For much of the 70s and 80s La Donna Tittle was the queen of local black radio. She was number one in her time slot, showered with awards, and tens of thousands of fans roared when she took the stage at funk and R & B concerts. A longtime midday fixture on local radio, she was, as her nickname put it, your Tittle in the Middle.
But even at the height of her radio career she considered herself an actress, doing side work in commercials, industrial films, and local plays. Those jobs included a turn as a teacher in a 1997 horror film, The Relic, and a guest role on an episode of a cop show, Turks, in '99. Nowadays Tittle appears mostly on humble media outlets like WKKC, Kennedy-King College's 185-watt radio station, and CAN TV, where she hosts a soul-food cooking show. But a nonspeaking cameo may be the role that brings her the acting career she's always dreamed of.
In one of the videos for "Trapped in the Closet," R. Kelly's multipart R & B song cycle, Tittle plays Rosie, the elderly, spatula-wielding "nosy neighbor." Her brief appearance, mugging like a silent-film actor, is a highlight of the Grammy-nominated series of videos.
Tittle grew up in Bronzeville, in the shadow of the Regal Theater. As a girl she helped run the cash register at the pool hall on 47th Street owned by her father, James O. Tittle, who'd also worked as a bartender, musician, and longshoreman. He demanded excellence from his five children, doling out "whuppings" for any failings, be they in schoolwork or in his favorite game, chess. "My father didn't take no shit," Tittle says. "You worked your ass off, you kept things clean."
Her mother, Juanita, among other jobs, managed the pool hall and also a record store, McKee's Bop Shop, at 47th and South Park Way (now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive). Tittle recalls being a young girl watching DJs Al Benson and McKee Fitzhugh do remote broadcasts in the store window; if they were running late, her mother would jump on the air herself to spin records. Tittle tended to her four younger siblings, and she picked up odd jobs as well. Working behind the candy counter at the Regal, she fell in love with R & B music.
"Seeing those shows was like watching Christmas," she says. "The lights and the music just surrounded you. I would see artists like Jackie Wilson, Big Maybelle, the Blue Notes before they were Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes--they were so handsome. We would try to get their attention, but they knew we were just little girls. I always had music around me because my father played horn. When he was a bartender at the Brass Rail under the 47th Street el tracks, I would be in the office while my mother was doing the books, and I would see guys like Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons come in and play with my father. It was a wonderful time."
Her parents separated in the early 60s, and with her mother and siblings Tittle became one of the first tenants of the Robert Taylor Homes. As a teenager she witnessed the slow decline of the projects--vandalized elevators, dangerous incinerator chutes, gang activity--taking refuge in the projects' rec centers, where some of the key players in Chicago's black arts movement were teaching. Drama instructor Okoro Harold Johnson, later the cofounder of the ETA Creative Arts Foundation, gave Tittle her first acting role as the wife in a reading of Dial M for Murder, and soon she began studying with Johnson and ETA's other founder, Abena Joan Brown, at Stateway Gardens. Through them Tittle met other luminaries, including AACM cofounder Phil Cohran, jack-of-all-trades Oscar Brown Jr., and ballet dancer Donald Griffith.
With Griffith's encouragement, Tittle registered with a talent agency as a model after she graduated from Dunbar Vocational High School, and she soon found modeling and acting work. "Back then being a model was not just modeling," she says. "That was the term they used, but you had to be multitalented to keep working. I was doing voice-overs for McDonald's, runway modeling at Marshall Field's, photo bookings. I was in the New York Times after modeling at 'market week' in New York. My first television commercial was a national one for Purex. This business compels you to expand. But I never knew I was destined to do radio. I had no idea, even when I used to see my mother doing it."
After high school she attended Loop Junior College, and in 1966 she married Ronald Horton. "My husband and I loved dancing, and we'd go to a social club on 48th and Wabash called the Times Square," she says. "Ronald introduced me to the DJ at the dances, Herb Kent, and he was the one who told me I had a good voice for radio."
"I was her first teacher," says Herb "the Kool Gent" Kent, who in the 60s was a key member of the "Good Guys," an influential group of black DJs on WVON. "She would come over to my office and I would teach her. She wanted to get into the right profession--she was born with the voice and was very personable, and she was just a gorgeous woman. I often wondered how someone who looked like that could live in the projects."
Horton was eager to have children but she wasn't. She recalls telling him, "Twelve babies are not coming out of me!" Horton volunteered for army service; in 1969, shortly after returning from Vietnam, he was killed in a car wreck at Fort Hood, Texas.
Tittle continued as a student, graduating from Chicago State University in 1971 with a degree in art, theater, and secondary education. She had also earned a certificate from a broadcasting trade school, and she parlayed a gig reading PSAs on an AM jazz station, WBEE, into a full-time on-air job after she graduated. In 1973 she jumped to WBMX, an FM R & B station that was becoming the predominant black station in Chicago. At first she read news and worked overnight slots, but after a year she moved to weekday afternoons; her presence on the mike, combined with WBMX's rising stature, made her the number-one midday radio DJ in Chicago.
