Della Griffin, a legendary jazz singer and one of the first female drummers, was born the 19th child out of 20 on June 12, 1925 in Newbury, South Carolina to William and Mary Gilliam. Though born in the south, Della Griffin grew up in Jamaica, Queens, NY.
As a child, Della Griffin took an early interest in entertainment. She devoutly listened to big band singers and jazz tunes each day on the radio. She began dance lessons when she was 8 and took up singing, which became her ultimate love, three years later, after her brother-in-law, a trumpeter gave her a Billie Holiday (1915-1959) (whom later with her husband, became a close friend) record. Upon receiving the Billie Holiday record, Della “immediately reallocated her weekly allowance from paying for movies to buying all of Holiday’s records as well as records by William “Count” Basie (1904-1984), Charlie Barnet (1913-1991) and other swinging big bands of the day.”
In addition, because of her passion for singing, Della Griffin frequently sang the latest songs around the house. She especially loved to sing in front of company and guests. It was a habit she carried into old age. As a result, her foster children were blessed to hear special renditions of “Today Is Your Birthday,” the title song of her first release, each birthday.
Tragically when Della Griffin was 12, her younger sister, Nancy, the family’s 20th child, contracted pneumonia and died. Yet Della persevered. Her love for music and dreams of becoming a performer remained undiminished.
Within a few years, after graduating with the Class of ‘43 from Jamaica High School (JHS) in Queens, NY, Griffin began singing professionally. She performed in local clubs and dance halls in South Carolina. Upon discovering the enthusiastic interest her performances commanded in the segregated south, Della in search of an even bigger audience, returned to New York where she and Frances Kelly decided to create a group in 1950. Per Della Griffin, “I always liked show business. I liked Billie Holiday. I was working with another girl [in a factory that manufactured shoulder pads.”] and we decided to put a group together and sing. Any place they would let us sing, we would sing.”
Afterwards, they recruited three additional members, Chris Towns, a mutual friend of theirs who was a pianist and songwriter, Pearl Brice, a childhood friend of Della’s, and Rachel Gist, “a Harlem club soloist.” They named their group the Enchanters, which in 1951 became one of the first female R&B groups “paving the way for [such famous female groups as] the Hearts, the Bobbettes, the Chantels and the Shirelles.”
With the group in place, Della Griffin performed as the lead singer, Francis Kelly sang bass, Pearl Brice alto, and Rachel Gist, the youngest at 17, soprano, while Chris Towns played the piano and produced many of their songs. During their existence, the Enchanters “booked themselves into every venue available to them” impressing one club so much that it even invited them to hold rehearsals in their building during off-hours.
As the Enchanters’ success grew, Della took a bold step in inviting Jerry Blaine (1910-1973), owner of Jubilee Records and label of “the Orioles,” a male music group, to attend one of their performances in November 1951. “Intrigued at the thought of a 풀싸롱 female group,” Blaine agreed and attended their concert at Showman’s club (next to the famed Apollo theater on 125th Street in Harlem, NY) where he listened to them perform “I’ve Lost.” He was immediately impressed and invited the group to sign a contract the following day. Recording began within a week with “Today Is Your Birthday,” a sentimental love song which had been given to them by Blaine and had been previously performed by the Sugartones (Onyx label), “How Could You Break My Heart,” “I’ve Lost,” “Housewife Blues,” and “You Don’t Know I’m Not In Love With You.” Della Griffin was the lead singer in all five songs, with bandleader Buddy Lucas providing male vocals in “Today Is Your Birthday.”
With the recordings completed in one session on November 28, 1951, Jubilee Records included “the Enchanters’ as ‘Something New & Different!’” in their 1951 Christmas trade ad that included its list of performers, most notably the Orioles, Buddy Lucas, Edna McGriff, and Earlington Carl Tilghman (1928-1981) known as “Sonny Til,” who became a good friend of Della’s. This was even before Jubilee Records introduced the Enchanters and announced who they were just after New Year’s Day in 1952 when they released the group’s first record featuring “Today Is Your Birthday” and “How Could You [Break My Heart],” a blues/rock song.