Phyllis Dale, JKV’s Red Hot Mama

By Phyllis Dale and Pat Warner

Imagine three-year-old Phyllis seated at an old player piano, putting tiny fingers onto fast moving keys as her mother pushes the pedals to make music. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, to parents of Czech, Lebanese and Syrian heritage, Phyllis shared that her father resembled the handsome movie star Gilbert Roland and how her loving mother taught her to read and write before entering first grade.

Perhaps Phyllis’s musical genes stemmed from her grandmother, a trained pianist who “plugged songs” in Cleveland’s five-and-dime stores or from her self-taught father who played steel guitar and led his own bands. She shared, “My parents couldn’t afford lessons and I realize how fortunate I was for I learned to play piano and make arrangements my own way. I am grateful to Daddy who paid $35 for six weeks of music theory lessons for me when I was thirteen. It was the only formal training I had and I am grateful to him as I attribute my successful career to those lessons.

“I loved the accordion; my parents bought me a used one and then sacrificed to buy me a new spinet piano. When I was nine my dad asked me to sing with his band; thrilled, I sang ‘Sentimental Journey’. At age eleven, I performed several times on the Giant Tiger TV show in Cleveland and at thirteen I formed an all-girl trio called the ‘Rosettes’. We performed at school dances, town events and service clubs. After our first gig, a hat was passed that netted each of us $6.40. That was a lot of money to us! At age sixteen, I sold shoes and gave fifteen dollars a week to my parents.”

Phyllis Dale playing accordion with the Rosettes.

Continuing, Phyllis said, “Daddy was very strict and didn’t permit me to attend parties, movies or sports events. However, I was permitted to attend anything that included music.” Because she was intuitive, ambitious and confident, Phyllis learned to play instruments in the school orchestra and band. In the orchestra she began with the cello, viola and violin and played French horn for concerts. In the marching band, she played the glockenspiel so she could attend the football games. “Without training, I have no idea how I did this.”

Phyllis’ parents couldn’t afford college and her father deemed it unnecessary for a musical career. She played gigs and worked at the Cleveland Press to attend Ohio State but left because of insufficient funds. She moved to Columbus, Ohio, and got her big break at the Desert Inn when “Papa Joe hired me as a piano/vocalist”. She had to join the music union and return $50 to him from her $150 weekly salary.
After six months at the Desert Inn, a talent scout heard Phyllis; this led to performing in supper clubs, hotels and on TV all around the country. While performing in Central Florida, Phyllis enjoyed volunteering and organized benefits for children’s homes and animal humane societies.

While entertaining at a piano bar in Marion, Indiana, Phyllis told her audience that she hoped to buy a farm. A gentleman fan heard her and offered to sell her a 125-acre property complete with a long white fence, a big red barn, a pond, forty acres of black walnut trees, corn and soybean fields and a 150-year-old house. Amazed, Phyllis hocked her hard-earned diamonds for the $2,500 collateral and bought herself a farm!

Phyllis Dale at Rosie O’Grady’s in Orlando.

An agent from Chicago offered Phyllis a four-week contract in Fern Park, Florida, to play at Freddie’s Steak House so she moved and eventually sold the farm. “I entertained at Freddie’s for ten years and was also a ‘Red Hot Mama’ at Rosie O’Grady’s in Orlando. I met many celebrities; among them was Liberace, who sketched a piano and candelabra for me inscribing it “Love to Phyllis.” In the late 1970s, along with my nightly performing, I became the Director of Music at the Orlando Naval Recruit Training Command; the position required me to organize the recruit musicians and play with them for all church services. I also directed the Blue Jacket Choir. In 1985 I married Gary Cook and enjoyed 21 years with him until his death from cancer in 2006.”

Phyllis related, “In 1990, I accepted an offer from Chad Mitchell, formerly of the Chad Mitchell Trio. Chad was Vice President of Entertainment with the Delta Steamboat Company. From 1990 to 2001 I performed as the ‘Red Hot Mama’ on stage and in the lounges of the Mississippi Queen and the Delta Queen. I was thrilled when Rosemary Clooney and her party made reservations to see my show. When I saw my idol, I stood up crying. Immediately, Rosemary joined me with a big hug and we became good friends. During Gary’s illness, Rosemary wrote encouraging notes to him.

“I was honored when a Delta Queen stateroom was dedicated to me. A brass plaque on the door said, ‘The Phyllis Dale Suite.’ Inside was my photo and a biography. I sang with trumpeter Al Hirt and guitarist B.B. King. I put my arms all around B.B. saying, ‘one nice thing about being a big woman; I can put my arms around a big man’. B.B. was a real ‘Teddy Bear’ and a very loving man.”

Due to problems from past spinal surgeries, Phyllis knew that it was time to switch careers. She would sit near the stage waiting for her entrance, studying a one-year travel course and finished with a 99.2 average. “I became a travel agent and in six months had $1 million in sales.” Now, she enjoys being a partner in a travel company. Throughout both of her careers, Phyllis has traveled to all fifty states and seventy-five countries.

Phyllis said, “In 2001, I made a promise to myself that after I retired from show business, I would never accept any money for my entertaining. I am giving back to others the joy that I have received throughout my musical career. I am thrilled to perform wherever needed including here at John Knox Village.”

Phyllis revealed, “My dear friends Dave Seymour and Sally Fausnight lured me to John Knox Village last year. I felt an aura of serenity around me the first time I drove through the gate. I love the English-countryside feeling it gives me.” Residents of JKV pack the Barker Center and Tree Top Lounge when Phyllis performs; she is a loved and respected consummate entertainer.

Phyllis Dale performs for John Knox Village residents.