Ford T. Dabney was a naturally talented musician who was born and raised in Washington D.C. He was one of two boys born to James H. Dabney, a black Virginia-born undertaker and funeral director, and his young mulatto wife Lotta "Lottie" Snowden Ross, the other son being Ford's older brother, Edward (8/25/1878), born four months after the wedding. Edward died of tuberculosis in November of 1895. According to a May 24, 1894, item in the Washington Evening Star, Lottie appears to have bailed from the marriage shortly after Ford was born. More than a decade later James sued her for divorce based on abandonment. It is therefore probable that Ford was raised primarily by his father.
Over a year later James was remarried to Ruby H. Adams on December 18, 1895, a month after Edward's death. James had employed a servant as early as the 1880s, and the Dabneys owned their own home at 1132 Third Street NW as of 1900, which indicated that they were fairly well off for a black family of that time. He evidently also did some work as a barber, as some newspaper mentions referred to him as a "tonsorial artist." They might also be confusing him with his cousin John W. Dabney who lived with the family for a while. At one time around 1900 James had four different funeral parlors in operation in the District and Alexandria, Virginia. Ruby was the first and only trained female embalmer in the city, and both were highly regarded in the community. Ruby died in December of 1901 at the young age of 29.
As a youth, Ford got some of his education at the Armstrong Manual Training School in Washington, a black-oriented technical school. He also sang in the choir at St. Mary's Chapel at St. John's Parish. His primary musical training was through his father, his music educator uncle Wendell Phillips Dabney, and D.C. music teachers William Waldecker, Charles Donch and Samuel Fabian. Even at age 18 Ford was very highly regarded for his playing skills. A note in The Colored American, a Washington paper, on April 6, 1901, stated that: "Mr. Ford Dabney deserves especial commendation for his excellent piano solo, rendered last Saturday at the Congressional Library. The occasion was the regular concert given for the entertainment for the blind. Mr. Dabney's work was highly commended by the musical critics who attended in large numbers."
There were a number of positive notices about the "young colored genius" over the next year, including this one from November 23, 1901: "Mr. Ford Dabney, pianist, is doing Washington for a few days much to the great delight of his musical friends. He has a very brilliant future." Another notice from March 15, 1902, read: "A very promising glee club has been organized at the Manual Training School, under the direction of Mr. Ford Dabney. A well trained orchestra is also an attraction at this school. Both will make a public appearance soon." One of his early tours was announced on July 5, 1902: "Mr. Joseph H. Douglass [a singer] has returned from a highly successful tour of New England. He went out for a two week's jaunt, but so great was the demand for dates that he remained in the section two months. Upon his next tour he will be accompanied by Mr. Ford Dabney, an accomplished pianist." That tour extended from July through mid-September 1902.
In late 1902 Ford was sent to New York for further studies in performance and composition, and ended up cultivating a great deal of interest among members of Manhattan society in his budding career. Some would later employ him in the following decade once he was established for good in New York City. The displays of Ford's musical talent through his father's prestigious connections brought him his first "court composer" position as the official musician to the President of Haiti in 1904, reportedly lasting through 1906 during his frequent travels. The exciting news was first relayed in the widely circulated Washington Times on December 31, 1903:
Ford Thompson Dabney, a young colored pianist of Washington, sailed from New York last Tuesday for Haiti, where for four months he will occupy the position of pianist to the President of Haiti at a salary of $5,000 for that period. Young Dabney's engagement in this capacity is the first known one of its kind in the history of Haiti, and was brought about by the Haitian consul to France, Josepf Jefford.
While in this country on a mission from his government Mr. Jefford heard Dabney play in New York, and was so impressed with the young pianist's work that he ventured the belief the President of Haiti would like to hear him play. Dabney expressed a desire to play for the President if it could be arranged, and his engagement for four months followed. At the expiration of that time young Dabney will go to France to play for President Loubet, and will then go to Germany to complete his musical studies. He contemplates a concert career.
Ford Dabney is twenty years old and graduated from the Washington High School in the class of 1901. He is a son of J.W. Dabney, of 1006 F Street northwest, who was the late President McKinley's barber and President Roosevelt's until a few months ago. While attending school in Washington Ford Dabney studied music with Charles Donch, William Waldecker, and S.M. Fabian, the latter a noted concert pianist.
Later the young man went to New York, where for the past year he has been a student at one of the conservatories. He has filled many drawing room engagements for the prominent society leaders of the metropolis. The Haitian consul, who is acting as sponsor for the young man, is said to have promised him $1,000 when he goes to France.
Ford was shown returning from his extended travels to the United States through New York from St. Marc on the Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm on May 18, 1906.
