Nadine Cohodas’s Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington is the landmark biography of the brief, intensely lived life and soulful music of the great Dinah Washington.
A gospel star at fifteen, she was discovered by jazz great Lionel Hampton at eighteen, and for the rest of her life was on the road, playing clubs, or singing in the studio — making music one way or another.
Dinah’s tart and heartfelt voice quickly became her trademark; she was a distinctive stylist, crossing over from the “race” music category to the pop and jazz charts. Known in her day as Queen of the Blues and Queen of the Juke Boxes, Dinah was regarded as that rare “first take” artist, her studio recordings reflecting the same passionate energy she brought to the stage. She suffered her share of heartbreak in her personal life, but she thrived on the growing audience response that greeted her signature tunes: “What A Difference A Day Makes,” “Evil Gal Blues,” and “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes),” with Brook Benton. She made every song she sang her own.
Dinah lives large in Queen, with her seven marriages; her penchant for clothes, cars, furs, and diets; and her famously feisty personality — testy one moment and generous the next. Cohodas meticulously researched this subject; Queen is the fist book on Dinah to draw on extensive interviews with family members and newly discovered documents.#
In a September, 2004 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Cohodas talks about the life of Dinah Washington — a complex woman who was born to entertain, and to be loved.
“She had a voice that was like the pipes of life. She could take any 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. Every single melody she sang she made hers. Once she put her soulful trademark on a song, she owned it and it was never the same.”
– Quincy Jones
JJM How did Dinah Washington’s music affect you to the point that you chose to spend a good deal of your life writing about hers?
NC I discovered Bessie Smith first and then backtracked a little to Ma Rainey. By the time I bought my first Dinah Washington record, it was after she had languished some following her death, and when Polygram — the successor to Mercury Records and one of Dinah’s labels — began reissuing some of her work. The one I bought was Slick Chick: On the Mellow Side, which had an intriguing cover and wonderful songs. I brought it home and thought that it was pretty wonderful music. I enjoyed the sound of her voice and the sass in it. But this was twenty-two years ago, and I was in Washington, D.C., writing about Congress and the Judiciary committee for Congressional Quarterly, which consumed all of my focus. Listening to music is what one does in those “off moments.” During this time, Dinah remained in my consciousness, albeit somewhat in the background.
The first music adventure for me was through freelance articles, and that is what led me to the Chess Brothers, who I wrote about in Spinning Blues Into Gold. After the book came out, Dinah came charging back to the forefront. I always remembered the sound of her voice and her intriguingly complicated private life. I did some research to determine if a definitive biography already existed, and felt that there was room for a serious treatment of her life. she is a wonderful singer who left an extraordinary music legacy, and in my view she has been under-appreciated and under-recognized.
JJM When did Dinah — known as Ruth Jones in her youth — first show signs of musical talent?
NC Almost from the moment she opened her mouth and sang in public, which was in church. When she moved to Chicago at age four, her mother got very involved in Saint Luke Baptist, right in the heart of the city’s black belt. Ruth started singing. According to the Chicago Defender, by the time she was fifteen she was already a little star, enough to be giving solo recitals. As a result of her success, she hooked up with Sallie Martin, the colleague and one time business partner of the great Thomas Dorsey. So, she possessed this great talent at an early age, but she told her mother that she wanted to be a showgirl.
JJM As a young singer herself, what singer most intrigued her?
NC By her own accounts and those of many others, I would have to say Billie Holiday. In the very first publicity picture taken of Dinah when she was with Lionel Hampton, she is wearing a patterned dress slit up the side, high heeled shoes, and her hair is cut in a Paige-boy with a gardenia pinned to it, just like Lady Day.
JJM Having been married seven times, it’s safe to say that Dinah had her share of troubles with men. Did she exhibit any signs at all of being boy crazy during her youth?
NC From what I could gather, I would say it was maybe a little bit the opposite of boy crazy. However, having said that, I need to add that the reporting challenge in this biography was as great as anything I have ever done. What you read in the book, for good or ill, is what I was able to dig out. I was very grateful to find people who remembered her from high school who could help me understand Dinah as well as the community in which she lived. I think that Dinah — still Ruth at this time — felt that her talent was her strongest asset, and that she wasn’t a little Lena Horne or a little Dorothy Dandridge.
She very frankly talks about her first husband as a way to get out of the house and be able to be on her own. Then, one encounter led to another. It is important to remember that the entertainer’s life, even to this day, is not easy. It demands a lot of work away from home. A performer is always on the road or in a club, and the work almost exclusively is done at night. While most of us do our work in the daylight hours and when it gets dark we go to bed, it is the opposite for them.
