Spotlight on ……
“Dinah Washington was one of a kind,” says author Dan Morgenstern in his book Living with Jazz: A Reader. Stories of her flamboyance, her temper and her many marriages and affairs often obscure the fact that she was a consummate musician. In her biography Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington author Nadine Cohodas quotes trumpeter Clark Terry saying, “You don’t forget her--her tonality. She had pitch. Her intonation was fantastic. Her diction was impeccable.” Arranger Quincy Jones says, “She had a voice that was like the pipes of life. She could take the melody in her hand, hold it like an egg, crack it open, fry it, let it sizzle, reconstruct it, put the egg back in the box and back in the refrigerator, and you would’ve still understood every single syllable of every single word she sang.” “She was a natural--bottomless talent,” says arranger/producer Mitch Miller. “She was the boss in the studio. She told the band what to do.”
Known as "The Queen" or "Miss D," vocalist Dinah Washington emerged one of the most versatile cross-over artists of the post World War era. Her gospel-trained voice--noted for its rhythmical precision and tonal clarity--performed blues, jazz, and ballads with equal authority. Arnold Shaw, in his book Honkers and Shouters: Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues, stated "She had a flutelike voice, sinuous, caressing, and penetrating. Master of all devices of the blues and gospel shadings--the bent notes, the broken notes, the slides, the anticipations, and the behind-the-beat notes--she handled them with intensity that came from her early church training."
Born Ruth Lee Jones in Alabama on August 29, 1924, Dinah knew as child what she wanted from life. She became deeply involved in gospel and played piano for the choir in St Luke's Baptist Church while she was still in elementary school. She sang gospel music in church and played piano, directing her church choir in her teens and being a member of the Sallie Martin Gospel Singers. She sang lead with the first female gospel singers formed by Ms Martin, who was co-founder of the Gospel Singers Convention. Jones' involvement with the gospel choir occurred after she won an amateur contest at Chicago's Regal Theater, at age 15, where she sang "I Can't Face the Music".
She married at 17 and subsequently worked in local nightclubs. By 1941-42 she was performing in such Chicago clubs as Dave's Rhumboogie and the Downbeat Room (with Fats Waller) of the Sherman Hotel. Jones worked as washroom attendant at a downtown lounge, the Garrick, often singing with the house band led by trumpeter Walter Fuller.
In 1943 Jones' performances at the Garrick gained the attention of music manager Joe Glaser who informed bandleader Lionel Hampton about the young singing washroom attendant. Hampton, whose band was booked at Chicago's Regal Theatre came to listened to the young singer. Immediately impressed, he invited her to sit-in with his orchestra. Following Jones' impressive Regal guest-performance Hampton hired the young vocalist and gave her the stage name Dinah Washington (other sources credit the name change to Glaser or the Garrick's owner, Joe Sherman). Because of the American Federation of Musician's recording ban (August 1942 to October 1943), and the fact that Hampton's contract with Decca solely required instrumental music, Washington recorded only one side during her three-year stint with the orchestra. Though not a featured recording artist, Washington's live performances with Hampton's orchestra became legendary. As Hampton recalled, in his memoir Hamp, "Dinah alone could stop the show....I had to put her down next to closing, because nobody could follow her. She had a background in gospel, and she put something new into the popular songs I had her sing."
Jazz critic Leonard Feather caught her with the Hampton band that December of 1943 at Harlem’s Apollo and convinced Keynote Records to sponsor her debut session. She made her recording debut for the Keynote label that December with "Evil Gal Blues", written by Leonard Feather and backed by Hampton and musicians from his band, including Joe Morris (trumpet) and Milt Buckner (piano). Both that record and its follow-up, "Salty Papa Blues", made Billboard's "Harlem Hit Parade" in 1944.
