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.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies