Dinah Washington

TrackAlbum / Single
Blow Top BluesBrunswick 03847-A
Trouble In MindMercury 8269 B-side
TV Is The Thing (This Year)Mercury 70214 B-side
Teach Me TonightMercury 70497
What A Diff'rence A Day MakesWhat A Diff'rence A Day Makes!
UnforgettableUnforgettable
Baby (You've Got What It Takes)The Two Of Us
This Bitter EarthUnforgettable
September In The RainSeptember In The Rain
Trouble In The LowlandsComplete Jazz Series 1961 Vol.2

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Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

Dinah Washington is one of those performers I ask myself exactly how history, by which I mean the general population, has managed to forget. Or at least knocked back into the third tier of performers instead of in the forefront where she belongs. Between 1944-1961 she appeared on US R&B Charts Top 10 an impressive 34 times, five of them reaching the top of the charts, with another 11 in the top 20. She also recorded 10 Top 40 singles on the regular Pop charts, including three Tops 10s.

She was a star, a big one. And a star that nobody seems to pay much attention to these days, which boggles my mind as I’ve always been a big fan. And I of course consider myself a good barometer for what is good and what isn’t. I think perhaps in some ways it’s because she often got compared to Billie Holiday, of course to her detriment. Not really fair though, she should be judged on her own merit, which is considerable. There weren’t many performers who could handle blues, jazz and contemporary pop with the same ease as Dinah did.

Washington was born as Ruth Lee Jones in Alabama, but moved to Chicago when she was a small girl. She was a bit of a child prodigy, playing piano for her church choir while still in elementary school, and actually directing the choir in her teens. She was performing as a gospel singer by that point, and moved to performing in Chicago clubs by the time she was 15. By 1941 she was performing with Fats Waller and shortly thereafter found herself appearing in the upstairs room at the Garrick Stage Bar in Chicago while Billie Holiday was appearing downstairs in the main room. Those must have been some amazing nights at Garricks.

Not long after that two important things happened, Ruth Jones became Dinah Washington and Lionel Hampton hired her to be his band’s female vocalist. She stayed with Hampton until 1946 when she signed with Mercury as a solo singer and from then on acted as her own band leader.

It was a wild ride, seven husbands over less then twenty years and an early death at 39 from an overdose. But it should be the music she is remembered for.

Her ability to move seamlessly between jazz, pop and blues allowed her to become the best selling African-American female singer of the 1950s. As well as garnering her induction in the Rock and Roll, Blues, The Big Band and both recognized Jazz Hall of Fames. That’s impressive.

The first song on my list is Blow Top Blues, which she recorded as the 18 year old singer for the Lionel Hampton Septet. I prefer this version over her other recordings of the tune mostly because of Hampton, his intro with his vibes and his playing behind her really move this along for me. Her diction is already perfect, which was to become a trademark of hers.

Much like most performers of that era when a song was a hit it would appear on several albums. Which makes choosing the definitive version a bit difficult. Trouble In Mind is one of those songs. My favorite version features a sax intro by Ben Webster and some inspired piano by Wynton Kelly. It’s a slow blues number that Dinah hits just the right pace to make the song work. Lucky for her as those perennial hitmakers Amos Milburn and His Aladdin Chickenshackers also released a version of the song in 1952.

TV Is The Thing (This Year) from 1953 is a bit more uptempo, in fact I’d call it a pop song as opposed to a jazz or blues number. I’m guessing even people in midwest of the US would have understood when she is singing about how good her man is at changing channels and her TV needs fixing every night that she was not talking about her actual TV. It’s listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the songs that shaped rock and roll.

Earlier I said it’s a shame Dinah has been slowly forgotten over the years. I may have to backtrack a little though when talking about Teach Me Tonight from 1954. It was recorded several times between 1954 and 1955. The first was by Janet Brace, who took it to No. 23 on the main Billboard chart. I honestly have no idea who Janet Brace is. The DeCastro Sisters, who I do more or less know of, had the biggest hit when it reached number two in 1955. Dinah’s version, which also reached No. 23 on the main Billboard chart and fourth on the R&B charts is the one that was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. So someone remembers.

What A Diff’rence A Day Makes entered that same hall a year earlier in 1998 as well as winning the Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording. She slows it down a bit and does a great job of holding the notes at just the right time and projecting her emotions into the song. It doesn’t hurt to have a good band made up of a couple guys who haven’t established themselves yet, but will. Kenny Burrell and Joe Zawinul do a good job on a song that given their later reputation and catalog you wouldn’t think they’d excel on. Of course any time you have Milt Hinton in your band things are going to work out.