She'd wrested the title from Herb Kent. After WVON's owner, Leonard Chess, died in 1969 the station's fortunes had declined, but until Tittle arrived Kent had still ruled the roost. "I got clobbered, and I wasn't too happy," he says. "Having someone I trained beat me like that was like being shot with my own gun."
What made Tittle such a success was that voice: her deep, husky timbre was seductive, but her style was casual and playful. At WBMX she maintained a dignified, mellow manner to complement the smooth adult R & B the station specialized in, and there was something comforting and wise in her low, melodic voice. Still, her girlish personality came through. "She has a smile when she talks, and you can hear it," says Virgil Hemphill, an instructor in Kennedy-King College's broadcasting and theater department. "She simply had the perfect female announcer's voice."
In 1978 WJPC, owned by Johnson Publishing's John H. Johnson, lured Tittle away from WBMX, doubling her salary. Popular DJ Tom Joyner had the morning slot; in between Joyner and early-evening DJ Bebe D. Banana, Tittle became Tittle in the Middle. WJPC quickly became a powerhouse, sponsoring major concerts like a Parliament-Funkadelic show at Soldier Field in 1978. Joyner was also WJPC's program director, and under his leadership DJs were free to break away from the smoothness that typified black radio; they appeared together on a novelty Christmas hip-hop single, "Christmas Delight," on which Tittle rapped and crooned intentionally off-key. On the air, Tittle was silly, raucous, and loud: she joked with callers, gossiped about recording artists, and had her mother, "Mama T," call in to offer advice and comments on current events.
"She used to come to work in the most far-fetched outfits," says Denise Jordan Walker, who worked with Tittle at WJPC in the 80s and later at WNUA. "She might wear a red boa or a fur coat in an exotic color--one time I think she came to work in a ballet tutu. When she came in the whole room lit up. She was a real diva, but though Mr. Johnson treated her like a queen, she never acted stuck-up."
Unlike the DJ with the proverbial face for radio, Tittle had the looks to match her voice, which Johnson Publishing capitalized on by regularly publishing photos of her in some of its national magazines, including Ebony, Black Stars, and Jet. In 1979 she was featured as a Jet "Beauty of the Week" wearing a bikini made of WJPC bumper stickers. "It was a real honor to be a Jet centerfold," Tittle says, scoffing at the notion that the photo was exploitative. "It was a sexy look for a sexy time. And those were real bumper stickers on real skin. And yes, it hurt coming off."
After her husband died Tittle began dating John E. Johnson (no relation to John H. Johnson) of the Johnson hair-care product family. He supported her as she finished college, and guided her through her early radio career; he also pushed her to do volunteer work and connect with the community. (Tittle's worked with the Midwest Association for Sickle Cell Anemia, Operation PUSH, and Omega Baptist Church, among others.) She spent years turning down his marriage proposals. "That was my biggest mistake," she says. "I was thinking about my career and didn't want to rush into anything after Ronald."
Johnson died of a brain tumor in 1981. "I began to think I was jinxed," Tittle says. "Both times I coped by throwing myself heavily into my work. More and more my career was therapy to deal with the loss of two great people in my life."
In December 1989 John H. Johnson sold WJPC, ending Tittle's run at the station. After brief stops at a Joliet blues station and smooth-jazz radio at WNUA, she began working full-time at WGCI in 1992, beginning nine difficult years there. "This was the beginning of corporate radio," she says. "It pays good, good benefits, but it is so formatted, and it is not fun. You have no control over the music you play. You had a list of songs [and] you just play exactly what comes up and in that order. At 'JPC they trusted your knowledge of the music."
Tittle drew strong ratings, but she was bounced between WGCI's AM and FM stations and asked to work different shifts. The AM station moved to a gospel format in 1998, which was a lousy fit for Tittle's personality. Eventually she was buried in the 2-to-6 AM slot. In 2000 the station shifted to automated overnight broadcasts, doing away with the need for a late-night DJ, and Tittle was laid off.
Her dismissal happened the same year her mother died. "I went through this really terrific funk for about a year and a half," she says. "I was drinking cognac, I was cussing out a lot of people, and I was engaged for six months to a person I hated." Eager to do "anything to get away from corporate radio," she began doing some interior decorating, and she continued to take acting jobs, landing one in Five Rooms of Furniture at the Organic Theater. During one such gig a WHPK DJ and fellow actor, Sterling "the Jazz Doctor" Watson, told her about his experience at CAN TV creating public-access TV shows. The prospect of doing her own show appealed: "After all I'd been through I knew I should be doing my own television show," she says. "I wanted to be the one responsible for showcasing my talent."
