The Royal Blues: Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington

David Hajdu – The New York Review of Books

Copyright The New York Review of Books
Dinah Washington
by Nadine Cohodas
Pantheon, 559 pp., $28.50
Heartbreak has always been central to country music. In 1953, the Grand Ole Opry star Hank Snow had a hit record called “It Don’t Hurt Anymore,” a folksy paean to a broken heart that began with a lyric that abstracted the theme idiomatically: “It don’t hurt anymore/All my teardrops are dried….” Snow moaned the words to the accompaniment of a mewling fiddle, fixing our attention on the singer’s past suffering. The following year, Dinah Washington, a jazz vocalist who had come up through gospel music and the blues, remade the song. Her first variation was grammatical, a switch of the opening pronoun to the first-person singular. Washington’s recording begins with her voice, a cappella, blaring like a civil defense alarm: “IIIIIIIIIII!” After a beat, she continued the opening phrase (“don’t hurt anymore…”), and a full jazz orchestra kicked in with a hard-driving rhythmic pattern. The singing continued in this crushing mode: Washington hurled out the words as she stormed through the song. Despite the lyrics, she sounded impervious to pain of any sort, and supremely capable of inflicting it.
Recorded a few weeks before Dinah Washington’s thirtieth birthday, fifty years ago, “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” typifies the work of a singer who, through the force of her personality, shifted nearly everything she sang into the first-person singular, whether or not she changed the words. Her music is fiery, uncompromising, and devoid of self-pity. Washington, who made dozens of albums before she died from an overdose of prescription drugs in December 1963, was a rarity among singers, male or female, in the popular music of her era: an unflinching, even merciless figure who was also sensual and musically sophisticated. There were steely women singing before her óBessie Smith in the blues, Sophie Tucker in the music hall, Mildred Bailey in jazz, Ethel Merman on Broadway, Maybelle Carter in country. Yet Washington was unique in her day and an influence on countless singers to follow for her refusal to play her power for laughs (as Smith, Tucker, and Merman did) or (like Bailey and Carter) to downplay her considerable sex appeal.
So popular during her lifetime that she was known initially as the Queen of the Blues and later as the Queen of the Juke Boxes, Dinah Washington is not well remembered today. Her recordings, while still in circulation on CD, no longer appear on the best-seller charts, as do reissues of the music of her idol Billie Holiday and her contemporary Ella Fitzgerald. Nor has her voice been appropriated to add a gloss of cool to the marketing of luxury cars or banking services, as the music of many deceased African-American jazz artists has been. Her face is probably unrecognizable to all but her old fans, pop music scholars, and collectors. A new biography of Washington by Nadine Cohodas, the author of a good social history of the Chicago blues impresarios Leonard and Philip Chess,[1] can now be added to the thin literature on Washington.
The single previous life of the singer, James Haskins’s Queen of the Blues (published in 1987 and now out of print), was short (202 undersized pages of text) and low on biographical and musical detail. Cohodas, draw-ing upon Haskins’s papers and fresh interviews with Washington’s childhood friends, business associates, fellow musicians (including her one-time lover, the jazz arranger and conductor Quincy Jones), and other sources, provides much new information about the singer’s vast creative output, which once made Washington an inescapable presence on American radio, as well as about her volatile personal life, which made her nearly as prominent on the gossip pages. (Among other things, she had at least seven, perhaps eight, husbands.)
Born Ruth Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1924 to struggling parents, a lumberyard worker and a homemaker with some musical talent, the future Dinah Washington moved north with her family during the Great Migration and grew up in Chicago when the city was a virtual hothouse of jazz, blues, and gospel music, all three of which had also been transplanted from the South not long before then. The Jones household was a devoutly Baptist one where “everything was geared to the church and old-fashioned strictness,” Washington would later recall. Encouraged by her mother, a church pianist who gave her some music lessons, Washington started her career at fifteen, performing gospel songs in recitalsóinitially as the vocalist in a mother-daughter duo, soon afterward as a member of the Sallie Martin Singers, a touring group based in Chicago. The teenager was already too free-spirited for the gospel world, however. “Ruth could sing, but I don’t think she liked the [gospel] robe. She was in the group but not of it,” a minister’s daughter told Cohodas. A high school friend of Washington’s whom Cohodas interviewed remembered her as “already stormy” and “wild…boy crazy.” Buxom and alluring in a jolie-laid way no doubt aided by her sexual confidence, Washington would never be at a loss for men, nor would she be satisfied with any of the ones she attracted.