Despite the success of her blues recordings, Washington did not return to the studio until May of 1945 when she cut Leonard Feather's "Blow Top Blues" with the Lionel Hampton Sextet (a single that later became a 1947 hit). While in Los Angeles in December of 1945, Washington made several blues recordings for the Apollo label. Backed by saxophonist Lucky Thompson's eight-piece band, the Apollo dates featured several guest musicians such as Charles Mingus and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Washington's voice on the Apollo sides, noted Arnold Shaw in Honkers and Shouters, "had a velvet sheen, and, in its bluer moments, it tore like silk, not satin."
At the same time, Washington was interacting with some serious jazz royalty. She recorded with trumpeters Clifford Brown and Clark Terry, drummer Max Roach, and saxophonists Lockjaw Davis and Cannonball Adderley in the mid-Fifties, utilized Quincy Jones’s budding talents as an arranger, and employed pianist Wynton Kelly, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and tenor saxophonist Eddie Chamblee in her combo for extended stretches. (Chamblee was also one of her many husbands.)
In late 1946 Washington left Hampton's band for a solo career. During the same year, she recorded her anthem "Slick Chick on the Mellow Side" for Verve Records. Around this time, Washington received the billing "The Queen of the Blues"--a title she vehemently rejected (originally the title belonged to Bessie Smith). Yet she could sing blues with authority, as evidenced on her 1947 number "Long John Blues." Written by Washington "Long John Blues" told, in double entendre and bawdy lyricism, the tale of a dentist lover and his sexually satisfying ways.
In 1948 Washington signed a contract with the recently founded Mercury label. Her first record was a version of Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'", which was the start of a long string of success. Between 1948 and 1955, she had 27 R&B top ten hits, making her one of the most popular and successful singers of the period. Both "Am I Asking Too Much" (1948) and "Baby Get Lost" (1949) reached # 1 on the R&B chart, and her version of "I Wanna Be Loved" (1950) crossed over to reach # 22 on the US pop chart. In 1950 she recorded with the saxophonist Dave Young's orchestra, and by 1952 scored a number four hit with the blues classic "Trouble in Mind." By 1953 Washington made numerous sides with strings. As Mercury records producer Bobby Shad recalled, in Honkers and Shouters, "I recorded Dinah with strings and probably cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars ... She was a fantastic singer, unbelievable artist. But you had to catch her on the right night. She thought nothing of being up all night to eight a.m. and then record at ten a.m."
During the mid to late 1950s Washington recorded in the company of many of the finest jazz musicians of the period from drummer Jimmy Cobb to saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderly. Washington's 1954 album, Dinah Jams, caught her in a live Mercury studio date. The LP's Los Angeles-based sessions included a nucleus group made up of the newly formed Clifford-Brown Max Roach Quintet, and guest trumpeters Clark Terry and Maynard Ferguson, as well as Washington's sideman, pianist Junior Mance and bassist Keeter Betts.
In 1954 her album After Hours with Miss D. was reviewed as a jazz album in Billboard Down Beat, and Metronome magazines and followed up by Dinah Jams which gave her solid footing in the jazz world as did her appearance with Max Roach at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Her hit singles defied categories, ranging from blues to pop ballads. Between 1955 and 1962, no less than nineteen of her records made the charts,
During March of 1955, Washington returned to the studio. Rejoined by Cobb, Terry, and other guests including saxophonist Paul Quinchette and pianist Wynton Kelly, she recorded the LP Dinah Washington: For Those in Love. Arranged by Quincy Jones, this jazz-based collection of standards included "This Can't Be Love," "I Could Write a Book," and "You Don't Know What Love Is." The latter number, noted Barry Kernfield in The Blackwell Record Guide, "is a song of love leading to agony," and "[Washington] convinces us that she knows fully, direct from experience." Among the album's plaintive torch songs, "Blue Gardenia," noted Jazz scholar Dan Morgenstern, in the liner notes to Dinah Washington, The Jazz Sides, emerged "one of Dinah's greatest ballads. The tune and lyric are first-rate, and she creates and sustains a rare mood....Dinah does the bridge ad lib and then the band follows her out as she reaches the lofty plateau inhabited by Billie Holiday."
