said, offering me a dull brown L.P. “I saw her sing in The Village and she gave me her record. Mind you, we can’t have her over, she’s too blasted”. I listened. Then I listened again. I played it to friends who tried to snaffle it. People copied it on reel to reel tape decks. We had a small fan club. Her voice is haunting, in the same way that Billie Holiday’s is. Everyone is compared to Billie Holiday, but in my opinion Karen Dalton is in a direct line. They both have a voice that is broken and whole at the same time, expressing the eternal desired paradox of the woman who is both strong and vulnerable. The sound, horn-like, keening, with little vibrato, often delivered high in the face, is common to both of them. Neither use melismatic style to protect their pitch, or volume to aid expression.
I have chosen ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ by Karen Dalton, and ‘When a Woman Loves a Man’ by Billie Holiday. I just couldn’t resist the unity of the titles. It is likely you will know the first, though the second was never a very well known Holiday number. Listen to those bell-like notes in each, the crispness of the enunciation and the absolutely wonderful pull behind the beat.
Karen was Bob Dylan’s favourite singer: he said of her that she was ‘funky, lanky and sultry’. She came to a tragic end, dying on the streets of New York after losing her children, her teeth and her mind. She drank heavily, used heavily and didn’t want to be saved. I still have her album that Ronnie Scott gave me: from her hand, to his hand, to mine. If you buy only one left field album this year, make it In My Own Time by Karen Dalton. I sing her praises.