Remembering June Norton: Sang with Duke Ellington, Broke TV Race Barrier

June Norton 1950(A photo of June Norton from the Afro-American, 1950)

Several years ago, then Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Lisa Kralovic (ANC 1A01) told me about a former resident of 1435 Perry Place, NW, named June Norton. Kralovic told me that Norton had performed with Duke Ellington and that she was highly regarded in the neighborhood. She also stated that she had moved to Maryland a few years earlier but had since passed. I was intrigued, and what follows is what I’ve been able to learn about her life thus far.

June Norton (1924-2004) was a singer with Duke Ellington and his orchestra, working with Ellington in 1949, 1950, and 1960. Norton was born in Alexandria, Va., and graduated from Cardozo High School and Howard University. Though better known for singing with Ellington, her most notable achievement was singing as part of a one-minute commercial for station WTTG-TV.

Norton was hired to sing commercials on television for a product aimed at such states a Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. She was singing at the Flame restaurant in Washington in the fall of 1961 when representatives from a local advertising agency heard her. The representatives had been looking for a black artist to break the television race barrier, especially in Washington which had a population that was estimated at more than 50% African American at that time. The commercial’s sponsors – the Beautycraft Plastics Company – reported that June Norton was the first African American woman in the mid-Atlantic region to appear on TV commercials beamed at the mass market in Southern states.

In recognition of Norton’s work in the commercial, she received the 1962 Achievement Award from the National Association of Colored Women and drew acclaim from the YMCA which presented her with their trophy as “Singer of the Year for 1962.” A local bottling company named her “TV Personality of the Year” and the National Association of Market Development bestowed upon her their 1962 Emphasis Award.

Norton’s voice was described as having the range and flexibility to put across the up-tune as well as the ballad. During the 1960s audiences could hear her perform at venues such as the Shoreham’s Marquee Lounge (1964), Twelve Devils, near the corner of Connecticut and Calvert streets, NW (1965), and Mr. Henry’s Georgetown (1968).

In the early 1970s, Norton engaged in work as a counselor for women offenders imprisoned for drug related and other crimes. This work was featured in an episode called Ebony Reflections that aired on WETA-26 in 1973. In 1993, June Norton, along with other former Duke Ellington vocalists Adelaide Hall, Joya Sherrill, Kay Davis, Maria Ellington Cole, and Dolores Parker, received a lifetime achievement award from the Smithsonian Institution.

June Norton passed away on October 30, 2004, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to her husband, Thomas C. Cuff.

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One Comment on “Remembering June Norton: Sang with Duke Ellington, Broke TV Race Barrier”

  1. Ruth Says:

    It has been a complete pleasure and delight to live in June Norton’s household for the past 7 years. It has been a group house since June Norton’s family sold it to our landlords and is now being put back on the market. Unfortunately, the house may go to developers in this swiftly changing neighborhood. I have been grateful to hear the stories of those neighbors and friends who have stopped by and chatted, sharing stories of June, her husband and son.

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