Despite her expanding artistic talent, Washington possessed a difficult and demanding personality. In 1957 she worked an extended engagement at Chicago's Roberts Show Club. In The Autobiography of Black Jazz, the club's owner, Herman Roberts, recalled, "Dinah was a very complex person ... If I made a comment about her show and she knew it wasn't her idea, she would automatically reject it. She wanted to be the creator of everything she did." As Roberts added, "She was both vain and insecure," and would "cuss out" customers "without really knowing whether they were saying something derogatory or whether they were complimenting her." In the following years, Washington would often make headlines regarding foul-mouthed comments and abrupt behavior. She often appeared in multi-colored wigs, full length and tight fitting-dresses, and was known to openly criticize performers whom she considered distastefully dressed.
She toured and recorded relentlessly, a pattern she maintained throughout her career, and earned the title of “Queen of the Blues” and “Juke Box Queen.” Although she began as a “race artist” singing the blues, she branched out into R&B and pop ballads and then began performing with jazz artists such as Dizzy Gillespie and Gene Ammons. She has been cited as "the most popular black female recording artist of the '50s.
By 1957 Washington married her fifth husband, tenor saxophonist Eddie Chamblee, and would, over the next few years, marry four more times (though not all of these nine marriages were legally confirmed). Though she suffered through several successive short-lived marriages and battled personal problems, Washington continued on a promising music career. She performed two sets at 1958 Newport Jazz Festival--one of which appeared in part for the documentary film Jazz On a Summer's Day.
After years of being featured as a blues and jazz-style singer Washington made the fully fledged leap to pop stardom thanks to the lovely Belford Hendricks-arranged ballad "What a Diff’rence a Day Makes", which made # 4 on the US pop chart. Her band at that time included Kenny Burrell (guitar), Joe Zawinul (piano), and Panama Francis (drums).
It was that particular recording that brought Dinah to new audiences. Stylistically the song didn’t fit any category. Says Cohodas, “It was a singular recipe: strings from the mainstream, a beat from rhythm and blues, leavened with Dinah’s soul.” Although the song appealed to listeners across the board, it won a Grammy in the rhythm and blues category as best recording of 1959.
Under A&R man Clyde Otis’s market-savvy direction, she mined more pop gold by following it up with a version of Nat King Cole’s "Unforgettable" and "This Bitter Earth". A ballad set in an orchestral accompaniment; ”This Bitter Earth" opens in bleak lyrical mood and by its closing lines is transformed by Washington into a ballad of love found within an otherwise cold and uncaring world
She followed it up with two highly successful duets in 1960 with Brook Benton, "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" (# 5 pop, # 1 R&B) and "A Rockin' Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love) (# 7 pop, # 1 R&B). Her last big hit was "September In The Rain" in 1961 (# 23 pop, 5 R&B). It was Otis’s brainstorm to pair Washington with her deep-voiced label mate Brook Benton; their seemingly playful duet "Baby, You Got What It Takes" masked serious tension between the two, but the end result was a giant pop and R&B hit in 1960.
According to Richard S. Ginell at Allmusic:
"[She] was at once one of the most beloved and controversial singers of the mid-20th century - beloved to her fans, devotees, and fellow singers; controversial to critics who still accuse her of selling out her art to commerce and bad taste. Her principal sin, apparently, was to cultivate a distinctive vocal style that was at home in all kinds of music, be it R&B, blues, jazz, middle of the road pop - and she probably would have made a fine gospel or country singer had she the time. Hers was a gritty, salty, high-pitched voice, marked by absolute clarity of diction and clipped, bluesy phrasing..."
