Dee Dee Belson and the story of unsung singers/artists/sportspersons etc

I heard Dee Dee Belson for the first time today while going through Linda Eder’s Star Search performances. If you’re coming at this from an Indian vantage point, you may not be familiar with Linda Eder but she is a well known Broadway singer and was married to songwriter Frank Wildhorn for a few years. She’s fairly bigtime, so to speak.

But Dee Dee Belson? Let’s get to her. The fact that I haven’t posted a URL for her name probably gives you a hint…

First up, she contested the finals of Star Search in 1988, up against Linda Eder.

Linda Eder sang Looking Through The Eyes of Love, a song originally performed by Melissa Manchester. Linda kept it simple on the surface but added a high section probably sung in whistle register that isn’t there in Melissa’s rendition and also brought forth more warmth. I would suggest you to listen to her renditions of Bring On The Men or Don’t Rain On My Parade to get an idea of how much Linda is singing within herself here. Linda carefully chose a song that would be a walk in the park for her and did full justice to it.

Dee Dee sang Since I Fell For You and performed it with lots of gusto, adding high scat. Perhaps, though, this out of the box and adventurous rendition wasn’t ‘fit to size’ for the platform. Linda’s more accessible approach won the day and she won the finals.

However, as you can tell, Dee Dee’s own performance was brilliant in its own right. The nature of a contest forces judges to pick winners and losers but, really, music isn’t a competition. Dee Dee was expressing herself in her own voice just as Linda was. We can have space for both in this planet. Or can we?

For have a look at their trajectories since then.

Linda’s undefeated run in Star Search caught the attention of Frank Wildhorn, who was then writing songs for famous artists like Patti LaBelle and, yup, Whitney Houston. If you’ve ever heard Where Do Broken Hearts Go, that’s his song. And as the songwriter, I can bet he made more money when the song charted #1 than Whitney did for recording it. But that’s another topic.

Frank had been writing a musical based on the R L Stevenson novel Jekyll & Hyde. He was enchanted by Linda’s voice and cast her in it. From thereon, began a musical collaboration that morphed into a romantic relationship and, eventually, a marriage. He wrote two other plays – Scarlet Pimpernel and Civil War – in which he, again, gave her songs. By and by, Linda became a Broadway star and the play Jekyll and Hyde received Tony Award nominations though it didn’t win any of them. Through this time, Linda appeared on the Rosie O’Donnell show as well as on David Letterman. Told ya, she was fairly big time for a while. She decided, though, that she had had her fill of the fame game and settled down in Upstate New York to raise her son (as well as dogs and horses), performing a more limited schedule for the consumption of fans as opposed to high profile televised events. She wouldn’t have known then, of course, that televising music shows other than the Grammys would become increasingly a thing of the past in the US. She had had her own PBS concert in 1999 anyway (from which the Bring On The Men performance is taken).

So that’s for Linda. As for Dee Dee, she sang songs on the 1990 TV series Cop Rock. One look at its IMDB page should tell you how that worked out.

But that wasn’t her fault, she wasn’t directing the show. She also sang a song on the movie Don’t Tell Her It’s Me.

The movie tanked and the song was never released. But you can hear it here:

As you can tell, she had a beautiful voice. If a song of hers were slipped into the radio in the middle of Celine Dion hits, you wouldn’t think something was remiss. It would fit right in (and note I am not saying she SOUNDS like Celine).

Dee Dee had minor repute as a jazz singer but, as said above, there’s no wikipedia page about her. All I could glean about her work was she made an album named after her on little known Impact Records. According to discogs, the album, made in 1992, was only ever released on cassette.

She died of a heart attack in 2009. She was 49. Yeah.

That’s the long and short of it when it comes to Dee Dee Belson, a Star Search finalist. Star Search was basically a drab and unglamorous version of American Idol (though its format was more like the Sa Re Ga Ma Pa show of old). So, lots of people would have watched the show in 1988. Lots of people would have known her name. Some parents and grandparents would have been telling kids to remember Dee Dee’s name. And yet, she wound up but a mere footnote.

And here’s the kicker. She was the daughter of actress Pearl Bailey. She wasn’t a nobody. She had privilege, she must have had a network. All that isn’t always enough, though.

There was a Tamil movie 12B that imagined two alternative stories that hinge on the protagonist being able to catch the bus (route no. 12B, hence the name). What would the counter history where Dee Dee won Star Search have looked like? Would it have opened more doors for her? And would it have necessarily hurt Linda or would she have still been spotted by Frank Wildhorn? There’s no guarantee. Sunil Gavaskar used to urge rookie players in the Indian cricket team to get a century and not get out in the 80s or 90s. His rationale was that selectors only focused on the centuries and forgot about the near-centuries. Likewise, somewhere, a news article mentioning Linda as the Star Search winner probably impressed Frank enough to pay attention.

