ROCK / A shame about the girl: When she died in 1963, Dinah Washington was the self-appointed 'queen of the blues'. Anthony Denselow thinks her time has come again

DINAH Washington died in Detroit in December 1963. At the age of 39, she was the self-acclaimed yet undisputed 'queen of the blues'. Her story could have been as mythologised as Elvis Presley's or Washington's own great heroine, Billie Holiday. As it is, Dinah Washington has left a formidable yet curiously under-appreciated musical legacy. Her voice now comes safely packaged on CD, but it still has the power to hit home.

'She was able to get inside any song,' recalls Joe Zawinul, her early pianist who went on to found the jazz / rock band Weather Report. 'She cried almost every night when she was singing. She got totally wet from crying and she had the audience crying with her.'

Zawinul's first recording with Washington was 'What a Difference a Day Makes', the song which won her a Grammy in 1959 and transformed her into a huge crossover success. She said she could sing 'anything, anything at all' and she has the back catalogue to prove it - seven volumes, 21 CDs, 447 songs stretching back to 1946 and covering vast tracts of American popular music. The blues crops up repeatedly, but her career takes in everything from torch songs and standards to R & B, jazz with big bands, groups or strings, country and western, gospel and simple hymns. She became the first woman to play Las Vegas. She won over a white market but also reinterpreted white hits to suit a black sensibility.

'You can see her as a blues singer,' says Clive Otis, the first black music director at Mercury Records and the producer of 'What a Difference a Day Makes'. 'She certainly was a soulful singer, but up in Hollywood they might have seen her as a pop singer. I remember her turning up in LA to record an album of movie songs which we'd never even rehearsed. She arrived and said 'let's get on with it'. She did nine songs in 35 minutes.' But perhaps her greatest knack was simplicity in conveying a lyric. For many, she follows Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday in the league of all-time greats, and forms the bridge between them and Aretha Franklin.

Washington enjoyed the same career start as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan - the only two singers she never liked to talk about. She was born as Ruth Jones in Alabama in 1924 and started singing in the Baptist church where her mother was music teacher. She won the amateur concert prize at the Royal Theatre in Chicago at the age of 16 and toured with a gospel band for three years. But Washington always hankered after the high life of the blues and jazz clubs. She hung around the Garrick bar in Chicago, working as a ladies' room attendant before being 'discovered' and hired by Lionel Hampton. Two years later, in 1945, she signed to Mercury and rapidly became their biggest selling artist.

'I got on with her,' says Otis, 'but I had to throw her out of a studio once when she was having a fight with Brook Benton. She was meant to be singing the duet 'Mess Around and Fall in Love'. She refused to work with him because she had no respect for him.' In the recording of 'Baby You've Got What It Takes' Washington ruthlessly tutors Benton mid-song as he crashes her lyric, singing 'you're in my spot again honey' and, later on, 'it's your turn now'. She would demolish musicians who missed notes on stage or who were sloppy in rehearsals. And she would force guest musicians, even the likes of Max Roach, to repeat stumbled passages on stage. Her language became as notorious as her fist fights with club owners and reporters.

Zawinul, though, remembers her as passionately honest and professional, recalling an incident in Odessa, Texas, during segregation when Dinah led the entire band to escape through a bathroom window because Zawinul, the only white musician, was not allowed on stage by the local sheriff. 'The audience rioted and totally destroyed the club,' he says, 'but Dinah didn't care, she was always totally loyal to her musicians.'

In fact, she married several of them. Nobody seems quite sure if she was married eight or nine times. 'I've been to more Dinah weddings than the rest put together,' says the singer Patti Austin, Dinah's god-daughter. 'She would fall in love with anybody. She might have thrown instruments at musicians but she could as easily shower them with presents. But she had to be tough to survive and she worked on it. I remember a reporter saying that she was the kindest person he had worked with and she screamed at him and told him to write about Dinah the bitch. It wasn't easy being black, female and famous and she covered herself.'

'You never knew from day to day or hour by hour what mood she would be in,' says Otis. 'I had to feed her songs to match her mood otherwise she might not fire right. At one point we had five lists of songs, all dependent on different moods.'

For Otis her 'haunting' voice is largely informed by great trauma and loss in her early life which is not documented and which she never talked about. She certainly had a remarkable ability to rescue or transform mundane material, although the recent Mercury compilation (The Best of Dinah Washington - Mad about the Boy, which picks up on the exploitation of her voice in a Levi jeans commercial) mostly offers us Washington renditions of big pop hits - 'Cry Me a River', 'Let's Do It', 'Everybody Loves Somebody'.

She was glamorous but never beautiful, perhaps another element which contributed to a growing insecurity. Says Zawinul, 'She had a beauty in her eyes and she was always well groomed. She had lots of jewellery and made lots of money and carried a pistol every place she went. She was a real modern woman, but she was driving ridiculously fast and there was something in her inner life that troubled her.'

Despite warnings and help from her friends, Washington slid into a drinking problem which affected many studio sessions. She died, though, when she seemed to be strong and content, married to a football player from the Detroit Lions. She killed herself by accident, mixing uppers, downers and brandy in lethal quantities. Washington died four years younger than Bessie Smith and five years younger than Billie Holiday.

For her funeral (which was conducted by Aretha Franklin's father) she was laid in a bronze casket, dressed in mink and wearing a tiara. 'We had a Cadillac procession stretching 24 blocks,' recalls Otis, 'with thousands lining the pavements of Chicago. I knew she never meant to kill herself and that was confirmed by the mortician. He told me that she died with a smile on her face, she wasn't in distress.'

Quincy Jones, who produced Washington many times, has the film rights to her life story. Oprah Winfrey is pencilled in for the lead role. 'Dinah has left her mark on so many singers today, but she herself sounds as fresh as most of them,' says Otis. 'It's just a question of time until she becomes huge all over again.'

'The Best of Dinah Washington' is released by Mercury, 5122142.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform