The Life And Music of Dinah Washington
By Nadine Cohodas. Pantheon. 559 pp. $28.50
Dinah Washington was one of the greatest song stylists of the 20th century -- a vocalist whose precise diction and unique phrasing left her mark on any song she sang, whether a haunting gospel, a raunchy blues, an upbeat swing tune or a soulful ballad. But her smooth vocals belied the turmoil always roiling just beneath the surface of her life.
Born Ruth Jones in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1924, she moved with her family to Chicago when she was still a toddler. She became involved in the Baptist church there, quickly making a name for herself as a gospel singer and pianist, according to Nadine Cohodas's vital but vexing biography, Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington.
Influenced by radio -- she was particularly intrigued by the sound of Billie Holiday -- the 16-year-old singer won an amateur contest at the leading black nightspot in Chicago in 1940. Buoyed, she dropped out of high school to pursue a secular singing career. The risk paid off: In short order, Ruth Jones -- rechristened Dinah Washington, a name meant to "roll off people's tongues, like rich liquor" -- was singing with Lionel Hampton's big band at New York's Apollo Theater and, later, Carnegie Hall. Washington left Hampton after a few years for a solo career, touring incessantly and recording an album almost annually for the next two decades. Along the way, she acquired a couple of nicknames -- "Queen of the Blues" and "Queen of the Juke Boxes" -- and several enduring hits, including "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" and "This Bitter Earth."
Onstage, Washington was in total control, ruling her ever-shifting crew of musicians with a few discreet hand signals -- thumb and forefinger curved meant the key of C, one finger the key of F -- and entrancing audiences with her sheer vocal power. When that wasn't enough, the singer resorted to other means. Once, to quiet a noisy patron, she took aim with an ice cube. Another time, she used a few choice and unprintable words. Though she spewed profanity, Washington could be just as commanding when the moment called for tenderness. The day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, she told a Los Angeles audience: "I can't sing tonight. I'm all messed up. The only thing I can give you is 'What a Friend We Have in Jesus.' " Cohodas writes: "Dinah hadn't told [her band] ahead of time what she was going to do, but it didn't matter. They knew the song. Dinah was crying when she finished. Then she left the stage to a standing ovation."
When Washington wasn't onstage, however, she often lost control of her life. Longing for love and apparently afraid of living alone, she married seven times and, between husbands, cycled through dozens of boyfriends. (Eventually the newspapers lost count of her marriages, and her friend Slappy White skewered her in his comedy routine: "I have a profitable sideline job selling wedding rings to Dinah Washington.") The diva's troubles extended beyond her love life. Though she was always well paid, Washington lived ahead of her means, racking up ridiculous bills for furs, shoes, clothes and cars -- for herself and for the aforementioned husbands and boyfriends.
She also struggled with her weight. After reviewers repeatedly referred to her as "hefty," "busty" and the like, she became obsessed with being thin, which drove her to gulp down diet pills and tranquilizers -- an assortment of drugs that she often chased with a couple of strong drinks. This habit eventually killed her: On Dec. 14, 1963, Washington died after accidentally overdosing on prescription drugs. She was only 39 years old.
Washington's fast, intense approach to life -- despite its ultimately fatal perils -- rewarded her with rich material for her music. She "had a full, sophisticated attitude towards life that was reflected in the way she sang," music critic Ralph Gleason wrote shortly after her death. "Many singers on stage are merely little girls singing romantic songs. Dinah, like Carmen McRae and Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, was a woman singing about life. And she made you believe." Similarly, Queen makes us believe in Dinah Washington's talent and complexity, portraying her as a bright flame whose incandescence caused her to burn out too quickly. Yet the biography suffers from workmanlike writing (the chapter on Washington's death is a notable, eloquent exception) and sometimes feels like no more than a dutiful, detailed chronology of a turbulent life.
In Cohodas's account, Washington careens from one nightclub to another, from one husband to the next, with very little introspection. The author -- who documented the rise of the Chess record label in Spinning Blues into Gold -- gives us too little of Washington's inner life and offers only superficial interpretations of her music. These flaws are particularly frustrating in a biography that is so well researched. Cohodas pored over dozens of newly discovered documents and interviewed many of Washington's relatives and friends for her book. It is precisely this kind of copious reporting that makes Queen essential reading; it's just unfortunate that the definitive biography of Dinah Washington isn't more readable.
Still, this book offers enough fresh details -- and enough of Washington's irrepressible spirit -- to satisfy her fans. And it will likely spur the uninitiated to explore the underappreciated singer's lovely recordings. If Queen does that, the music itself will do the rest. As her longtime pianist once said, "Dinah was Dinah. She was going to sing what she wanted and make you like it."
Valerie Boyd is the author of "Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston." A former arts editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she now teaches journalism at the University of Georgia.