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.
photo National Archives
Dinah Washington, at Newport
“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.”
Listen to “I Get a Kick Out of You”
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
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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.