“Dinah Washington just about invented Gospel based soulful singing”
- Quincy Jones
Dinah Washington has proven to be the most influential singer of her generation. A case can be made that she even eclipsed her idol, Billie Holiday, in that regard. She has inspired a great number of Jazz and R&B singers, but none more so than Esther Phillips and Nancy Wilson. (For instance, listen to Nancy Wilson’s “How Glad I Am” or just about anything by Esther Phillips for that matter). Known for a pitch perfect and distinctive vocal style with unqualified diction, Washington’s roots were in the Baptist Church.
It was early on after the family moved to Chicago from her birth home of Tuscaloosa Alabama that her mother discovered that four year old Dinah, (born Ruth Lee Jones on August 29, 1924), had a highly developed musical ear. Dinah’s mother, who worked as a domestic, played piano and served as a vocal coach at St. Luke The Baptist local church. Sensing her daughter’s God given ability, she encouraged her to bring her talents to the fore. Starting to play piano in elementary school, it wasn’t long before Dinah was rehearsing her mother’s choir and later singing lead as a teenager.
At 15, with her mother’s blessing, she got her first professional gig singing with a well-known local Gospel ensemble, The Sallie Martin Singers. Once again, Dinah quickly assumed the role of lead singer of the group. But all was not right in Washington’s world in that her heart was elsewhere. Heavily influenced by Billie Holiday’s 1930 recordings, and rationalizing that Sister Rosetta Tharpe was mixing Blues and Gospel – after winning a talent contest at The Regal Theatre – Dinah started moonlighting as a Blues / Cabaret singer. Washington did so without her mother’s knowledge because she knew that she never would have received her consent.
Dinah stayed with Sallie Martin for two years, and at 17, decided to take a stand and follow her first mind – that of entering the secular music field with no looking back. What should be taken into consideration is that although it was a personal artistic decision, financial considerations no doubt played a role. To explain, when the family moved from Tuscaloosa, they did so not only to escape the overt racism of the South but also to hopefully benefit from a more prosperous life. But growing up in Chicago’s South Side proved to hold no better living conditions than those in Alabama. (Washington would mention more than once the roach infested apartment that they inhabited upon their move to the Windy City). The abject poverty would have a lasting effect on Washington and be one of the reasons that she would later overcompensate, as her star brightened, by rewarding herself with unrestrained purchases. (Friends and family would also benefit in that she would shower them with lavish gifts as well).
By the time Dinah had committed herself to her new career, she was already a seasoned entertainer. It wasn’t long before she established herself gaining popularity at all of the high profile Chicago night spots be it The Down Beat Club, The Rhumboogie, or The Garrick Stage Bar. Dinah moved quickly from a gifted Gospel singer to one displaying a mastery of Blues, R&B, Jazz, Pop, and anything in between. During her residency at The Garrick she was introduced to Lionel Hampton who happened to be looking for a female singer. Hampton’s first impressions proved to be right on the mark: “She had that gutty style that they would call R&B. I invited her to sing at The Regal Theatre the next day…she walked out on the stage liked she owned it”.
Ruth Jones was now Dinah Washington, (there’s much conjecture as to how she came to be called DW), and although her three year stay with Hampton was an important career building block, Dinah recognized it correctly as a stepping stone. Dinah wasn’t pleased that she was excluded from Hampton’s Decca recordings. Coupled with that, Dinah was only allowed to sing 2 or 3 numbers a night when she knew she was the star of the show. (That was borne out by Hampton himself: “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”). Therein was another problem as Dinah saw it. That is, none of the songs were Blues which Dinah was sure was where trends were leading and a genre that Dinah was convinced would pay her more than the $75 a week she was making with Hampton.
Dinah stayed with Hampton for 3 years (1943 -1946). While still performing as Hampton’s featured vocalist, Dinah stepped outside to cut some sides on the Keynote label under the supervision of renowned Jazz pianist, composer, producer, and music journalist Leonard Feather. In 1943 the 19 year old Washington cut the Feather composition and Top Ten hit “Evil Gal Blues”. The recording made quite an impression on Feather who said: “After the first take of ‘Evil Gal Blues’ I was convinced that something of lasting value was happening”. He went on to say that “Evil Gal” was arguably the most impressive debut record by a female singer since Bessie Smith’s “Downhearted Blues” in 1923. High praise indeed from someone who was certainly in the know.
The same session yielded another Top Ten hit, (once again written by Feather), “Salty Papa Blues”. Dinah did record as a featured singer on a Hampton release for Decca in a second session with Feather that produced “Blow Top Blues”. However, the Hampton / Feather co-write, that hit # 21 on the charts was released in 1947, a year after Dinah left Hampton. And, while still in Hampton’s employ she recorded 12 sides for the Apollo label in 1945, but the official launch of Dinah’s solo career wasn’t until 1946 when she signed with Mercury Records.
Washington was on Mercury Records for a highly successful run from 1946 through 1961 recording 444 sides for the label. She would also record with Roulette, but it was during her Mercury years that Dinah – the label’s top selling artist with more than 30 hits – rose to stardom while being well rewarded financially for her efforts. (As an example, in 1949 a 25 year old Dinah was making over $100,000 annually – more than 1.1 million dollars in today’s money).
