Today is Dinah Washington’s birthday.
Dinah 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.Washington’s personal life was turbulent, with seven marriages behind her, and her interpretations showed it, for she displayed a tough, totally unsentimental, yet still gripping hold on the universal subject of lost love. She has had a huge influence on R&B and jazz singers who have followed in her wake, notably Nancy Wilson, Esther Phillips, and Diane Schuur, and her music is abundantly available nowadays via the huge seven-volume series The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury.
Born Ruth Lee Jones, she moved to Chicago at age three and was raised in a world of gospel, playing the piano and directing her church choir. At 15, after winning an amateur contest at the Regal Theatre, she began performing in nightclubs as a pianist and singer, opening at the Garrick Bar in 1942. Talent manager Joe Glaser heard her there and recommended her to Lionel Hampton, who asked her to join his band. Hampton says that it was he who gave Ruth Jones the name Dinah Washington, although other sources claim it was Glaser or the manager of the Garrick Bar. In any case, she stayed with Hampton from 1943 to 1946 and made her recording debut for Keynote at the end of 1943 in a blues session organized by Leonard Feather with a sextet drawn from the Hampton band. With Feather’s “Evil Gal Blues” as her first hit, the records took off, and by the time she left Hampton to go solo, Washington was already an R&B headliner. Signing with the young Mercury label, Washington produced an enviable string of Top Ten hits on the R&B charts from 1948 to 1955, singing blues, standards, novelties, pop covers, even Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” She also recorded many straight jazz sessions with big bands and small combos, most memorably with Clifford Brown on Dinah Jams but also with Cannonball Adderley, Clark Terry, Ben Webster, Wynton Kelly, and the young Joe Zawinul.
‘She was able to get inside any song,’ recalls Joe Zawinul, her early pianist who went on to found the jazz / rock band Weather Report. ‘She cried almost every night when she was singing. She got totally wet from crying and she had the audience crying with her.’
She would demolish musicians who missed notes on stage or who were sloppy in rehearsals. And she would force guest musicians, even the likes of Max Roach, to repeat stumbled passages on stage. Her language became as notorious as her fist fights with club owners and reporters.
Zawinul, though, remembers her as passionately honest and professional, recalling an incident in Odessa, Texas, during segregation when Dinah led the entire band to escape through a bathroom window because Zawinul, the only white musician, was not allowed on stage by the local sheriff. ‘The audience rioted and totally destroyed the club,’ he says, ‘but Dinah didn’t care, she was always totally loyal to her musicians.’
In fact, she married several of them. Nobody seems quite sure if she was married eight or nine times. ‘I’ve been to more Dinah weddings than the rest put together,’ says the singer Patti Austin, Dinah’s god-daughter. ‘She would fall in love with anybody. She might have thrown instruments at musicians but she could as easily shower them with presents. But she had to be tough to survive and she worked on it. I remember a reporter saying that she was the kindest person he had worked with and she screamed at him and told him to write about Dinah the bitch. It wasn’t easy being black, female and famous and she covered herself.’
In 1959, Washington made a sudden breakthrough into the mainstream pop market with “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,” a revival of a Dorsey Brothers hit set to a Latin American bolero tune. For the rest of her career, she would concentrate on singing ballads backed by lush orchestrations for Mercury and Roulette, a formula similar to that of another R&B-based singer at that time, Ray Charles, and one that drew plenty of fire from critics even though her basic vocal approach had not changed one iota.
Although her later records could be as banal as any easy listening dross of the period, there are gems to be found, like Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” which has a beautiful, bluesy Ernie Wilkins chart conducted by Quincy Jones.
In his 2001 biography Q, music legend Quincy Jones vividly describes Washington’s style, saying 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.”
But the singer’s musical gifts were offset by a wild and extravagant personal life. Married seven times, Washington battled weight problems and raced through her profits buying shoes, furs and cars in an effort to lift her spirits.