On his return to D.C. Ford traveled a bit in vaudeville, and even had an act titled Ford Dabney's Ginger Girls. He officially went into show business around 1908 as the co-owner of the Ford Dabney Theater located at Ninth and U Street in Northwest Washington. It was advertised as the home of "first class and polite vaudeville - the theatre the people attend." As motion pictures came into vogue Dabney made sure there was a new one shown every evening. Dabney's theater continued to operate in his name under the management of his partner James H. Hudnell through at least 1912, even after he was established in New York City. In the late summer of 1910 Dabney attempted to buy the nearby Howard Theater as well, but pulled back as he had "other big plans in view."
During this period Dabney went to New York in 1908 to pursue a career in composition and performance. One of the first notices of him there was in the form of a Witmark publication by Dabney with lyricist Harry S. Creamer, a novelty titled You Can Learn the Hootchie Kootchie for a Dollar and Thirty Cents. There is a likely probability that he engaged in an alternate career as well. In what is most certainly his listing in the 1910 census, Ford (as Thompson Dabney) was shown in Manhattan as a self-employed pharmacist. (The age, birth location and parent's birth locations match, so this fairly well confirms that it is indeed the same Ford Dabney.) It is possible that he learned this skill in technical school in DC or from one of his father's associates, and was applying it to earn some income until more music work started coming in. It is also possible that the enumerator simply did not understand what was told to him. Dabney was still the proprietor of his theater in Washington, and added a second venue, The Red Moon on M Street, in 1911. He divided his time between the two cities until around 1914.
As early as 1909 Dabney did well enough to publish a few interesting piano rags, starting with the popular Oh You Devil, and including its follow-up Oh You Angel and Haytian Rag. Ford's Haytian Rag in particular quickly found itself onto at least two different piano roll renditions before the year 1910 was out. However, he first gained real fame as a vaudeville performer and writer with his initial hit, a song he co-wrote with New York composer Richard C. McPherson (aka Cecil Mack), That's Why They Call Me Shine. It was reportedly based on a real person they both knew who went by that nickname. This wildly popular song, which was initially published by Mack's own company Gotham-Attucks Music (which would close its doors the following year) was interpolated into a Bert Williams and George Walker show, and opened more doors for him. In short order, Ford was soon one of the most highly regarded of the black New York composers and musicians.
Still living part-time in two cities, Ford returned to Washington for a time to marry widow Martha J. Davis Gans of Baltimore, Maryland, in March of 1912. It was her second marriage following the death of her husband professional boxer Joseph Gans. Martha operated the Goldfield Hotel in Baltimore, and they resided there when Ford was in town. Joe built it with his winnings from a bout with Battling Nelson in Goldfield, Nevada. It was advertised that the Goldfield was equipped with every modern innovation, with exquisite furnishings and a telephone in every room. Martha continued to run the hotel while Ford bounced back and forth between the Washington/Baltimore area and Manhattan. (She would sell her late husband's hotel in February of 1915 and move to New York full-time with Ford.)
Back in New York, Dabney had become friends with famed bandleader and composer James Reese Europe as early as 1909, when they alternated duties as directors for Williams and Walker shows, along with composer/conductor Will Marion Cook. They both played for famed showman Florenz Ziegfeld in his secondary show, Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic, staged on the roof of the New Amsterdam Theater in Manhattan. Dabney was an integral member of Europe's famous Clef Club which was made up of only the finest black musicians in the east. A band for any occasion could quickly be formed from its formidable membership. It was, in fact, Dabney who introduced blues composer W.C. Handy to the Clef Club and Europe, with whom he became fast friends. Ford also formed his own organization when he permanently settled in the New York in 1913. By 1914, Europe had left the Clef Club to form The Tempo Club and Europe's Society Orchestra, and Dabney soon joined him. He had also been coordinating and working performances and benefits at Ford's Grand Opera House in Baltimore since 1912, and spent several months co-conducting Europe's orchestra in 1914 at the New Amsterdam Theater roof restaurant.
Among the best of Dabney's pieces were a set of eight that were co-composed with Europe specifically for the famed husband and wife dance time of Vernon and Irene Castle. The Castles found Europe's Society Orchestra among the best they had worked with, and hired Europe as their band leader and Dabney as their arranger. One of these pieces, the Castle Half and Half, was written in 3/4 + 2/4, or actually 5/4 time, over four decades before that time signature would become popular through the efforts of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. All of these were issued within a two month period in 1914, an extraordinary output for the quality of work the two invested into the project. Soon after this, Europe left the Tempo Club and Dabney took on some of his responsibilities until he formed his own orchestra, which was essentially from the remainders of The Tempo Club. In 1915 he released his final rag, actually a slow dance tune named The Georgia Grind. The grind in question and the music that accompanied it were not the same as the "dirty dancing" move of the 1950s, but a slow dance intended to give couples a bit of a rest while remaining on the dance floor. The tune had great success on piano rolls.