JJM So, as far as you can tell, even though she seemed to have so many insecurities around men during her adult years, nothing you were able to uncover of her time as a young adult was particularly unusual regarding her relationship with boys
NC Nothing beyond amateur psychological analysis, which I am not comfortable with. But there is one thing we can say; in some respects you can make the argument that there is a streak of moralism in her regarding her need to be married to the man she felt close to. When she developed a relationship that felt good to her, she thought she ought to be married instead of just hanging around. I do believe that was important to her. The other thing that I keep coming back to as well is that many of her contemporaries also had very difficult personal lives, among them Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Ruth Brown. They also went through a lot of men. I don’t mean this to be a cheap “out,” but I think failed relationships come with the territory, and it falls with a kind of singular difficulty on women. It is not to say that there weren’t a lot of men out there having similar struggles, but we notice it more when they happen to women.
JJM True. When she joined Lionel Hampton’s band, right away she discovered that she had some things going against her
NC Yes. Imagine how hurtful it could be to a young woman like Dinah to be around an all male band who enjoyed telling stories in a jocular manner. Hers was a raw talent — raw in the most basic sense of the word. She didn’t come from a wealthy family, and in fact, she barely had a suitcase. When she walked on the band’s bus, the reaction she received from the members was, “Oh my God, this is our new singer?”
JJM Situations like this drove her on a life long quest to keep her weight down…
NC Yes, and to look good, not only sound good. She loved mink, which was a sign of status. As soon as stars of the era could afford one, they would buy a fur, along with beautiful jewelry and fancy cars. But what was so striking to me was that the first thing that Dinah did was buy a house, at age twenty-three, for her mother and siblings. Her sister Clarissa said that from the moment Dinah started making money, their lives improved.
JJM You wrote of her early stage career, “Hampton had plucked her out of the Garrick Stagebar and taken her out on the road without any advance planning. She was ‘raggedy,’ he admitted, and it was true that Dinah didn’t have fancy dresses and the accessories to go with them. Back in Chicago, she confided to friends, she had had to borrow her mother’s nylon stockings every now and then when she was trying to get jobs in the clubs.” Who helped Dinah develop her on stage image?
NC Well, the best evidence I have is that it was Gladys Hampton, Lionel’s wife. I believe it was Gladys who helped Dinah get a sense of how to look nice on stage. Because they were similar in size, early on Dinah could borrow some of Gladys’s gowns, before she figured out what she wanted to look like and before she could afford the clothing herself.
JJM Of his wife’s influence on Dinah, Hampton said, “What was interesting after Gladys went to work, the guys in the band started noticing Dinah’s legs and feet, and they nicknamed her ‘Legs.'”
NC There is a photograph in the book of Dinah standing with Lionel on stage, in which she displays a kind of innocent exuberance. It is hardly a smashingly stylish look. Contrast that with some of the later pictures, for example one of her at the Newport Jazz Festival in a mink stole, and many others in which she is looking pretty great.
JJM She entered Hampton’s band as Ruth Jones but left it as Dinah Washington Correct?
NC That was one of the great things that I discovered. She herself discredited the notion that it was Hampton who came up with the stage name Dinah Washington. She credits Chicago club owner Joe Sherman, who gave her her first singing job. I believe that is true because I found a little clip in Down Beat that talked about Dinah Washington making her South side debut, singing with Lionel Hampton. So she already was Dinah when Hampton found her and brought her to the city’s Regal Theater.
JJM So, how did Sherman come up with that name?
NC As the critic/producer/writer Leonard Feather noted, this was during a time when Ethel Waters — who was a heroine to so many black women in the entertainment world, and justifiably so — had recorded “Dinah,” (“Is there anyone finer?”), and Dinah Shore was making her ascent in mainstream white America. So “Dinah” could resonate in two worlds. Washington was the name of a president and had something of an aristocratic bearing. When the names are put together –Dinah Washington the rhythm of her name is the same as those of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Two syllable first names, three syllable last names, all taken together an evocative choice.
JJM Regarding her departure from Hampton’s band in 1945, Dinah said, “I knew I was going to be the best singer in the business, but wasn’t getting anywhere with Hampton.” How did they part ways?