Drawing on her showbiz connections, Tittle started out in 2001 with an interview show, The La Donna Tittle TV/Radio Show, where she chatted up entertainers like the Temptations and actor Chester Gregory. But after catching an exhibit dedicated to soul food at the Bethel Cultural Arts Center, she decided to recast her program as a cooking show. Cookin' Wit' Tittle debuted in 2003, taking a sensual approach to soul food--the camera zooms in often for intimate shots of the ingredients, and Tittle boasts that she's the first person ever to clean notoriously malodorous chitterlings on TV. As if to prove just how sweaty her work in the kitchen can get, Tittle tends to show a lot of skin on the show, often wearing something low-cut and sleeveless under her apron.
Tittle's now back behind a radio mike as well. Last summer she took a position at Kennedy-King College as part of a program in which radio veterans mentor college DJs; with her students observing, she broadcasts Fridays from 10 AM to 2 PM on WKKC, 89.3 FM. (You need to be on the south side to pick it up: Northwestern's station, WNUR, has that frequency on the north side.) "She can play anything she wants, and she has a ball," says WKKC station manager Dorian Jones.
Just before the Fourth of July weekend, around the same time she started at WKKC, Tittle got a call from her agent, tipping her to an audition for the R. Kelly video. In early 2005 Kelly released "Trapped in the Closet," a five-part melodrama that featured him singing a convoluted narrative over a spare track punctuated by heartbeatlike surges. The songs, and the soap-opera-like videos that accompanied them, quickly became a national phenomenon. Kelly has eagerly responded--he's released 12 parts thus far and has promised there are more on the way.
Each part ends with a cliff-hanger plot twist, and as the seventh draws to a close Sylvester (Kelly's gun-happy character) and Twan (Sylvester's hotheaded ex-con brother-in-law) have their cocked firearms aimed at the front door, ready to terminate the interloper on the other side. The door opens to reveal the first overtly comedic moment of the epic: an addled old lady wielding a spatula. "It's Rosie the nosy neighbor / Oh, with a spatula in her hand / Like that's gon' do something against them guns," Kelly sings.
Under the cap, robe, and curlers is Tittle, who practically had the role even before she stepped into the Hilton Garden Inn downtown, where the auditions were being held.
"[The casting director] had a little dog that she had to take outside," Tittle says. "As I was going in her dog noticed me. [The casting director] later told me that she almost stopped me to ask me right there to come up to the audition."
"It wasn't hard to bring Rosie to life," she says. "I always come to a shoot with my hair in rollers to give the stylist a fresh set to work with. When the director saw me in my rollers, he said, 'That's it!' I brought my spatula from home, my nightcap. All they put me in was the robe. When R. Kelly saw me in costume getting into character he said, 'Rosie, you are something else. I love you.'"
The arrival of Rosie the nosy neighbor, not to mention a defecating, asthmatic midget stripper and a shotgun-toting white-trash adulteress (sung by Kelly in a hillbilly accent), ignited parodies on Saturday Night Live, MADtv, and South Park. Late last year the LA chapter of the Upright Citizens Brigade, a comedy troupe started in Chicago, hosted a pseudo symposium on the series (with the pooping midget as guest speaker).
"We actually got something coming up for Rosie," R. Kelly said in October when he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, which showed Tittle's scene multiple times. Kelly said he was considering adapting the song cycle for the stage; later that week he told USA Today that a sitcom version was also a possibility.
Though Kelly almost certainly listened to Tittle growing up, he hasn't publicly equated Rosie with Tittle in the Middle. (His publicist did not respond to interview requests for this story.) "I don't think he's made the connection," Tittle says. "And that is excellent, because I want to believe that he just thinks I'm a good actress. This is what I want to do--to bring a character to life."
These days Tittle's datebook is packed: she's been working in commercials and industrial films for clients like Walt Disney World and U.S. Cellular, and she's also begun work on her memoirs and a cookbook based on her TV show. In addition to her work at Kennedy-King College, she teaches video and photography to students at Barton and Cook elementary schools, and she occasionally substitutes at high schools--including her alma mater, Dunbar Vocational.
Last fall she and a friend couldn't resist the opportunity to track down Kelly when they were at the same club. "There was a VIP room upstairs, and I told security I was Rosie the nosy neighbor, and I bogarted my way up there," she says. "When Kelly came in he saw me and hugged me. He had this little area on one side, and I had my little fan area on the other side of the VIP section. So I had my fan, and I was staring at him, getting all up into the character. Later he was coming down the steps, singing while he walked, and he looked at me and said, 'You know, I got a lot of work for you.'
"That's good, I thought, because I want to be Rosie forever," she says. "I want to make enough money to really live next door to R. Kelly."
Cookin' Wit' Tittle
When: Thursdays 7 PM, Fridays 2 PM (rerun), CAN TV
When: Fridays 10 AM-2 PM, WKKC 89.3 FM
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.