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The Royal Blues

1.

Heartbreak has always been central to country music. In 1953, the Grand Ole Opry star Hank Snow had a hit record called “It Don’t Hurt Anymore,” a folksy paean to a broken heart that began with a lyric that abstracted the theme idiomatically: “It don’t hurt anymore/All my teardrops are dried….” Snow moaned the words to the accompaniment of a mewling fiddle, fixing our attention on the singer’s past suffering. The following year, Dinah Washington, a jazz vocalist who had come up through gospel music and the blues, remade the song. Her first variation was grammatical, a switch of the opening pronoun to the first-person singular. Washington’s recording begins with her voice, a cappella, blaring like a civil defense alarm: “IIIIIIIIIII!” After a beat, she continued the opening phrase (“don’t hurt anymore…”), and a full jazz orchestra kicked in with a hard-driving rhythmic pattern. The singing continued in this crushing mode: Washington hurled out the words as she stormed through the song. Despite the lyrics, she sounded impervious to pain of any sort, and supremely capable of inflicting it.

Recorded a few weeks before Dinah Washington’s thirtieth birthday, fifty years ago, “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” typifies the work of a singer who, through the force of her personality, shifted nearly everything she sang into the first-person singular, whether or not she changed the words. Her music is fiery, uncompromising, and devoid of self-pity. Washington, who made dozens of albums before she died from an overdose of prescription drugs in December 1963, was a rarity among singers, male or female, in the popular music of her era: an unflinching, even merciless figure who was also sensual and musically sophisticated. There were steely women singing before her—Bessie Smith in the blues, Sophie Tucker in the music hall, Mildred Bailey in jazz, Ethel Merman on Broadway, Maybelle Carter in country. Yet Washington was unique in her day and an influence on countless singers to follow for her refusal to play her power for laughs (as Smith, Tucker, and Merman did) or (like Bailey and Carter) to downplay her considerable sex appeal.

So popular during her lifetime that she was known initially as the Queen of the Blues and later as the Queen of the Juke Boxes, Dinah Washington is not well remembered today. Her recordings, while still in circulation on CD, no longer appear on the best-seller charts, as do reissues of the music of her idol Billie Holiday and her contemporary Ella Fitzgerald. Nor has her voice been appropriated to add a gloss of cool to the marketing of luxury cars or banking services, as the music of many deceased African-American jazz artists has been. Her face is probably unrecognizable to all but her old fans, pop music scholars, and collectors. A new biography of Washington by Nadine Cohodas, the author of a good social history of the Chicago blues impresarios Leonard and Philip Chess,1 can now be added to the thin literature on Washington.

The single previous life of the singer, James Haskins’s Queen of the Blues (published in 1987 and now out of print), was short (202 undersized pages of text) and low on biographical and musical detail. Cohodas, drawing upon Haskins’s papers and fresh interviews with Washington’s childhood friends, business associates, fellow musicians (including her one-time lover, the jazz arranger and conductor Quincy Jones), and other sources, provides much new information about the singer’s vast creative output, which once made Washington an inescapable presence on American radio, as well as about her volatile personal life, which made her nearly as prominent on the gossip pages. (Among other things, she had at least seven, perhaps eight, husbands.)

Born Ruth Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1924 to struggling parents, a lumberyard worker and a homemaker with some musical talent, the future Dinah Washington moved north with her family during the Great Migration and grew up in Chicago when the city was a virtual hothouse of jazz, blues, and gospel music, all three of which had also been transplanted from the South not long before then. The Jones household was a devoutly Baptist one where “everything was geared to the church and old-fashioned strictness,” Washington would later recall. Encouraged by her mother, a church pianist who gave her some music lessons, Washington started her career at fifteen, performing gospel songs in recitals—initially as the vocalist in a mother-daughter duo, soon afterward as a member of the Sallie Martin Singers, a touring group based in Chicago. The teenager was already too free-spirited for the gospel world, however. “Ruth could sing, but I don’t think she liked the [gospel] robe. She was in the group but not of it,” a minister’s daughter told Cohodas. A high school friend of Washington’s whom Cohodas interviewed remembered her as “already stormy” and “wild…boy crazy.” Buxom and alluring in a jolie-laid way no doubt aided by her sexual confidence, Washington would never be at a loss for men, nor would she be satisfied with any of the ones she attracted.

As Arthur Kempton points out in his book Boogaloo,2 the sacred and the secular have always been inextricable in African-American popular music—that is, in American popular music, just as black and white are. Dinah Washington’s debt to the gospel music of her apprenticeship is explicit in her earliest secular recordings and it remains in her last, although she never made an album of worship music. Her singing has the ringing power and the free-flowing emotion of gospel. In some songs, such as her version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” her phrases seem to sway back and forth in time, and they build steadily in intensity, the way Baptist preaching does. Cohodas makes frequent mention of Washington’s use of devices common in gospel singing, such as her habit of peppering phrases with interjections such as “Lord!” and emphatic moans or hums. (Cohodas calls them “tics,” and that is what they eventually became.) Indeed, Washington often sounds in the midst of a call-and-response exchange with herself. Above all, what she derived from gospel—and carried to an extreme in her secular music—was a sense of certainty. There is no doubt in Dinah Washington’s singing; it is music that believes, no matter what the songs are saying, and it expresses its conviction with an almost evangelical zeal.

