Dolly Durante - Performer
BMHOF Class of 2015
Call it a West Side variation on the Cinderella story. When Dolly Durante was a teenager she lived in a strict Italian-American house. There was no pop music, so she had to hide her record player under her bed.
And as the baby of the family, she wasn’t really allowed out at night. But she had heard about a group called the Midniters, and they were playing at the Riptide on Connecticut Street in her native West Side.
“I really I wanted to see this group, so I snuck out. My mother knew it, but she said, ‘if you’re father catches you…’ and she would bite her hand,” Durante said. “She said, ‘come right home, come right home.’
“I remember going in there, and they had blue lights and you could see all the flaws. I heard this three-piece band. Tommy Burruano was kicking bass with his left hand, piano with his right, his brother (Sam Burruano) is playing organ, RichieCalandra is doing drums.
“My girlfriend said, ‘this girl can sing!’ and they asked, ‘what do you like?’ I said ‘Dedicated,’ so I remember getting up there and singing ‘This Is Dedicated to the One I Love.’
“Richie Calandra said, ‘we’ve got to hire her. Don’t let her get away!’”
So instead of a glass slipper, Dolly Durante got a job. And when her new band mates came calling, they met her father. And his shotgun.
Durante’s father agreed to let his daughter perform with the Midniters, but he made sure the older guys saw the shotgun behind him on his porch.
“You know what I gotta over here? You take-a my daughter, and you bring her back,” said her father, a bricklayer from Italy. And the band paid attention.
So Durante started her career with some of the best – Calandra is in the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame and the Burruanos were also well known. And while the story might now exactly qualify for full happily-ever-after status, she was on her way to working with the likes of Ike Turner, Stevie Wonder, Muhummad Ali, Andrae Crouch and Buddy Miles.
Two of the 45s Durante recorded in the 1960s are collectibles, highly prized on the English “northern soul” scene. She released them under the name Paula Durante (Dolly’s official name is Adeline Paula Durante), recording them at Tommy Calandra’s Poultney Street studio.
Over the next decade, Durante sang with some of Western New York’s top rock and soul aggregations, including Chick & the Diplomats, December, Posse, Scratch and Stan & the Ravens. She was both a singer and dancer on Marty Angelo’s “Disco Step-By-Step” TV show.
Her next step was a move to California, where she worked with Mike Costley (a Buffalo native who has since become a music institution in Palm Springs). She was singing with Costley in Palm Springs, in fact, when a guy approached her and told her Ike Turner would like to meet with her in the back room.
“I said, ‘yeah, right.’ But I went in the back room, and there was Ike Turner. He said, do you want some studio work, and I said, ‘Absolutely. I could use the money.” Through the studio work there, I met Stevie Wonder, Lou Rawls, and Buddy Miles was looking for a female lead vocalist.”
Durante wound up playing a key role in the Buddy Miles Regiment “Sneak Attack” double album, doing second lead vocals and horn arrangement. But Miles – who was on parole during the recording process – was busted for drugs again not long after the album was finished and went back to jail.
She also performed on a tour that Muhammad Ali did to raise money for opera.
She was modeling for a New York City agency at the time, when she was invited to Ali’s home in California to audition.
“He wanted me to sing opera on his shows. He raised money for opera. He was a great believer in opera,” Durante said. “It was his passion.”
She took the entire modeling corps with her to Ali’s mansion.
“He made me sing. He said, ‘I want you to pick a song with no music. I want you to sing.’ … Then he said, ‘I want you to be on my show.’ Then he said, ‘now I’m going to do a magic show,’ and he sat us all down. He presented a rose to me, which I still have.”
Her experiences with Turner were entirely positive, despite his tawdry reputation from his marriage to Tina Turner.
“He was always good to me. He trusted me and my sister with money and jewelry. We would read the Bible to him. He’d tell us stories about when he was a little boy, what they had to do to survive. I think he deserves a little more credit than he’s been getting.
“He taught me how to run a 24-track studio board. He would bring us in the studio and teach use things. I never saw that other side.”
But along the way there were opportunities that Durante passed on because they just didn’t feel right. She turned down a chance to tour with a major ‘70s rock band because there were just too many drugs around. She recorded with SpyroGyra, but the project faded after her collaborator Richie Calandra died. And she was a potential Mary Jane Girl with Rick James, but just couldn’t see herself “dying my hair, cutting it short and wearing garter belts.”
Durante returned to Buffalo because of family concerns in the mid-1980s and has remained her since. But she’s never stopped singing.
Along the way she has performed with Lance Diamond (including backing the Goo Goo Dolls), Terry Sullivan & the Headhunters and Urban Renewal. These days she can frequently be heard performing with Sammy Slicker & the National Trust or on the R&B All-Star Gala shows put on by Sam Guarino and Nick Veltri.
And the real happy ending for this fairy tale story? Cinderella’s never stopped singing.
(Profile by Elmer Ploetz)