Credit: <br/>Courtesy Sasha Daltonn

Sasha Daltonn (alternately spelled Dalton) is a Chicago-based singer, writer, and producer, and in 1985 she founded what is now known as the Chicago Gospel Music Festival. This summer, she’ll publish her latest book, Unplugged: The Untold Story of Chicago’s Gospel Music Festival—just in time for the city to honor her at the Chicago in Tune gospel showcase in Millennium Park on September 3.

As told to Jamie Ludwig

I’m a product of Hyde Park. Hyde Park High School counts me as an alumni, but I actually graduated from Central YMCA because they didn’t have any gym classes and I was afraid to swim. My mother’s sister was a singer named Mary Brooks. She and her husband had an act in the early 50s, and I’d sometimes travel with them during summer vacation. They’d teach me a song or dance and make me part of their show. I always wanted to be in show business.

In 1979, the Bilandic administration introduced the Artists in Residence Program (AIR) to provide full-time employment for artists. I was hired as a singer, and I later developed several artistic programs. We performed and provided art programming for the schools, the Chicago Park District, seniors, and more. When I left, I started my own theater company called Chicago Enrichment Theater, which provided similar services.

I’ve always believed that education is possible through the arts, specifically theater, and my passion for sharing Black history led me to write Runnin’ With the Eight Ball, a show about three boys who are thinking about dropping out of school. Over a lively game of pool with Bronzeville seniors, they get a great lesson on the Black history of Chicago, from Jean Baptiste DuSable to Harold Washington. I included a flashback of the Club DeLisa, which had been at 55th and State. It’s always compared to New York’s Cotton Club, and well-known celebrity entertainers performed there.

I wrote the show to appeal to students, but adults started coming, and they loved the segment on the DeLisa. This led to my idea for a show about the club. I found the son of owner Mike DeLisa and asked for his permission. I began researching the club and the artists who performed there, including Dinah Washington—but I couldn’t find as much about her as the others. My interest in her story piqued, I started writing a show called Dinah and Her Music. She was from Chicago. I met her mother and sisters and interviewed everyone here who knew her. I was becoming obsessed.

There hadn’t been a show on Dinah Washington, although she was the most-recorded Black female from 1943 until her death in 1963. I finally found a young lady I thought would be perfect to portray her. As I gave her all this information, she said, “All I want to know is how much you’re going to pay me.” I was so upset I snatched the script and said, “I’ll do it myself.” I changed the name of the show to Sasha Sings Dinah. I had no plans to sing. My one-woman show Madame Hortense had been nominated for the Joseph Jefferson Citation (for best actress), but I was never as passionate about singing as I was about developing shows and producing. Now I’ve opened my big mouth, and I’ve got to do this show.

My mother supported everything I did, but she wasn’t that interested in me being an entertainer. She thought I should complete college, get a job teaching school, and maybe do this on the side. But she came to opening night on June 8, 1980, and said, “Oh, honey, I can see that this is going to be great for you.” That night there was a fire in her home, and she was overcome by smoke. Those were the last words I ever heard her speak. She died that November from the effects of smoke inhalation—I’m only now able to talk about what happened.

The show was a big success. It ran for 18 months, and when it closed I was tired. I’d never properly mourned my mother’s death. A New York producer, Woodie King, introduced himself to me on closing night and said, “You need to be in New York.” I just wanted to go home and rest, but I could hear my mother’s voice in my head saying “this is going to be great for you,” so I agreed.

While King raised financing for the show, the Harold Washington mayoral campaign was gaining support. The groundswell for a Black mayor began with Jane Byrne’s broken promises to the Black community, who she had promised to support during her campaign. When Reverend Jesse Jackson mentioned this to her, she told him that she didn’t owe them anything. He reported this on the radio, and a caller suggested boycotting ChicagoFest, a 12-day music festival at Navy Pier that also raised money for the city. They booked all the top artists, including Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra. When Reverend Jackson called for a boycott, Stevie Wonder was the first artist to join. A lot of artists boycotted that year. Some performed under protest. Some would say the boycott wasn’t a success, but it was; the city lost millions of dollars. It was one of the things that fuelled Washington’s journey to becoming mayor in 1983.

During the campaign, I volunteered with a group called Artists for Washington. After the election, I went to New York to do my show Dinah! Queen of the Blues, but I came back to Chicago to accompany my aunt at a fundraising event.

During that trip I attended a private party for Mayor Washington. I knew that in 1973, he’d introduced a bill in the state legislature to make Illinois the first state to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday as a provisional holiday. At this party, I said, “Next year Dr. King’s birthday will be a national holiday. Why don’t you get a jump on the nation again and do a big Dr. King event? You can have an all-day celebration and a meeting with the gangs under the banner of nonviolence and end with a concert.”

He said, “That’s a good idea. We can start with an interfaith breakfast. You’ve got to do this.” I said, “Oh no, I’m going back to New York next week.” But I stayed. The Dr. King celebration began with the first Dr. King Interfaith Breakfast, followed by an all-day event at Medinah Temple. We brought Chicago gang leaders and some of their troops together for a discussion on nonviolence with Oprah Winfrey and Stevie Wonder, moderated by John Davis of CBS Channel 2. Stevie Wonder performed that evening in concert.

