Clea Bradford, 67; Jazz Singer Was Known for Her Versatility

Singer Clea Bradford once referred to herself as a
Singer Clea Bradford once referred to herself as a "huge twinkle" rather than a big music star. (File Photo)
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By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Clea Bradford, 67, a versatile jazz singer who toured the Soviet Union with Earl "Fatha" Hines and recorded with Clark Terry in the 1960s, died Aug. 19 of complications from breast cancer at Holy Cross Hospital. She lived in Silver Spring.

Ms. Bradford, who settled into a second career as a voice coach in the Washington area after two decades of touring, was not a big star but a "huge twinkle," as she once joked to The Washington Post, and was a favorite of critics. She performed locally in the 1970s and '80s, and reviewers found her compelling, noting her range, versatility and hornlike phrasing.

"Clea Bradford has been compared to other vocalists but the equation fails on two counts," former Washington Post critic W. Royal Stokes wrote. "One, despite surface similarities, she is not an imitation. Two, attentive listening reveals that her craft derives from horn players rather than singers."

Critics commented on her striking looks as well as her vocal expertise. She was almost 6 feet tall with high cheekbones and long straight hair, characteristics that she attributed to her mixture of Choctaw Indian and Ethiopian ancestry.

Her first album, "These Dues," a collection of jazz standards on which she was accompanied by trumpeter Terry and a rhythm section, was recorded in 1961. It was followed in 1965 with the heavily orchestrated "Clea Bradford Now."

Her later albums included "Her Point of View," which combined her jazz stylings with soul arrangements by Richard Evans. Her composition from that album, "My Love's a Monster," was a regional R&B hit in the Midwest and had recently become a club favorite of British club DJs.

In the '60s, Ms. Bradford toured as a mainstay of the Playboy Club chain of nightclubs with St. Louis as her home base. She was often billed with guitarist Kenny Burrell and appeared on "The Joey Bishop Show" and the CBS Jazz Workshop.

In 1966, she was featured with pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines on a 35-show tour of the Soviet Union sponsored by the State Department. While fondly recalling the Soviet audiences' enthusiasm, she told jazz critic Leonard Feather it was a difficult tour with an unrehearsed band.

Clea Annah Ethell Bradford was born while her parents were traveling in Mississippi and spent her earliest years in Charleston, Mo. Her father, a Baptist minister, encouraged her to sing in his church choir, and by age 13 she was its lead singer.

After the family moved to St. Louis, her neighbors included tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest. The jam sessions and rehearsals at his house included such jazz luminaries as Miles Davis, Oliver Nelson and Terry. Forrest encouraged Ms. Bradford to sit in with his combo at a high school prom, and although underage, she appeared with Forrest and bluesman Ike Turner in nightclubs. She later worked as a featured vocalist with the Quartette Tres Bien in the early '60s.

Ms. Bradford moved to the Washington area from Los Angeles in 1975. Her local engagements included the nightclubs One Step Down and Charlie's of Georgetown, where she devoted entire shows to the repertoires of Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington.

After moving to Washington, Ms. Bradford increasingly concentrated on teaching voice and interpretation to novice singers.

Her interests included Native American culture, and in recent years she formally changed her name to Bradford-Silverlight, a reflection of her Choctaw heritage. She belonged to the American Federation of Musicians and was a member of Faith Community Baptist Church in Silver Spring.

Her marriages to Robert Wilson and Henley Foster ended in divorce.

Survivors include her sister, Motown songwriter Janie Bradford of Beverly Hills, Calif.; two children from her first marriage, Glenda Smith of Dupo, Ill., Larry Wilson of Missouri City, Tex.; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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