Varetta Dillard was born in Harlem and attended Morris High School in the Bronx. Dillard’s popularity arose through her appearances on the Apollo’s “Amateur Night in Harlem” show beginning in the 1940s.
New Jersey-based Savoy Records signed the promising young singer in 1951, and she quickly did well for the label. She was most famous for “Easy, Easy Baby,” (1952) and “Mercy, Mr. Percy” (1953), both of which performed well on the R&B charts and helped to raise her national profile. She soon began performing at clubs across the country.
Dillard’s most (in)famous rock and roll performance never actually occurred: she was slated to take part in Alan Freed’s “Moondog Coronation Ball” in Cleveland in March of 1952. The event, which devolved into chaos and had to be called off after the first act after tickets were oversold, is sometimes dubbed the “first rock concert” in history books. Although Dillard never got to perform that night, her name was part of the advertising. She did later appear without incident in several rock and roll and R&B package shows: she shared a bill with or supported artists like Lloyd Price, Bill Haley, Lillian Briggs, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. She was well-known enough that Walter Winchell noted in his column when she had a daughter in 1954. Dillard also gained some notice in the trade press for her 1955 record “Johnny Has Gone,” which memorialized young R&B singer Johnny Ace.
In the 1960s, Dillard performed with her husband Ronald Mack in a group called the Tri-Odds, which drew on both gospel and spoken word influences. While the Tri-Odds appeared on local television in New York, it does not appear they ever recorded. Dillard largely retired from show business after that. She died of cancer in 1993 at age 60.
“Easy, Easy Baby” / “A Letter In Blues.” Savoy 847 (1952).
“Mercy, Mr. Percy” / “No Kinda Good, No How.” Savoy 45-897 (1953).
“Johnny Has Gone” / “So Many Ways.” Savoy 45-1153 (1955).
Valena Williams, “Call & Post Woman’s Editor Caught in Wild Melee as: Moon Doggers ‘Break it Up’,” Cleveland Call and Post, 29 March 1952.
“‘Variety’ Is Key of Apollo Revue,” New York Age, 17 October 1953.
Advertisement, Atlanta Constitution, 2 September 1954, 21.
Walter Winchell, “No Happy Faces,” Longview News-Journal (Texas), 21 December 1954.
“This Week’s Best Buys,” Billboard, 19 February 1955, 53.
Advertisement, Akron Beacon Journal, 10 May 1956, 39.
Barbara Delatiner, “Audition Show Was Too Real,” Nassua Newsday, 6 July 1964.
“Obituaries: Varetta Dillard,” Daily News (New York), 8 Oct 1993.