Dabney's orchestra had the opportunity to introduce many great songs of the late 1910s to the world by way of records. This also made him one of the earliest black pianists to record. He is shown on his 1917 draft card as employed by Florenz Ziegfeld, presenter of the famed Ziegfeld Follies in the New Amsterdam Theater. His role was as both pianist, arranger and director for the The Ziegfeld Midnight Frolics, a position that lasted for eight years. Likely due to his workload, there appear to be no published compositions from this period. Martha Dabney gave up her hotel in early 1915 to move to New York City with Ford. She gave birth to Ford Dabney Jr. in mid-1917. Since Ford Jr. was born in Washington D.C., it indicates that he still had ties with his home town, as this may have occurred during a family visit to the area.
From 1917 to early 1920, Dabney's band cut a number of sides for the Aeolian Company's Vocalion line. The progression of dates indicates that Ford was not drafted to fight in the war like his former partner Jim Europe had been. The recordings show less inspiration and excitement than Reese's recordings of a couple of years prior, but they were still fine examples of late ragtime era dance band performances. They also recorded a few sides as the accompaniment band for white singers Arthur Fields and the inimitable Billy Murray. After one early 1920 session the band simply recorded no more, even as they continued to perform live. A regrouped ensemble called Ford Dabney's Syncopators recorded two sides in 1922.
The Dabney family was shown in Manhattan in the 1920 census with Ford listed as a theater musician. There are some indications that Dabney also dabbled in real-estate investment following the war as there are several transactions shown in the New York Times during the 1920s. In August 1921 he sold off two three-story dwellings at 231 and 235 West 138th Street. In May 1921 he purchased a large five-story flat at 75 West 128th Street, and in July, a three story dwelling at 163 West 131st Street. Yet another purchase was reported in December 1922, a five-story tenement building at 807 West 146th Street facing Colonial Park. Similar notices appear in New York real-estate transactions through the early 1930s.
After the unfortunate death of his friend and musical partner Europe at the hands of one of Europe's own drummers in May of 1919, and that of Vernon Castle in a training plane accident in Texas, some of Dabney's arranging spark seemed to dissipate, as is demonstrated in subsequent recordings of his orchestra. Innovations that had existed in earlier tracks, including variances applied to repeated sections, all but disappeared from 1919 on.
The demand for his band varied through the mid-1920s as Ford did not embrace jazz with the same vigor as younger bandleaders. His perennial gig with Ziegfeld became less steady when the Dabney band was replaced by Art Hickman's Orchestra for the 1920-1921 season. Dabney was retained for some rooftop shows and special events, however. One example of the type of events the band played outside of their Ziegfeld show was an August 1922 fashion show held at the 71st Regiment Armory and Grand Central Palace. This was actually a fairly prestigious event as according to the New York Times of August 7, 1922, "Ford Dabney's orchestra from Ziefgeld's Follies will furnish continuous music, while a special arrangement has been made with Florenz Ziegfeld whereby Sergei Pirnikoff, heading a company of artists, will put on the Lestwich ballet 'Le Sacrifice.'" Still, it was a step removed from playing for the Society 400. Ford even briefly opened his own entertainment bureau in 1923, but other pressing demands made it difficult to maintain on a full time basis. Give a reprieve part way through the decade, Ford continued to conduct his fifteen-piece orchestra for the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolics into the late 1920s.
Dabney remained in New York City until his death remaining mildly active with the music community from the 1930s on. In 1927 he contributed some music to the Broadway musical Rang-Tang at the Royale Theater, including the title tune, getting some notice in the New York papers for his efforts. Dabney appears in the 1930 census with his family, still in Manhattan, as an orchestra musician. One of his steadier gigs was at the Palais Royale in Atlantic City during peak season times. Branching out a little bit, he co-wrote one song for the film The Social Register in 1934. Dabney was finally able to join ASCAP in 1937, more than two decades after it was founded. He and his orchestra wintered in Florida from the late 1920s into the late 1930s, as there were several notices in the New York Age, the Palm Beach Daily News and some Miami newspapers concerning gigs and house parties from 1927 to 1939.
Ford was still working in some capacity in the 1940s. The 1940 census shows him still living on West 139th Street in North Harlem with Martha and his son, working as an orchestra musician. His 1942 draft record indicates him simply as self-employed, living at the same address seen previously. By this time, his memory and musical skills were occasionally called upon by historians. He was a consultant for the 1943 all-black film Stormy Weather which chronicled black musicians of New York, including his contemporaries Europe and Handy, through the first decades of the 20th century. That same year, Ford Dabney Jr. enlisted into the military, his record showing that he had achieved a degree from a four-year college (NYU). The aging musician and composer finally retired fully by the late 1940s. Ford Dabney passed away at Sydenham Hospital at 75 in New York City in 1958 after a long illness. Martha Dabney died in December 1961 at the Rest Haven Nursing Home in the Bronx.