NC There is a story that Dinah had a little pistol she pulled on Hampton to get out of the contract, but Dinah herself never said that, nor did Hampton, including in his autobiography. So, while neither of them mentions this story, and I found no evidence that it was true, I felt I had to mention it as a myth. What is more important was getting the reader to understand what it meant to be the girl singer in a big band. Here is Dinah — a kid at the time — brimming with talent, energy, determination, who wants to sing and record, but she only gets to sing two songs a night. Hampton and his band are the stars, and she has to sit by the side of the stage until she is called. By this time, at the end of 1945, Dinah is twenty-one years old and living in Los Angeles, and decides to give it a go on her own. She leaves Hampton and within two weeks she is in a little studio making blues sides for Apollo Records, a New York independent label.
JJM After she left Hampton, what difficulties did she encounter as a solo artist?
NC I am tempted to say that Dinah made a pretty smooth transition. She walked out of the job with Hampton, and two weeks later was in the studio recording these sides for Apollo. Not much later, they are released. She goes back to Chicago, and Beryl Adams, who hooked up with Irving Green to start Mercury Records, said he wanted to sign her to his label because he felt she could help his “race” division. On January 14th, 1946, not even two months after she left Hampton, she was in the studio recording for Mercury, and by February, her first Mercury single came out. So, one could argue on that score that she didn’t have too much trouble. On the other hand, she had difficulty getting noticed by those at Down Beat and Metronome, who loved Dinah when she was with Hampton. Initially, her abilities as a solo artist were judged to be those of just another black singer. But in terms of her ability to do what she wanted, it seems to me that she was pretty lucky. Things fell into place with her recordings, and shortly thereafter, Ben Bart, the booking agent, took her on and put her on the road in the South on what can only be described as killer tours. I say “killer” because you can imagine how difficult one-nighters must have been for an African American woman traveling that part of the country during the forties.
JJM What challenges did these record companies face in growing an audience for her music?
NC Well, how do you get your product out there? Dinah’s core audience was black America, the juke boxes, a few little radio stations, and the mom and pop record stores. Her audience was also discovering her through the black press — there was very little information about her in the mainstream press. It was relatively easy to figure out how to get that audience, but it was only going to be so big. When Bobby Shad came to Mercury in 1954, the company created the Emarcy imprint, which was primarily a jazz label. Shad felt there was a jazz sensibility in Dinah’s work, and having her record for Emarcy was a way to get her into the jazz world.
JJM She had such an extensive background singing what the white press categorized as the blues that it was going to be difficult for her to break out beyond that. You wrote, “A black woman singing blues, with all its sass and sensuality, was easy to accept. Hearing her in a different context — a ballad more about romance than sex — was something else, more acceptable from Dinah Shore than Dinah Washington.”
NC Right, it was really striking to me to listen to her music and then compare it to how the white critics of the time would characterize it. This was part of her challenge to grow beyond her core audience. But she kept forging ahead, and then, in 1955, she performed at the second Newport Jazz Festival, where she was extremely successful. I had the good fortune of listening to a recording of that performance, and could hear the audience response and their call for encores. There was confirmation from the writers as well concerning how well she performed.
JJM Would you say that live performance stood out as the most critical in terms of her career growth?
NC Oh, gee, I don’t know. Would I want to go that far? She performed so much. I didn’t actually think of it that way, but the quality of her performance at Newport was a credential that couldn’t be denied her.
JJM What recording established her popularity with a white audience?
NC I would say it has to be “What a Difference a Day Makes,” from 1959, because it was her most commercially successful — she won a Grammy for it. Immediately following that she had great success with “Unforgettable.” While she had recorded with strings before, when Mercury A&R man Clyde Otis brought in Belford Hendricks, the sound was a little more robust and percussive. When I was working on this book and people would ask me what song Dinah was known for, when I told them “What a Difference a Day Makes,” they would say, “Oh, yeah” in recognition.
JJM She had some reservations about singing with strings …
NC Yes, she did. Clyde Otis told her that she could reach a broader audience by employing strings. She felt she had done all right without needing strings, and told Otis she wanted to only record with horns. For one reason or another, he was able to convince her to record. She told him that she would only give him one take, which was the way Dinah liked to do it, and they made it happen.
JJM Yes, it was pretty miraculous, really…
NC That is how he remembers it, and I have had several musicians say to me that Dinah liked to do first takes. I don’t believe that should be particularly surprising, because when we go back and reflect on how her singing career started, it was up there in the church choir loft, where she didn’t get a second chance. Then Hampton plucked her out of the Stagebar and had her come on stage to sing with him. She basically got two songs a night, and she had to be ready to sing them. Before she stepped up to that first microphone in the studio, her entire professional life required her to be ready to sing. Under those circumstances, you either had the goods or you didn’t.
