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.
photo © Chuck Stewart
“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
Listen to Dinah Washington sing “All of Me”
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.