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Ybor City's Kitty Daniels looks back on lifetime of performing

Singer and pianist Kitty Daniels performs at Donatello Italian Restaurant on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 23, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. The restaurant, located at 232 N Dale Mabry Highway, held its 31st Annual Thanksgiving Dinner for 1000 foster children and at-risk families. ALESSANDRA DA PRA   |   Times
Singer and pianist Kitty Daniels performs at Donatello Italian Restaurant on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 23, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. The restaurant, located at 232 N Dale Mabry Highway, held its 31st Annual Thanksgiving Dinner for 1000 foster children and at-risk families. ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times
Published Dec. 1, 2017

For more than 50 years, entertaining and performing has been at the core of Kitty Daniels's life.

Gigs, bands, and husbands have come and gone. There's been good times, like when she played for Etta James, rearranged a song for B.B. King, and almost married Ray Charles's drummer.

And plenty of bad, like when her youngest son died of cancer.

Through it all, music has been a faithful companion.

"To say I have regrets would be not cool," she said. "I've had fun."

And she's still going. On any given Thursday night, you can find Daniels tickling the ivories at Donatello Italian Restaurant. The versatile songstress can sing anything but her specialties are the standards or a selection from the Great American Songbook.

"Songs that mean something," she retorts. "Things that tell a story."

Like Stormy Weather, Over the Rainbow, or the classic Moon River.

Daniels's unique interpretation of the classics makes her "a hidden gem," said Louise Krikorian, who is filming a documentary about Daniels.

The octogenarian's showmanship and way with an audience is unmatched in the Tampa Bay area, she said.

"She makes (the audience) feel like a star," she said. "That's really hard to do."

Daniels, who also regularly appears at Bennedetto's in Land O' Lakes Wednesday and Sunday nights, Loves Artifacts on Fridays, treats every song like a first-time experience.

"I never sing (a song) the same way twice," Daniels said. "I never know how my voice will be."

•••

Daniels' has been singing and playing since she was eight months old — or so she's been told.

She was born in Ybor City, in her parent's Eighth Avenue rooming house. It was often filled with music, either from the radio or her mother's piano playing. When her mother was at the keys, Daniels was at her hip.

Daniels surmises that's how she learned to play by ear and soon knew enough to tap out the notes to a popular radio show.

Daniels's mother realized her daughter, the youngest of three, had a talent. She signed her up for piano lessons.

By age 6, Daniels was regularly taking lessons and budding into a fine musician.

It wasn't until she was a student at Middleton High School, however, that Daniels began performing publicly. At the time Bill Bethel — the school's basketball coach who sounded like her favorite singer Billy Eckstine — performed on Sundays at various teas held around town.

He asked Daniels to accompany him, but not on the piano.

"I would be invited to recite poetry," she said. "When I would recite those poems, people would applaud and applaud."

The elements of poetry recitation – timing, cadence, tone – proved excellent training for Daniels to develop her own signature style for song interpretation and delivery.

"That's the way I sing," she said.

•••

After graduating from Middleton, Daniels attended Hunter College in New York but got married before finishing her studies.

She returned to Tampa and began taking gigs around town. Eventually, she teamed up with notable band leader Charlie Brantley and his Original Honey Dippers and it successor, Doc's Skyliners.

By then, Daniels was divorced from her husband and had begun dating a new guy. But he did not approve of her pursuit of a music career.

"I got rid of that man," she said.

Daniels played all over Florida with the band at college campuses, nightclubs, and frat houses. She took on added duties as needed, such as chauffeur.

"I didn't drink, so I was the driver most of the time," she said.

•••

At the time, black players were not allowed to become members of the musician's union. The discrimination prevented them from playing certain gigs that offered pay more lucrative than what they were earning – even in their hometown.

Daniels said she decided to challenge the practice and wrote a letter requesting the union rescind its racist policy. It worked.

"They wound up letting us in behind this letter I wrote," she said. "We got a chance to play in some of the clubs in Tampa."

Daniels's goals, however, were bigger than playing with a band. She split from the Skyliners and began booking her own gigs in clubs around town.

When a club in Chicago came calling, she packed up and moved to the Windy City – with a new husband and road manager in tow.

But the romance, and the stay in town, were short-lived. Daniels had built up a following so strong it caught the attention of Jet, the iconic weekly magazine that documented African-American life.

Editors wanted to write a story about Daniels but her husband forbade her to do it.

"He was a very jealous man," she said. "He couldn't handle (the attention)."

•••

After a year, Daniels left her husband and Chicago and returned to Tampa, reconnecting with the Skyliners. She also played with other bands.

The Palladium in Tampa was a steady gig spot and Daniels often would meet legendary musicians there, including Fats Domino and Cannonball Adderley.

Once when she played a gig there, Daniels got the chance to rearrange The Nearness of You for B.B. King.

The bluesman was in the audience when he heard Daniels singing her unique twist on the song and he wanted it for his own set.

•••

When gigs were tough to come by, Daniels took on "regular" jobs, such as teacher's aide and legal secretary.

For many years, she was a lead saleswoman in the Maas Brothers linens section.

"I can sell anything," she said.

Daniels's versatility helped her buy a home and raise five children in Ybor City not far from the very one in which she was raised.

Her commitment to music has enabled her to live a life doing what she loves.

"It keeps me employed and helps me pay the rent," she said. "I've never been rich but I've managed to eke out a living."

Contact Kenya Woodard at hillsnews@tampabay.com

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