After 34 years of teaching music, this retired educator and active performer is keeping herself busy on the Rockford entertainment scene.
There are singers, and then there’s Dorothy Paige-Turner.
She’s not just any singer; Paige-Turner is an award-winning singer and music educator. Over the years, she’s performed in musicals, symphonies, concert bands and jazz ensembles. She’s written, produced and directed a number of plays and musicals for children and adults. She spent 34 years as a music teacher with the Rockford Public Schools. She’s received a number of accolades, including The Mayor’s Award for the Arts, Blanche Ellis Starr Award for the Arts and many Rockford Area Music Industry awards.
“She’s such a vibrant artist,” says local singer Mike Williamson, who met Paige-Turner nearly 40 years ago. “Dorothy sings with her heart. She knocked me off my feet when I first heard her voice. She has great styling and tone. She can be very intense, but in a wonderful way. With Dorothy, you always understand every lyric that she sings. She’s like Rockford’s very own Ella Fitzgerald. I can’t say enough about Dorothy.”
Paige-Turner has performed with many well-known local musicians including Joel Ross, Ron Pederson, Jack Brand, Bud Walters, Val Eddy and Homer Carlson, to name a few. She’s performed in venues all over the area, including the Feather Club, the El Dorado Club and the Butterfly Club.
“As a performance artist, Dorothy is most at home interpreting the great American songbook,” Ross says. “She has an uncommon ability to truly connect with her audience, and her versatility as a musician enables her to sing most any tune in any style that suits her in the moment.”
“I can sing anything,” she says. “I never wanted to be pigeon-holed. I’m just a vocalist. I love singing jazz, opera, spirituals, pop and blues. I like using my voice for whatever it calls for. I like being eclectic.” Her role models include Barbra Streisand, Kenny Rankin and Billie Holiday.
What’s more impressive is that Paige-Turner, who moved to Rockford in the late 1960s, has stayed put. She’s had opportunities to move elsewhere, and most of her family lives in her native Arkansas. But she says she can’t imagine ever leaving Rockford.
“I love my life here,” she says. “I’m embedded in Rockford with the friendships and things that I’ve created. This is a community where I have really flourished. I would have to start all over again if I moved.”
Paige-Turner was born to Willie and Willie Mae Paige and grew up with five siblings in the small town of El Dorado, Ark. Music was essential in the Paige household. Paige-Turner participated in church and school choirs and school talent shows, where she and her friends aspired to be the next McGuire Sisters or Andrews Sisters.
Her father was a big fan of country music and taught himself to play the fiddle. He also played honky-tonk music with his brother, Henry. “We watched the Grand Ole Opry television show or we didn’t watch anything,” says Paige-Turner. “My dad was an amazing storyteller. Kids came from all over to hear my dad tell stories. He also wrote songs that taught us life lessons.”
Willie also taught his children the importance of hard work. He was a self-employed carpenter who, with help from his son Calvin, built many of the homes in town. With a sixth-grade education, he taught himself how to read blueprints. “There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do,” Paige-Turner says. Willie died in 1982 and his wife died six years later.
After high school graduation, Paige-Turner attended Bishop College in Dallas, Texas, for two years before moving on to Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal (AM&N) College (now University of Arkansas at Pine Buff), where she majored in music education.
Paige-Turner met her future husband in college and followed him back to his hometown of Rockford after graduating in 1969. Long divorced, they have a son, Stephen, and three grandchildren who live in Arkansas.
Paige-Turner’s dream was to be an opera singer, but a more realistic career path was to become a music teacher. She earned her teaching certificate and took a job as a fourth-grade teacher as a way to get her foot in the door to the Rockford Public Schools. For more than three decades she taught at 14 schools, including Ellis Arts Academy, Dennis and Martin Luther King Jr. schools. She led her students in plays, musical performances and dance shows.
“I learned as much from the students as they learned from me,” she says. “I had no idea I would enjoy teaching as much as I did. I loved those children – their openness, willingness to learn, their excitement. They loved coming to music class. They never rejected my teachings.”
Even today, Paige-Turner runs into former students who express their appreciation for her influence in their lives. “As an educator she has helped so many young people get into music and appreciate music,” says Williamson. “She’s been a great inspiration for the young people of Rockford.”
Paige-Turner also partnered with the Rockford Area Arts Council to create the Council Choraleers, a program open to students ages 8-13 from any school. The group meets weekly from September to May. Paige-Turner donates her time to work with the students, so there’s no cost to participants.
“Dorothy epitomizes our mission, which is arts for everyone,” says Anne O’Keefe, president and CEO of the Arts Council. “Her passion wears off on the students. She makes sure youths have a safe, positive experience. She cares about them, but she also expects excellence. And she makes sure everyone has their time to shine.”
Retired for the past 12 years, Paige-Turner remains plenty busy. She’s the managing artistic director and playwright for the Black Theatre Ensemble, a community theater group. She started a summer youth concert series called “Sinnissippi Sundays,” a monthly showcase through the Rockford Park District and Rockford Area Arts Council. She also directs Readers Theater, a series of readings from African-American plays, at Just Goods Fair Trade Marketplace in Rockford’s Midtown District. She also teaches a gospel music class at Rockford University.
This November, Paige-Turner was the guest speaker for the Rockford Interfaith Council’s annual Mayor’s Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. Soon, she’ll begin rehearsals for “Crowns,” a musical that takes place Feb. 3-13 at Rock Valley College’s Studio Theater.
Regardless of the project, Paige-Turner does her homework. She spends hours reading and researching for her plays. She doesn’t have Internet and seldom uses her cellphone. Instead, she turns to books in her home, including the Bible, or makes frequent trips to the library to check out material. She writes out scripts long-form before typing them into her computer.
“I start typing and it just flows,” she says. “I write a bunch of stuff, delete and add, and I have a finished product.”
Although her days in the classroom are over, Paige-Turner continues to work with children. “I’ve been so blessed. This is my way of giving back,” she says. “Through music I believe we can generate peace among children. That’s where we have to start. The future of peace starts with our children. Many people ignore kids. They don’t have a voice. I want to be a voice to the voiceless.”
When she’s not working, Paige-Turner enjoys visiting other parts of the world. Once she’s picked a destination, she studies the culture, spending months learning the language before she hits the road. She’s taken a Caribbean cruise and vacationed in Europe, Australia and Africa, where she soaks in fine dining, theater and opera performances.
Up next is a trip to Ireland. “I love their passion for music,” she says. “They wake up celebrating the day.”
The same could be said about Paige-Turner.
“Her long history proves that Dorothy is one of the stalwarts of our community,” says O’Keefe. “She has a great spirit. She’s truly legendary.”