She was glamorous but never beautiful, perhaps another element which contributed to a growing insecurity. Says Zawinul, ‘She had a beauty in her eyes and she was always well groomed. She had lots of jewellery and made lots of money and carried a pistol every place she went. She was a real modern woman, but she was driving ridiculously fast and there was something in her inner life that troubled her.’
Friday, December 13, 1963 started off like most days in Dinah Washington’s life. She woke up being her fabulous self and decided to go shopping for Christmas presents, dropping $2,400 in one store alone. Later that day, a mink-trimmed sofa was scheduled to be delivered to the Buena Vista Ave., home she shared with Dick “Night Train” Lane on Detroit’s west side. Her sons, Bobby and George, were to arrive home from a prestigious Michigan prep school, and Washington looked forward to a quiet evening at home with family and maybe a friend or two. The friends left, the boys went to bed and the Lane’s retired for the evening with the television still running in their bedroom.
Dick woke up around 3:45 a.m., and found Dinah on the floor. He tried to revive her but all she let out was one long last blue moan. Lane called “the doctor” instead of an ambulance, and soon the whole household was upset because they already sensed what the doctor was soon to pronounce: that the Queen had finally abdicated her throne at the age of 39. Sitting over on the nightstand was one glaring object that wasn’t there the night before – a brand new, open pill bottle. It wasn’t suicide! She had taken just one pill too many.
There were pills to lose weight, pills to gain weight, pills to sleep, pills to wake up, nerve pills – you name it, there was a pill for it and the doctors were only too happy to prescribe them. Dinah Washington had an aversion to the use of street drugs and there are people who want us to know that her drugs were legal drugs as if that makes it any better. Her system finally weakened under the strain. The medical examiner’s report showed an excess of barbiturates in her blood, more than twice the normal dosages of amobarbital and secobarbital – two different types of sedatives. It is thought Washington took them by mistake because they were not properly identified.
She wanted to be laid to rest in Chicago, her exciting adopted hometown. But that monday after her death, there was a memorial service at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. The Rev. C. L. Franklin handled the services and his daughter Aretha sang a solo as thousands braved the below zero temperatures to pay their last respects. By the time Dinah’s body arrived in Chicago to lay in state at the United Funeral Home on Sacramento Blvd., thousands more were gathering. The actual funeral was scheduled for Wednesday, December 18, at 2:00 p.m., at the St. Luke’s Baptist Church, seating capacity 600.
By 2:00, literally thousands of people had jam-packed the church. Mourners had to be escorted from the balcony for fear it would collapse. Between the two cities, it is estimated that 25,000 to 30,000 or more people viewed Dinah’s body with many more outside freezing in the brutal winter temperatures.
Dinah was laid out in a solid bronze casket wearing a diamond tiara. She was dressed in a yellow chiffon evening dress, a white mink stole, white evening gloves, and her feet were covered in jeweled slippers.
One writer called the funeral a “soul-wrenching, heart-draining, foot-stomping, rocking and shouting going away party.” Gospel stars Sallie Martin and then the Roberta Martin Singers rocked the house. Mahalia Jackson sat forlorn and alone & then brought everybody to hysterics during her solo. Clara Ward had to be restrained in her seat.
There were many celebrities in the church including Ella Fitzgerald, who was spotted in the back of the church with her head hung in grief.
Flamboyant ministers such as the Rev. Clarence Cobb and the infamous Prophet Jones made themselves known in other ways. Fans grabbed for souvenirs and funeral programs while Rev. Clay Evans grabbed the mike and sternly reminded everyone that “THIS IS NOT A SHOW.”
Dinah was still in peak voice, still singing the blues in an L.A. club only two weeks before the end.
Quincy Jones, who produced Washington many times, has the film rights to her life story. Oprah Winfrey is pencilled in for the lead role. ‘Dinah has left her mark on so many singers today, but she herself sounds as fresh as most of them,’ says Otis. ‘It’s just a question of time until she becomes huge all over again.’