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Forebears: The Mercurial And Majestic Dinah Washington

Dinah Washington's impeccable voice was sleek, bright and high-flying; but beyond her technical power, she made history with style.
Hulton Archive
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Dinah Washington's impeccable voice was sleek, bright and high-flying; but beyond her technical power, she made history with style.

This essay is one in a series celebrating women whose major contributions in recording occurred before the time frame of NPR Music's list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.

What a Diff'rence a Day Makes, released in 1959, was her biggest record, and not a single person who knew Dinah Washington could describe her any better than that. Her temperament was so changeable that a producer at Mercury Records reportedly kept four to five different playlists of prospective songs that she might sing during a recording session, hoping that one might match her mood. But Washington's mood — like a sneaky left hook — was not so easily divined. Some of those songs probably never got sung. On any day and at any hour, Mercury was going to need another playlist.

It didn't matter. Washington had a spectacular career and her hits — one after another — were moneymakers on the R&B and pop charts. From 1946 to 1961 she recorded more than 400 songs on the Mercury label, ranging from jazz to blues to country & western to pop. She fronted orchestras and combos and sometimes recorded before a live audience. As Washington put it, "I can sing anything, anything at all." And she did.

Her voice was mid-century modern — sleek and bright and suffused in light — with lots of clean, hard surfaces. It was too loud and too insistent to get lost in old-fashioned arrangements. It was also high-flying: She could rise above violins or a brass section like an eagle over tall pines. Washington had perfect diction, never omitted lyrics and could read music, in the words of then-Mercury producer Quincy Jones, "almost at sight."

Those were her technical merits. But Washington made history on style. She seemed to have a symbiotic relationship with her material — the song was her and she was it. Lyrics, no matter who wrote them, became autobiographical and her name an unspoken word in the titles — (Dinah's) Bitter Earth, Cry (Dinah) a River, Teach (Dinah) Tonight, (Dinah) Could Write a Book, A Rockin' Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love (with Dinah)).

In fact, she was born Ruth Lee Jones in 1920s Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her family moved to Chicago when she was a button of a girl and her mother made a living as a music teacher. Mother and daughter thrived in the church they attended and Ruth, who also played piano, toured with the Sallie Martin Singers before choosing a future in secular music. While still a teenager and working in the ladies room at the Garrick Stage Bar in Chicago, Ruth sang the blues so convincingly that bandleader Lionel Hampton had to come and see for himself.

Of course, Hampton hired her. He also claimed to have renamed her "Dinah Washington." So did talent manager Joe Glaser and Chicago club owner Joe Sherman. And Chicago club owner Joe Sherman. But the men dared not take credit for much more relating to her success. Hampton played on Washington's first solo recording in 1943 as an uncredited artist. "And it was a hit anyway," said the British-born songwriter, producer and jazz critic Leonard Feather. "Because it was Dinah who really sold the records." The sides she sang — Evil Gal Blues and Salty Papa Blues— were re-workings of songs Feather had written with other artists in mind. But Washington's versions connected with audiences. Feather also wrote Blow Top Blues — a 1945 hit featuring her with Hampton — and Baby Get Lost, which Washington took to No. 1 in 1949 on the R&B chart.

And yet, the details of Washington's trajectory — rural to urban — gospel to blues, jazz to pop, husband to husband to husband to husband to husband (her friends counted seven to nine of them) — are forever embedded in the way she sang her songs. In her tears on stage. In her playful, behind-the-beat timing. In her melisma — the bending or breaking of a note — that was reminiscent of blues phenomenon Bessie Smith. In the way she could shout like Sallie Martin did in church. In the sex appeal that's ever-present in her discography. Who but Washington could deliver a provocative lyric about a dentist or a trombonist, then sing without irony about Santa Claus?

Contemporary singers Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan— who also straddled jazz and pop music — never tried to sing the low down blues as Washington did. Nor did Rosemary Clooney or Nancy Wilson.

Not even Aretha Franklin, a true disciple, could replicate Washington's carnal delight when singing about men. For Franklin, the preacher's daughter, desire was a beguiling but potentially soul-crushing thing. And yet for Washington, the losses sounded more like split decisions. She had her share — seven to nine marriages meant at least six to eight divorces. But she was an aggressive fighter. After all, Washington chastised her duet partner Brook Benton — on record — when he made a mistake during the 1960 R&B smash Baby, You've Got What it Takes. She also reportedly beat up hecklers after her concerts.

And yet fans continued buying her records. Between 1955 and 1962, Washington had at least 19 chart appearances. She packed Las Vegas clubs and Carnegie Hall. Fellow musicians also loved her — Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Louis Armstrong, her accompanist Joe Zawinul, who later co-founded Weather Report. That's because she never sang the same song the same way twice.

In 1963, not long after moving to Roulette Records, Washington died at home in Detroit at the age of 39.

News reports described the cause as a seemingly accidental overdose of alcohol and pills. Aretha's father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, presided at the funeral and she later recorded an entire album in Washington's honor. Since then, scores of performers — including Bette Midler, Catherine Russell, Dana Owens (aka Queen Latifah) and Amy Winehouse have covered her songs. In 1993, Washington was inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in the "early influences" category.

And yet, no modern singer has had Washington's particular combination of talent, sass and pluck. "She was a mischievous queen, she was," Abbey Lincoln once said of her. "Yeah, she was really mischievous. And it's all in her music."

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Gwen Thompkins is a New Orleans native, NPR veteran and host of WWNO's Music Inside Out, where she brings to bear the knowledge and experience she amassed as senior editor of Weekend Edition, an East Africa correspondent, the holder of Nieman and Watson Fellowships, and as a longtime student of music from around the world.