Dottie Smith, 87, of Strawberry Mansion, a jazz singer who recorded and toured with the bandleader Louis Jordan in the 1950s and '60s and later owned a nightclub in North Philadelphia, died Thursday, Dec. 27, of cancer at her home.
Mrs. Smith grew up singing in a church choir, but began performing secular music after striking up a friendship with Beryl Booker, a jazz pianist. During a club performance in Philadelphia in the 1940s, Booker called on Mrs. Smith to sing.
Her rich vocals and stunning looks wowed the audience, which included Percy Joel, bassist with the Harlemaires, a vocal and instrumental group. A month later, Mrs. Smith was performing with the quartet at the Baby Grand in New York.
A few years after that, she similarly grabbed the attention of Jordan, one of the top bandleaders. Mrs. Smith joined his band, touring and recording with the ensemble for about a decade.
"She was quite an entertainer," said Bob Perkins, a local jazz historian and DJ. "She was a great lady."
Toni Rose, a drummer and a longtime friend, said Mrs. Smith "was a stylist. . . . She had her own particular sound."
In an article he wrote for The Inquirer in 2001, Perkins described Mrs. Smith as a chanteuse with an alluring stage presence.
"In the spotlight, she is one minute as stately and in control as Ella; then, with a boa draped around her neck and a hankie in hand (à la Sophie Tucker) she may tease her audience with a mildly risque lyric, accompanied by a sly glance and a bump of the hip (which her drummer always acknowledges with an appropriate thump)."
Dorothy Hawes was born on March 27, 1925, in Wilmington, N.C. She moved with her family to Philadelphia about five years later. She was raised in North Philadelphia and graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls.
In the 1940s, she married Johnnie Smith, with whom she had two children. He died a few years later.
After her stint with the Harlemaires, Mrs. Smith was performing at Spider Kelly's, a nightclub not far from the Earle Theatre at 11th and Market Streets, where Jordan was playing.
One night Jordan saw her performing at the nightclub and offered her a job on the spot.
"Well, here I was a young woman already dancing to his hits 'Caldonia' and 'Saturday Night Fish Fry,' and he wanted me to join him? It was a no-brainer," she told Perkins in 2001.
She joined Jordan's Tympany Five and would share the stage with Sammy Davis Jr., Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, and others.
With Jordan, she performed in cities across the country for a decade and appeared on the TV shows of Patti Page, Perry Como, and Steve Allen.
In 1959, she married businessman Jesse Roger Gayle, who died in the 1980s. The couple had two children. In the early 1960s, Mrs. Smith returned to Philadelphia to raise her family.
She also opened a nightclub, La Gayla, on what is now Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
Mrs. Smith continued to perform until about a year ago.
She was a board member of Bravo Health, a health services company for senior citizens.
She was one of seven women in Philadelphia who in the early 1980s founded the John W. Coltrane Cultural Society, dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Philadelphia saxophonist.
A daughter, Gail Gayle, said Mrs. Smith enjoyed cooking and preparing meals for her family and others.
"She loved to cook. She called it 'switchin' in the kitchen,' " Gayle said.
On Christmas, about a dozen Philadelphia-area jazz musicians gathered at her house to celebrate and reminisce.
"That was her last party," Rose said. "And it was a good one."
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Smith is survived by a son, Roger Gayle; daughters Gwendolyn Smith and Irene Smith; and 11 grandchildren.
A viewing will be held Saturday, Jan. 5, from 9 to 11 a.m. at Shiloh Apostolic Temple, 1500 W. Master St. A funeral will follow at 11 a.m. Burial will be in Mount Peace Cemetery.