Still, Dinah’s relationship with Mercury was a stormy one. She was never satisfied, finding fault with the label on a number of fronts including how Mercury was promoting her as “Queen Of The Blues”. Her complaint was not only that Bessie Smith already had the title, but also that it was limiting because as Dinah said “I can sing anything”. And she could, as evidenced by her many hits crossing all genre boundaries.
Although she had numerous hits, Dinah’s probably best remembered for the three recordings inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame for their qualitative and historical significance:
“What A Difference A Day Makes” – a # 8 hit in 1959 that earned Dinah a Grammy, was inducted in 1998
“Teach Me Tonight” – a 1954 recording inducted in 1999
“Unforgettable” – a 1959 recording inducted in 2001
In addition, Dinah is also known for a couple of double entendre numbers that fall into the “Dirty Blues” category and display her playful, bold, sassy side: “Long John Blues” and “Big Long Sliding Thing”. “Long John” is a song about her dentist: “He took out his trusty drill / Told me to open wide / He said he wouldn’t hurt me/ But filled my whole inside”. Like “Long John”, “Sliding Thing”, (supposedly about a trombonist), leaves little to the imagination.
On a more serious note, among her albums, her 1954 release Dinah Jams merits essential listening. Recorded live before a studio audience, the date intersperses vocals and hot instrumentals with Dinah holding her own with Jazz heavyweights including Clifford Brown, Clarke Terry, and Max Roach. Dinah contributes moving, impeccable renditions of “Lover Come Back To Me”, “Come Rain Or Come Shine”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, and “You Go To My Head”. Not only is the recording a display of her immense vocal artistry it does so in a setting that matches her with peerless musicians that challenge her and push her to inspired heights.
Dinah also cemented her reputation with outstanding live performances. Among her high profile achievements were headlining appearances at The Newport Jazz Festival from1955 to 1959. (In particular, her 1958 appearance singing “All Of Me” is a highlight of the classic film Jazz On A Summer’s Day). And, Dinah also appeared frequently at historic Jazz venues such as Birdland and The Village Vanguard.
Dinah’s other prevalent qualities were less flattering. Namely, her tempestuous temper that, when combined with her inordinate consumption of alcohol – she loved fine brandy – made for a devastating combination. And, making matters worse, anyone in the vicinity of the target of her wrath was collateral damage, and suffered her scorn as well.
No one was safe from her disdain be they record executives, backing musicians, fans, or fellow artists. Etta James tells a story of playing in a small club, and upon hearing that Washington was in town and planning on catching her midnight show, decided to perform “Unforgettable” in her honour. Etta said: “I didn’t even get to the chorus when I heard this earth shattering crash. Dinah got up off her chair, swept all the glasses and plates off her table, and pointed at me screaming ‘Bitch, don’t you ever sing the Queen’s song when the Queen is right in front of you’”.
Such tantrums and scenes of arrogance were commonplace for Dinah. It was said that she had an outsized ego and a temperament that could move from angelic to demonic and back in a flash. It all stemmed from a deep rooted insecurity that took her to extreme depths of self-doubt. Her personal life was in constant turmoil, falling in and out of love on a continual basis, in search of devoted acceptance from a true soul mate. Depending on the source, Dinah had 7 or 8 or 9 marriages, and numerous affairs on the side. (Dinah was famous for saying of marriage: “If you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, get a new dog”).
Adding to her insecurities, Dinah – who was a short and stocky in stature – was excessively concerned with her looks. She battled weight problems, was always going on crash diets, and turned to prescription medications – mostly for weight loss and insomnia – that would prove to be her downfall. Also playing a role in her uncertainty was that Dinah never forgot her once impoverished life. She raced through life buying shoes, furs, cars, and anything else to simultaneously make her forget her humble beginnings and lift her spirits.
On the morning of December 14, 1963, Dinah’s last husband, Dick “Night Train” Lane, couldn’t wake her from what he initially thought was a deep sleep. The subsequent medical examiner’s report stated an excess of barbiturates in her blood – more than twice the dosage of two different sedatives. It was thought that Dinah took them by mistake because they were not properly identified. Dinah Washington, “Miss D”, “Queen of The Blues” was dead at the relatively young age of 39.
Dinah Washington was truly one of the most beloved and controversial singers of the 20th century. In addition to Washington’s many artistic accomplishments, she paved the way for African Americans in commercial Pop music and was the first Black woman to star in Las Vegas. Gone but hardly forgotten, among many other acknowledgments, Dinah Washington was inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993.
A SELECTED DINAH WASHINGTON PLAYLIST
- Evil Gal Blues
- Salty Papa Blues
- Blow Top Blues
- A Slick Chick (On A Mellow Side)
- Ain’t Misbehavin’
- Long John Blues
- Big Long Slidin’ Thing
- Baby Get Lost
- Am I Asking Too Much
- I Wanna Be Loved
- Trouble In Mind
- Lover Come Back To Me
- Come Rain Or Come Shine
- I’ve Got You Under My Skin
- You Go To My Head
- Mad About The Boy
- Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby
- Teach Me Tonight
- All Of Me
- What A Difference A Day Makes
- This Bitter Earth
- Cry Me A River
- After You’ve Gone
- Me And My Gin
- Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair
- Rico Ferrara, October 2021
One thought on “DINAH WASHINGTON – Evil Gal”
She defined an era, with such a beautiful and lonesome voice.
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