Dardanelle: Piano, Vibes + Voice

Before Beyoncé, Madonna and Cher, there was Dardanelle.

Billed solely by her first name starting in the early 1940s, Dardanelle was an enormous talent. She could sing and play jazz piano and vibes, appearing at New York’s tony cocktail bars and lounges in the 1940s and ’50s. Dardanelle had enormous grace and spirit on both instruments and, as a singer, she was good enough for Lionel Hampton to use her at the Cafe Zanzibar on West 49th St. when Dinah Washington was ill. Dardanelle was her stage name.

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Born Marcia Mullen on Dec. 27, 1917 in Avalon, Miss., Dardanelle was groomed as a child to become a concert pianist. Her father never studied or could read music, but he could play anything on the keyboard if he heard it once, especially ragtime. Dardanelle in later years would credit her father for her impeccable execution.

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Dardanelle’s Carnegie Hall aspirations were dashed early when she came down with polio, which weakened her left hand for the demands of classical music. At Louisiana State, she majored in music and played at the local radio station, developing a passion for jazz. When Dardanelle came to New York in the early-1940s, she was signed by Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s manager, who booked her into society clubs such as the Copacabana. During this period, she toured with a trio that included guitarist Tal Farlow. In 1946, Dardanelle was signed by RCA and recorded both lush mood piano and jazzier fare akin to the Nat King Cole Trio.

In the mid-1950s, Dardanelle moved to Chicago and was on staff at WGN-TV. She eventually worked on the station’s children’s show Lunchtime Little Theater, where she was known as Aunt Dody. From the early 1960s until the late ’70s, Dardanelle was off the scene raising a family. Then in the late 1970s, she moved to New Jersey and began appearing again at New York clubs with a trio that included her son “Skip” Hadley on drums. She also performed and recorded with guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, bassist George Duvivier and drummer Grady Tate. In the ’70s and ’80s, she toured in the U.S. and abroad, and appeared at festivals.

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In 1984, Dardanelle moved to Winona, Miss., where she performed and recorded locally, and was an artist in residence at the University of Mississippi. Dardanelle died on Aug. 8, 1997 in Memphis of complications following heart surgery. She was 79.

Here are some of my favorite Dardanelle video clips and tracks:

In 1946, the Dardanelle Trio appeared in a few odd, quasi-stag video jukebox soundies that featured dancing girls. Here’s Happy Cat

Here’s Backtrack

Here’s Dardenelle singing and playing September Song in 1946…

Here’s Dardanelle in 1950 playing Laura from the Piano Moods series on Columbia…


Here’s Dardanelle in 1981 playing and singing I Thought About You

Here’s Dardanelle in 1994 singing and playing When in Rome

And here’s Dardanelle on Marian McPartland’s NPR radio show Piano Jazz in 1984…

A special thanks to Kevin Reitmann.