Unforgettable is Dinah’s third song to be inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Frankly it’s a hard song to screw up, and there have been so many great versions of it. It came from the album of the same name, which had a number of standards on it, and was certainly more pop then jazz or blues. To me it seemed an obvious attempt to land a hit on the pop charts. After placing 24 straight songs in the R&B Top 10 between 1948-1954 Dinah wasn’t quite the hitmaker she had been. Not bad mind you, she had scored seven Top 20 R&B singles between 1955-1958. But after What A Diff’rence A Day Makes had been such a huge hit on both the Pop and R&B charts her label saw a chance to get this gravy train rolling again. And they did. Unforgettable was only her second Top 20 single on the pop charts. But it wouldn’t be her last.

Shortly after those hits, in 1959, her label came up with the idea of her doing a duet album with up and coming R&B singer Brook Benton. Benton had primarily been a songwriter throughout the mid 1950s but 1959 was a banner year for him, recording seven songs that we’d consider a hit. He was on a roll when he was teamed with the slightly older star who was perhaps in need of a little bump by teaming her with the slightly younger up and coming star. Everyone associated with the project knew Dinah wasn’t happy.

Clive Otis, the first African-American Musical Director at Mercury Records, actually threw her out of the studio during the sessions for the way she was treating Benton, who everyone felt she had no respect for. Dinah was somewhat infamous for savaging performers onstage and in the studio that were not measuring up to her standards. In one of the recordings of Baby (You’ve Got What it Takes) you can hear Dinah tell Benton “You’re in my spot again honey”, and later “It’s your turn now”. Nobody felt it was good-natured ribbing.

Still, as often weirdly happens in these situations, two tracks off the album became the biggest hits of her career. In contained two of her three songs that made it onto the Top 10 of the Pop Charts while both also hitting number one on the R&B charts.

Shortly after, This Bitter Earth became her third straight R&B Number One. She was certainly entering the 1960s on a high note. The song itself is another slow blues classic, and Dinah always did well with those sort of songs. But I think it may have created a misconception at the label. After having three straight hits on the Pop Charts her career seemed to chase pop hits the last two years of her life even more than it had the previous couple years. In fact she had more songs chart on the pop charts than R&B charts during this time. And sadly, for one of the best jazz and blues singers ever, her best showing the last two years of her life was on the charts that would eventually be known as the Adult Contemporary.

September In The Rain was one of those songs, but it’s a good one and not the worst last big hit an artist can have.

Still, for me my favorite late era Dinah is Trouble In The Lowlands, as its one final slow blues classic for someone who was the self proclaimed Queen of the Blues. A claim nobody disputed.

She was recording pop albums that really didn’t suit her style for Roulette Records at the end of her life, although she had been performing with both Count Basie and Duke Ellington during that period. Her husband, the seventh, eight or ninth depending on who is telling the story, found her dead on the morning of December 14, 1963. At the time she was married to American Football great, Dick “Night Train” Lane, who is still regarded as one of the best defensive backs to have ever played the game 50 years after his career ended. So it was quite a story, major music star married to star athlete accidentally overdoses on secobarbital and amobarbital at 39.

At one time Quincy Jones, who produced a lot of her later work and whose band backed her many times, owned the film rights to her life story, In 1992 there was actually talk of a movie being made with Oprah playing the lead role. Can’t really see that.

She was a huge star whose incredible legacy of music has been unjustly forgotten.

 

Dinah Washington (1924–1963)

Dinah Washington biography (iTunes)

This is Calvin’s 21st Toppermost, so clearly he enjoys writing them and telling people what he thinks. Even more so it allows him to dive into procrastinating and avoiding the writing he is supposed to be doing. As such he has no shot in hell in completing his next book when he told his publisher he’d have it done. If you’re so inclined to read any of his real books, and have an interest in the History of Northeast Ohio, you can find them here. P.S. The three books not written by him which show up when you search his name on Amazon.com are by another writer from his hometown. This writer tells a story in which Calvin was supposedly involved in 1980-81 that he has absolutely no memory of.

TopperPost #403

1 Comment

  1. Peter Viney
    Jan 23, 2015

    This Bitter Earth by Dinah Washington also appears in the Robbie Robertson Toppermost. He mashed it with Max Richter’s “On The Nature of Daylight” for the Shutter Island OST. The strange combination sent me back to listen to the original, but the mash up is so powerful, I prefer it.

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