JJM You wrote about a live performance of Dinah’s that took place in 1954 at the Regal, “She strode away from the spotlight without saying a word, sat down on a step at the side of the stage, and sang a quiet blues, the audience hanging on every word; ‘Nobody knows the way I feel this morning./If I had my way, don’t you know the graveyard is where my man would lay.’ The emotion was raw, a moment when Dinah let the audience know how she was feeling — a reminder too, that the lyrics she sang with such feeling were not simply a story but the truth about her life.” How different was her live repertoire from her recordings?
NC As is the case for many singers, I think it was pretty close. I was able to listen to some of her radio broadcasts where she sings songs from her most current record in order to promote it. I also got the distinct feeling that Dinah’s live sets were very much a reflection of her mood on that date, particularly later on, when she was playing for long periods of time in Las Vegas. I do believe that her live sets generally included songs she had just recorded, but then always drew on something from those earliest years. Even as her career evolved, Dinah never completely left singing the blues.
JJM What was her favorite song?
NC She talked about Bessie Smith and “Backwater Blues” a couple of times in long interviews. I don’t know that it is fair for me to say that that was her favorite song to sing, but she certainly talked about it. I put “Trouble in the Lowlands” on the CD I put together in conjunction with my book. It was recorded in 1961, right before she left Mercury, and in the nine-minute recording, while Dinah may be in better voice on other songs, from this song you do get the sense of what it was like when Dinah would be in a particular mood in a club, and the song would just go on while the musicians tried to hang on with her.
JJM She said that she wasn’t the highest paid black female singer, but, I was really struck by the amount of money she earned.
NC It startled me as well, to tell you the truth.
JJM How did her income compare with other singers of the era?
NC Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald had deep jazz followings — which is another way of saying they had a larger white audience. I am guessing that because of that, they were probably making more money than Dinah. When Norman Granz took Ella on the road in the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” tours, her life stopped being one-nighters in small clubs. While Dinah was making a lot of money — for example for the jobs in Las Vegas — she had to pay the band out of her earnings. And, on top of that, she had an enormous tax bill
JJM Yes, her finances were not handled well. Where in the world was her manager — Joe Glaser — when his client was making such large sums of money, knowing she was spending much of it on lavish gifts for herself as well as supporting her entire family?
NC By this time Joe Glaser was way up in the corporation. Ruth Bowen was really more involved with her business affairs. She told me that they tried to keep her on a budget, but their instructions were that anything her family wanted, they could have. The taxes she owed were so significant that David Dinkens — the former New York mayor who was her attorney at the time — said the IRS practically camped out in his office. This is hardly anything new in the world of entertainment.
A salient factor to me is the impact of Dinah’s death on those she loved. Beyond the fact that she lives no more, Dinah was the entire enterprise. When she died, there was no more income it was like turning off a spigot. There was no more earning power, and the IRS put a lien on the only thing they could count on, the Mercury Records assets. It was very sad, very tragic.
I wish I had better answers concerning her money matters, but I don’t. I wanted to treat Dinah’s life and career with respect, and I thought that it was appropriate to draw inferences from things that I knew, but there was precious little information when I started, and that is why the reporting challenge was so difficult. Dinah was a star of black America, and it was only toward the end of her life that white America began to appreciate her. She is not someone whose life is learned about on the pages of the Washington Post or Time or Life — she is discovered in Ebony, Sepia, Jet and the newspapers of black America.
JJM I want to get back to the subject of men, because her choices were such an important theme in her life. She said, “I just can’t find anyone who is really in my corner. Companionship is the greatest thing in the world. That’s what I’m looking for. I don’t expect a fellow to make as much as I do. The money’s there; that shouldn’t be any worry, but it’s awfully hard to find someone who doesn’t make a problem of finances.” What did she truly seek in a man?
NC Probably just what she said there, but it is very clear that Dinah liked to control things. Until her last marriage — to “Night Train” Lane, and it is impossible to know where that was headed — most of the men who came into her life were dependent on her in some way. They were “Mr. Dinah Washington.” She once said, “I don’t understand why a man wouldn’t want to be with a queen,” and from that, you can get a sense of how imperious she was. She led a very difficult life in terms of combining business with happiness. She couldn’t have “the white picket fence” and still be a singing star, although I don’t believe she ever gave up trying.
JJM Correct, but there were many successful women during the era who didn’t get married seven times. She seemed to follow a moral compass regarding relationships that may have forced her into unwanted marriages. She went from one marriage to the next with only a few breaks in between. It was as if she couldn’t be without a man.
NC I think that’s right. The longest stretch without being married was between 1957 and 1961. One of her marriages, to Rafael Campos, didn’t even last the time it took for a Sepia magazine article to be published on the newlyweds. By the time this big feature hit the newsstands, Rafael was on his way.
