Harriet Dickson has plenty of stories. She can tell you about the time she performed on a radio show in New York when she was just six years old, or when she survived civil war in Iran, or the years she spent as close friends with Sammy Davis Jr.
But now, at 79 years old, this great grandmother has another story to tell and it's about the new album of some of her favorite songs that she recently recorded. Dickson has done a lot with her life and played a variety of roles, ranging from mother to businesswoman to artist, but she could never shake her desire to be a singer. She always had dreams of making it in the music world, but life tended to get in the way, not that she's particularly minded.
Born in the Bronx, Dickson relocated to Los Angeles when she was 14 years old. At 17, she was working at a movie theater when she met a man who would soon become her husband. She moved up to Seattle with him and it was around this time that she and her husband befriended a then-young singer named Sammy Davis Jr. After a show in Spokane, Dickson offered to take some of Davis' luggage back to Seattle. Soon, a friendship bloomed and Dickson even had the chance to get up on stage with Davis and his band. They would get together when Davis was in Seattle, but as the singer became increasingly popular, they lost touch.
"Pretty soon, he was in the Rat Pack and all that and we didn't hear much from him at that point," says Dickson.
In the four years following her marriage, Dickson gave birth to four children and also found time to perform in a musical production. But other than that, her musical career went dormant for the next five decades as she relocated back to L.A. and was soon divorced from her first husband. This allowed her to enter a career in the aerospace industry where she climbed up the corporate chain, spending 30 years in the business. This included a two-plus year stint in Tehran, Iran, working for a defense company that saw her escorted out of the country when civil war erupted.
"We made T-shirts that said 'Civil War Sucks' and we wore those when we finally got to the airport. I still have the shirt," she says.
Near the middle of our interview, Dickson's cell phone rings. She digs it out of her purse, flips it open and finds her husband, Wayne, on the other end. He's called to remind her to tell me about some of her other hobbies. For example, she made the scarf she's wearing on this snowy afternoon.
But what we're mainly here to talk about is her music and the 14-song album of her favorite tracks, including "What I Did For Love," "Danny Boy," and "Over the Rainbow" among other standards. Her voice is crisp and carries with it the sort of throwback inflection that is authentic to the period during which many of the tracks were penned. It would be difficult to tell that the woman singing the songs will be 80 years old this year. Dickson, though, is at times surprised by the turn back to music her life has taken.
"If someone would have told me I would be doing this at this age, I would have told them they were crazy," she says with a laugh.
Dickson will be performing at local retirement homes in the coming months, but has aspirations to play in restaurants and bars, too. Also, she's got another big dream yet to fulfill and that's to join the ranks of the Fabulous Palm Spring Follies, a collection of singers and dancers between the ages of 56 and 81 that performs almost nightly to packed crowds. Recently, she got a call from the Follies inviting her to join the cast for the next 10 months, but a planned hip replacement kept her from accepting the offer.
"Maybe next year," she says.
It seems her musical opportunities have been a bit of a surprise, but Dickson has taken it all in stride, knowing she still has some songs to sing.
"Every once in a while, I'll be singing and my voice will crack. It makes me wonder if I'm losing it, but I don't think that's going to happen quite yet," she says.
Harriet's CDs are available at Ranch Records or by calling her at 541-330-9646.