So…this is a long winded way of saying that, basically, the world of music doesn’t just revolve around Whitney, Celine, Mariah, Christina or Beyonce. There are so many, oh so many singers out there. And there are many more like Dee Dee that you may never hear of. Many like her of whom you cannot find much to listen to even if you wanted to (as I want to). It’s show business and they show us merely the very tip of the iceberg. They funnel out, often arbitrarily, the stack and select a prized few offerings for our consumption. While this has changed a tad in the streaming era, chances are that unless you are a voracious music nerd like me, you basically think of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande or Katy Perry when you think about contemporary female pop singers. Oh, and Billie Ellish. Sorry.

And it’s that way just about everywhere. You’ll never hear about wonderful theater actors who never made it to the big time unless YOU were personally there marvelling at their performances.

It’s that way in sport too. I have once watched two women slug it out ferociously in the finals of a $25000 tennis event held here in Navi Mumbai. It was absolutely fantastic to watch. Amateur players in the city (like myself) gathered to watch it and we marvelled at how hard they were hitting the ball, harder than we could ever hope to. It was like they were from a different planet.

And YET, both players were ranked between 200 and 300. I cannot remember their names anymore though I think one was from Serbia and the other from Russia. And no, neither of them made it, neither of them could break through to the big league.

But at least there is a semblance of fairness in sports. Their ranking was a true reflection of where they stood. Had either player come up against Serena Williams, she would have won without lifting a finger, that’s how good SHE is. We can, of course, debate how some players enjoy privileges and facilities in their formative years that others don’t (though the Williams sisters grew up in Compton so…). But other things being equal, the sporting world simply rewards who is the best on the day, in the match. That’s more objective than the best corporate performance appraisal systems you’ll find.

That can’t be said of the art world. Who makes the cut and who doesn’t can depend on extremely subjective factors and even just plain dumb luck. Being at the right place at the right time counts for more than talent. Which sounds fair enough but the thing is even the artist may not realize they are at the right place at the right time. They may often simply tap serendipitously into the zeitgeist. One can, again, find exceptions to this rule. Stevie Wonder made it through sheer force of talent as did Ilayaraja, as did Rahman and so on.

But what is more frequently observed is the 12B syndrome. Where a single event and its outcome may perhaps define your future and to a disproportionate extent. And where it may not even be necessarily something you did wrong. Dee Dee Belson poured her heart out that evening on Star Search. And it wasn’t enough. Yet, who can hold it against Linda Eder either – a consummate mistress of technique who has proved herself more than worthy of the prize? Yes, it’s complicated. I mean, it’s complicated for me, a huge Linda Eder fanboy, so imagine what those who may not have been so fond of her singing and who knew Dee Dee well would feel about it.

2 Responses to “Dee Dee Belson and the story of unsung singers/artists/sportspersons etc”

  1. Anonymous Violin Says:

    Great article!

    Loved this part:
    “While this has changed a tad in the streaming era, chances are that unless you are a voracious music nerd like me, you basically think of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande or Katy Perry when you think about contemporary female pop singers. Oh, and Billie Ellish. Sorry.”

    Amazing how even with all the music and media in the world available to anyone with an internet connection, it’s all still consolidated in the hands of a top few. Probably related to the Paradox Of Choice and needing to take comfort in the familiar.
    Personally I’ve experienced this with streaming shows. Why invest in watching another show, not knowing whether it’ll be good, when you can watch that funny episode of the Office for the 45th time.

    As for the 12 effect, one thing I’ve always wondered was:
    What if Rahman had taken that Berklee offer and left Roja?

    Would be have never debuted?
    Would IR have reigned supreme for another 10 years?
    Would IR have been succeeded by Karthik Raja? Yuvan? Vidya Sagar?

  2. Madan Says:

    ” Probably related to the Paradox Of Choice and needing to take comfort in the familiar.” – Yup, faced with more choice, casual users may revert even more to the familiar, if anything. In a way, this is how it’s always been as well. I didn’t know until I became a music nerd that the 90s had such brilliant acts as Radiohead, Jamiroquai, Brand New Heavies, Tori Amos, etc. In the 90s, that decade looked like the decade of MJ, Madonna, Whitney, Celine, etc.

    “What if Rahman had taken that Berklee offer and left Roja?” – Yup, and Rahman has even mentioned that the pay he got for composing the music of Roja was lower than what he was earning in jingles. So he might well have decided this isn’t worth so much trouble and walked away. We might still have come to know about Rahman but maybe as a jazz star or as a renowned professor in Berklee. I don’t think someone with Rahman’s talent could have been suppressed as long as he was doing something related to music. But yes, him landing the Roja gig just as he was mulling over Berklee changed the course of Tamil music. IR would have still been running out of assignments because much of it had to do with his tiff with Balachander. But it would have been at a slower rate. And Rahman’s success seemed to buoy others like Deva or Vidyasagar in a way that may not have happened in this alternative scenario. So…even if Annamalai went to Deva because of the KB factor, not only Veera but Baasha as well may have gone to IR. While there’s a slight cold war between IR and Rajni, I think Rajni would have been too practical to outright break with him without Rahman pulling the carpet from under IR’s feet.

    We can go on. Maybe without Rahman, IR would have let Karthik take over the reins completely and tried to bag more opportunities like the unreleased symphony. Yes, it’s possible that two of Tamil music’s titans may have exited/not entered it in the 90s but for Roja.

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