After the event, I was preparing the final report and about to return to New York when a gentleman from the Illinois Arts Council came to my office. He was trying to get the Governor’s Award for the Arts for Professor Thomas Dorsey, and the committee wanted more recommendations. I didn’t know that Professor Dorsey was still alive, but I said OK and I wrote two letters, one for me and one for the mayor, on his behalf.

After the governor approved the award in March 1985, I suggested that the mayor do something bigger. He asked, “What do you think?” I said, “Do a gospel festival and call it the Dorsey Gospel Festival.” He said, “That’s a brilliant idea, Sasha! When do you want to do it?” I said, “I don’t want to do it at all, but it should be done over Father’s Day weekend, since he’s the father of gospel music.” He said, “Can you do it that fast?” I said, “No, I’m going back to New York.” But he said it was my idea and I had to do it. I returned to the Special Events office, only to be informed that the city could only provide $5,000 and city services. The Dorsey festival would be part of the mayor’s new Neighborhood Festival Program, which replaced Jane Byrne’s ChicagoFest and supported neighborhoods in producing their own events. We decided to present it at the South Shore Country Club (now South Shore Cultural Center).

When I was the point person for the Dr. King breakfast, people from the religious community were upset because I wasn’t really connected to the religious community. I was known as a jazz singer, and now the city was doing a gospel festival and they put a jazz singer over it. Some demanded my removal, but the mayor said no.

Now that I had to do this gospel festival, I was nervous. It would be impossible for anyone to produce a gospel festival without support from the religious community—let alone with only $5,000. I thought, “I need to form a committee, exactly like Washington’s campaign committee, to help build this festival.”

First, I went to Reverend Clay Evans, the most respected Black minister in the city and known as “Chicago’s pastor.” He agreed to support this effort. Then I went to Jim Fletcher, the president of Shore Bank, and he found us a sponsor. Then I went to Albertina Walker, the most prominent, most well-known gospel artist in the city, and I asked her to join my committee.

I went to other people who had been involved with the Washington campaign who were movers and shakers with a commitment to doing something right and understood the importance of the event. We weren’t only honoring Professor Dorsey—this was a major event introduced by the first Black mayor of the city, and it needed to be outstanding.

The crowd at the fifth Chicago Gospel Festival, held in Grant Park in 1989
The crowd at the fifth Chicago Gospel Festival, held in Grant Park in 1989Credit: Courtesy Sasha Daltonn

The first year we had 35,000 people at the South Shore Country Club. I had pulled off in two months what usually takes nine or ten months to a year. The second year there were so many people they couldn’t all get in. We couldn’t contain the crowds anymore. So the third year, 1987, we moved it to Grant Park and renamed it the Chicago Gospel Festival.

At that point we had to deliver an audience of at least 60,000 people a day to be considered successful, because now we were considered a major Chicago event and we’d be compared to the Blues and the Jazz Festivals. We had to expand our thinking to reach an audience of that size. We had two stages with 16 hours of programming, and we had to be all-inclusive. That year I brought in Clifton Davis, who starred on the TV show Amen, Billy Preston, who everybody—Black, white, Hispanic—knew and loved, and singer Linda Hopkins. I brought in white artists. Mayor Washington said he was mayor for all Chicago, so all Chicago communities and ethnic groups were represented. The fifth year, 1989, was my last year, and it was the biggest festival in the history of Chicago. We featured an excerpt of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated production The Gospel at Colonus, and our attendance was over 100,000 people.

Gospel music brings people together. I objected to the idea of combining the Gospel and Blues Festivals because they had different audiences. But blues people like gospel, jazz people like gospel, and gospel people like blues and jazz music. One reason I think we were successful is that we brought all kinds of people together under one umbrella. We never had a problem.

It became something revolutionary. We weren’t the only gospel event, but to my knowledge we were the only city that presented a gospel festival and had the attendance we had—and it was free.

I’m still involved with the gospel community today and attend the Apostolic Church of God. I’m on the board of directors of the Gospel According to Chicago (GMAC) and occasionally sing with the Dr. Lou Della Evans-Reid Gospel Choir. While I’m no longer affiliated with the Gospel Festival, commissioner Mark Kelly felt I should be honored as the festival’s founder. I’m very grateful for that, and I appreciate the city sincerely. Founding the Chicago Gospel Music Festival is a blessing and one of the highlights of my life. So is the Dr. King Interfaith Breakfast, which I produced for five years.

It’s been a spiritual journey for me. You never know where you’ll end up when you start down a path. I eventually went back to school to finish my degree, and I started working on a master’s in ministry. And I started my own company, Royal Productions; we’ve designed, produced, and booked major events, served as talent coordinators, and booked major talent.

The industry has changed so much, but I still say trust your gut. There’s nothing like a good idea. If you have an idea, explore it, give it all you have, and put people together who can help you. No man is an island. Surround yourself with like-minded people and keep the faith. Eventually your dream will be realized—dreams are the seedlings of reality.  v