Voted as one of the "Giants of Jazz" (in the vocalist category) in Leonard Feather's 1960 work, The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Washington began the decade in anticipation of reaching new artistic and commercial heights. In 1962, Dinah hired a backing trio that called themselves the Allegros. The male trio consisted of Jimmy Thomas on drums, Earl Edwards on sax, and Jimmy Sigler on organ. Edwards was eventually replaced by John Payne on sax. A Variety writer praised their vocals as "effective choruses".
During that same year she recorded for the Roulette label. Though most of Washington's Roulette material proved weak pop material, she did cut Back to the Blues, an album that, as John Koetzner noted in Jazz: The Essential Record Guide, "captures the moment when Washington made an effort to return to her roots, and while it might not quite get there, she handles the material in such a way that it recalls her best singing on those early records." Six of the tracks were co-written by Washington, and, as Koetzner added, "she closes with 'Me and My Gin,' and there's an ominous sense that's she's long been living the song."
Around the time of her Roulette recordings, Washington established a small restaurant in Detroit. In 1963 she worked with Count Basie in Chicago and Duke Ellington in Detroit. That same year, at age 39, she married her ninth husband, Detroit Lions defensive back, Dick "Nightrane" Lane. Recently married and not planning to perform until after the New Year, Washington, who persistently fought to keep her weight down, went on a crash diet.
Dinah had always been plump and self-conscious about her looks. As early as the late ‘40s she had tried crash diets which left her weak and nauseous. In the fifties she periodically took prescription medications to lose weight, leading to sleeping pills and uppers. It was a combination of prescription medications and alcohol that led to a heart attack, which caused her untimely death.
Early on the morning of December 14, 1963, Washington's husband went to sleep with his wife, and awoke later to find her slumped over and not responsive. Doctor B. C. Ross came to the scene to pronounce her dead. An autopsy later showed a lethal combination of secobarbital and amobarbital which contributed to her death at the age of 39. She is buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
Singer Ruth Brown recalled, in her memoir Miss Rhythm, "I know Dinah's death was accidental, for that lady had too much in life to ever put an end to it. I believe she got those pills mixed up because she was desperately trying to lose weight with the aid of mercury injections pumped into her by her 'weight doctor'....We know today that mercury builds up in the system and can cause liver failure....[Her] final deadly cocktail of brandy and sleeping pills" may have quickly ended her life. Washington's funeral services were held by prominent Detroit church leader, Reverend C.L. Franklin (the father of Aretha Franklin) at his New Bethel Church, where the Queen's body laid in a bronze coffin.
Washington left behind a vast body of work containing powerfully moving performances and accompaniment by some the finest jazz and studio musicians of the period. Often backed by modernist jazzmen, she nevertheless remained uninfluenced by the scat stylings of bebop. A powerful exponent of blues, Washington's role in the idiom has, nevertheless, been overemphasized by journalistic music writers (despite her stereotyped billing as "blues singer" she is rarely listed in books on the subject). By emphasizing Washington's early blues period many writers have overlooked her gospel training--the integral influence responsible for a projecting delivery and vibrant soulfulness. Proud of her claim that she could sing any kind of music, Washington possessed, as Linda Dahl asserted in Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women, "a riveting personality" which "came through all her material." Testament to her musical diversity, Washington is often mentioned in works dealing with jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues.
Today Washington's voice accompanies commercials and film soundtracks such as Bridges of Madison Country, which included the numbers "Blue Gardenia" and "Soft Winds." Among the large number of her rerelease are The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury Vol. I-7, a seven volume CD set as well as reissues of her earlier blues material. In 1993 the US Postal Service issued, as part of a tribute to rhythm and blues singers series, a stamp in the Queen's honor, reminding Americans of a great vocalist and a woman of unique character and uncompromising integrity.
Dinah Washington's 20-year career influenced younger singers from Ruth Brown to Nancy Wilson. Performing at the London Palladium, with Queen Elizabeth sitting in a box, Dinah told the audience: "There is but one Heaven, one Hell, one queen, and your Elizabeth is an imposter". Imperious was the word for Dinah.