In the early fifties, there was an interchange with Dinah and Symphony Sid Torin, just before she is about to sing live. He introduces her and, just before she sings “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” Sid asks her if that song is for her. She tells him, “No. I have all I need.” She already had four marriages by this time, yet she is nothing but cheery.
At that moment, she could have said to Sid, “Yes, I have had my share of trouble, haven’t I?” She did in a later piece in Ebony where she said, “With me, it is Blowtop Blues’ all the time.” But with Sid, she bypassed the opportunity and instead, sang this lovely, haunting, and piercing version of “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” Dinah is probably looking down from above and just laughing her head off at all this, and saying, “Honey, I had a lot of fun and I made a lot of good records.”
JJM It is safe to say that she had some issues around even acknowledging that she contributed to the failures of her marriages.
NC Yes, I agree completely. I do not think she was an introspective person. She did not live her life overtly at that level. What I found particularly interesting was how her decisions about men affected her two sons. I was able to spend some time with her son Robert, and he has no memory of his mother telling them about her breakup with Eddie, one of her husbands who her sons were particularly fond of. She never bothered to explain that she and Eddie were having difficulties. So, while the boys were taken care of — beautifully dressed, and loved by their mother — I believe in some unconscious way, they had developed their own armor.
JJM Bassist Paul West said of Dinah, “I found out she is a very lonesome person, afraid to be alone, almost like a little country girl, a little girl caught in a storm, can’t find shelter. That’s when I realized how vulnerable she was, as opposed to this image she presents onstage, an image offering her protection.”
NC Right, and something that Keter Betts told me too is that when Dinah was out on the road with the trio all those years, she was trying to negotiate the whole deal, dealing with club owners, record company executives, and others. She was running a business, and her being a powder puff or a sugar plum was not going to work.
JJM I am curious about her on stage demeanor. There were instances where she was quite rude to her audience
NC The word her son used is “indignant.” Dinah believed very much in an implied contract between the performer and the audience — she agreed to sing, the audience agreed to listen. She felt that if she was going to be on stage, the audience should be attentive, with all eyes on her. She had different strategies concerning how to quiet an audience, and they became part of her personality. Often, people came to see her just to see what would happen on stage.
JJM The circumstances of her death are that she took the wrong set of pills
NC Yes, that is correct. What more can I do other than look at the death certificate and the autopsy? One of my doctors very kindly read it over and even called the lab for me. The fact is that both bottles of pills were still on her nightstand, and while she had a very small amount of these fast acting sedatives in her body, it was enough to be a lethal.
Dinah had everything to look forward to. Her boys had just come home. All the Christmas presents were wrapped. She had just talked with her dear friend Bea Buck about getting a better handle on all her Mercury recordings for something she was going to do the next week. Everything I know I put in there. I am not equipped to argue with an autopsy report.
JJM You wrote, “Apart from (husband) Rafael’s appearance, an added fillip was Eddie Chamblee’s presence as the bandleader. The tableau on the Apollo stage was as strange as it was titillating. There was Dinah with one ex-husband behind her and the estranged one by her side, listening as she teased him with ‘Our Love is Here to Stay.’ Such was the roller coaster of Dinah’s romantic life that a new boyfriend was probably in the dressing room waiting for her.” As great as her musical achievements, it is hard not to feel that her social life and marital failures are a huge part of her legacy. What do you think the impression people will have of Dinah’s life after they read your book?
NC I hope that what readers come away with is that her life was lived at breakneck speed, and that during it, an extraordinary amount of wonderful music was created — performed in an America before society really opened up. That is how I see it. I choose to think that her legacy is in her music, and that it always triumphs over what I have to come to call “the flamboyant complications of Dinah’s personal life.” In addition to her marital difficulties, her life-long struggle to keep her weight down was well known, and she so willingly made that a part of the public conversation about herself. In that regard she was way ahead of her time. But in the end, people bought her records to hear her music, and they went to clubs to watch her on stage, and I really do think that is what survives.
“When you get inside of a tune, the soul in you should come out. You should just be able to step back and let that soul come right out.”
About Nadine Cohodas
Nadine Cohodas is the author of, most recently, Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records, which was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame as a classic of blues literature, as well as, Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change, and The Band Played Dixie: Race and the Liberal Conscience at Ole Miss. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Dinah Washington products at Amazon.com
Nadine Cohodas products at Amazon.com
This interview took place on September 13, 2004
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Bessie Smith biographer Chris Albertson.
# Text from publisher.