As Arthur Kempton points out in his book Boogaloo,[2] the sacred and the secular have always been inextricable in African-American popular musicó that is, in American popular music, just as black and white are. Dinah Washington’s debt to the gospel music of her apprenticeship is explicit in her earliest secular recordings and it remains in her last, although she never made an album of worship music. Her singing has the ringing power and the free-flowing emotion of gospel. In some songs, such as her version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” her phrases seem to sway back and forth in time, and they build steadily in intensity, the way Baptist preaching does. Cohodas makes frequent mention of Washington’s use of devices common in gospel singing, such as her habit of peppering phrases with interjections such as “Lord!” and emphatic moans or hums. (Cohodas calls them “tics,” and that is what they eventually became.) Indeed, Washington often sounds in the midst of a call-and-response exchange with herself. Above all, what she derived from gospelóand carried to an extreme in her secular musicówas a sense of certainty. There is no doubt in Dinah Washington’s singing; it is music that believes, no matter what the songs are saying, and it expresses its conviction with an almost evangelical zeal.
Washington, like many others who have successfully survived the shark pool of the entertainment industry, was buoyed by an outsize ambition. She married the first of her husbands when she was seventeen, because, she told an interviewer, he “said he’d help me get into show business. I figured this was my opportunity.” Although his assistance proved evanescent, Washington advanced so quickly in the ranks of secular music anyway that she was singing and recording with the popular vibraharpist and big-band leader Lionel Hampton before her nineteenth birthday. (She had by then dropped her first husband and her original name, adopting Dinah Washington, which at least three of her mentors, including Lionel Hampton, would later claim to have given her.) As Variety described her New York premiËre with Hampton at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, “Her fortissimo is socko in a blues speciality that stamps the comely femme as a comer.”
Because we now tend to think of the blues and jazz of the swing era nostalgically and associate the music with older listeners, it is surprising to imagine someone like Dinah Washington, whose portrait has even been on a US postage stamp (depicted with graying hair which she never lived to have), as she was when she first attracted national attention: a hypersexual eighteen-year-old. The fact is, Washington represented the norm for what was then a music made primarily by and for young people. Hampton was playing dance music derided in its time as juvenile and vulgar. Indeed, like Washington, most of the singers (and many of the instrumentalists) in big bands during World War II were teenagers speaking to their peers when they made their first records: Ella Fitzgerald was seventeen; Doris Day, sixteen; Billie Holiday, eighteen; Mel TormÈ, nineteen. (The heart of Hampton’s theme song, “Flying Home,” was an exhilarating tenor saxophone solo by the late Illinois Jacquet, who was nineteen when he recorded it.) They were the Britney Spearses and Justin Timberlakes of the World War II generationókids trading in sexual fantasy. Unlike most of her contemporaries both white and black, however, the young Dinah Washington dispensed with the niceties of romantic allusion and announced her sexuality in vivid terms. Six decades before Britney Spears was cooing “Oops! I Did It Again,” Washington was crowing “I Know How to Do It” in one of her first recordings:
I may be old-fashioned
I may be dumb
I may be a square
And I may be a bum
But I know how to do it
Her earthy, assertive style of singing was ideally suited to the blues, which had been a forum for black women to express their authority on matters carnal and otherwise since Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” in the Twenties. In fact, the image of the big, bad black woman belting out the blues was already a clichÈ by the mid-1940s, when Dinah Washington made her name singing a wry sort of jazz-blues óblues material sung and played with a swing feeling and a wink. Before her first recording session in December 1943, her producer, the white Englishman Leonard Feather, handed Washington one of several songs he had written for her: a near parody of a Bessie Smithñstyle tune called “Evil Gal Blues”:
I’m an evil gal
Don’t you bother with me
I’m an evil gal
Don’t you bother with me
I’ll empty your pockets
And fill you with misery
Cohodas quotes a remark Washington made to Feather, in a comment he would later recount with pride, “Shit, you really think you know me, don’t you?” Of course, as Washington implied with the question, “Evil Gal Blues” speaks more of then-prevalent white perceptions of black defiance than it does of her personality.
Cohodas casts light on Washington’s reputation for toughness. We see her at work playing rough in order to maintain her personal and artistic standards and to protect other African-American artists from racial prejudice. She would hush up a musician who overplayed or scold a member of the audience who disrupted her show. After she was successful, she became “the boss in the studio” and once halted a recording session when she saw that the entire orchestra was white. She resumed the next day, when black musicians were included. During one performance in Las Vegas, the hotel pit boss lowered Washington’s volume to satisfy a high roller from the South who didn’t like her singing; Washington left the stage, walked through the casino, and told the boss, loudly enough for her audience to hear, “Motherfucker, I’m going to turn that [sound] back where it belongs, and if you touch it, I am going to break your fuckin’ ass.”
A friend of hers who witnessed the scene explained to Cohodas, “As long as you treated her with respect, she loved you. If you were going to make her a secondary citizen, you had a tigress on your hands.”
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