Washington, like many others who have successfully survived the shark pool of the entertainment industry, was buoyed by an outsize ambition. She married the first of her husbands when she was seventeen, because, she told an interviewer, he “said he’d help me get into show business. I figured this was my opportunity.” Although his assistance proved evanescent, Washington advanced so quickly in the ranks of secular music anyway that she was singing and recording with the popular vibraharpist and big-band leader Lionel Hampton before her nineteenth birthday. (She had by then dropped her first husband and her original name, adopting Dinah Washington, which at least three of her mentors, including Lionel Hampton, would later claim to have given her.) As Variety described her New York première with Hampton at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, “Her fortissimo is socko in a blues speciality that stamps the comely femme as a comer.”

Because we now tend to think of the blues and jazz of the swing era nostalgically and associate the music with older listeners, it is surprising to imagine someone like Dinah Washington, whose portrait has even been on a US postage stamp (depicted with graying hair which she never lived to have), as she was when she first attracted national attention: a hypersexual eighteen-year-old. The fact is, Washington represented the norm for what was then a music made primarily by and for young people. Hampton was playing dance music derided in its time as juvenile and vulgar. Indeed, like Washington, most of the singers (and many of the instrumentalists) in big bands during World War II were teenagers speaking to their peers when they made their first records: Ella Fitzgerald was seventeen; Doris Day, sixteen; Billie Holiday, eighteen; Mel Tormé, nineteen. (The heart of Hampton’s theme song, “Flying Home,” was an exhilarating tenor saxophone solo by the late Illinois Jacquet, who was nineteen when he recorded it.) They were the Britney Spearses and Justin Timberlakes of the World War II generation—kids trading in sexual fantasy. Unlike most of her contemporaries both white and black, however, the young Dinah Washington dispensed with the niceties of romantic allusion and announced her sexuality in vivid terms. Six decades before Britney Spears was cooing “Oops! I Did It Again,” Washington was crowing “I Know How to Do It” in one of her first recordings:

I may be old-fashioned
I may be dumb
I may be a square
And I may be a bum
But I know how to do it

Her earthy, assertive style of singing was ideally suited to the blues, which had been a forum for black women to express their authority on matters carnal and otherwise since Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” in the Twenties. In fact, the image of the big, bad black woman belting out the blues was already a cliché by the mid-1940s, when Dinah Washington made her name singing a wry sort of jazz-blues—blues material sung and played with a swing feeling and a wink. Before her first recording session in December 1943, her producer, the white Englishman Leonard Feather, handed Washington one of several songs he had written for her: a near parody of a Bessie Smith–style tune called “Evil Gal Blues”:

I’m an evil gal
Don’t you bother with me
I’m an evil gal
Don’t you bother with me
I’ll empty your pockets
And fill you with misery

Cohodas quotes a remark Washington made to Feather, in a comment he would later recount with pride, “Shit, you really think you know me, don’t you?” Of course, as Washington implied with the question, “Evil Gal Blues” speaks more of then-prevalent white perceptions of black defiance than it does of her personality.

Cohodas casts light on Washington’s reputation for toughness. We see her at work playing rough in order to maintain her personal and artistic standards and to protect other African-American artists from racial prejudice. She would hush up a musician who overplayed or scold a member of the audience who disrupted her show. After she was successful, she became “the boss in the studio” and once halted a recording session when she saw that the entire orchestra was white. She resumed the next day, when black musicians were included. During one performance in Las Vegas, the hotel pit boss lowered Washington’s volume to satisfy a high roller from the South who didn’t like her singing; Washington left the stage, walked through the casino, and told the boss, loudly enough for her audience to hear, “Motherfucker, I’m going to turn that [sound] back where it belongs, and if you touch it, I am going to break your fuckin’ ass.”

A friend of hers who witnessed the scene explained to Cohodas, “As long as you treated her with respect, she loved you. If you were going to make her a secondary citizen, you had a tigress on your hands.”

2.

In the caste system of musical categorization, the genre of popular standards—that is, the pre-rock music of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, created by songwriters such as Jerome Kern, the Gershwin brothers, and Cole Porter, along with innumerable journeymen and -women—was historically seen as something a step or two above the blues, in large part because the former carried associations with white people, the metropolitan Northeast, and professionalism, the latter with African-Americans, the rural South, and the folk arts. That the blues is a subtly complex and sophisticated music with its own aesthetic concerns—dissidence, idiosyncrasy, body, spirituality, an active disregard for whiteness (in musical terms and otherwise)—took some time to sink in, even within some circles of black society. “I hate blues. You can’t do anything with them,” Billy Eckstine told an interviewer in 1947, after he had abandoned the gut-bucket blues that gave him his first hits and began specializing in romantic ballads.

For black singers of Dinah Washington’s generation, to work in the blues idiom and then to take up the pop repertoire, as both Eckstine and Washington did, was thought of as aiming higher. Washington began recording Tin Pan Alley songs such as “Embraceable You” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” after she signed with Mercury in 1946, and, at the time that the black middle class was rising, she was soon doing standards almost exclusively. Chicago’s black newspaper The Defender reported that Dinah Washington “has moved up the ladder to become a ‘pop’ singer.” (Today, by contrast, the blues is held in such esteem that if a young master of the idiom such as Keb’ Mo’ started crooning Sinatra songs, he would be considered a sellout.)

What Washington did was challenge the entire notion of a hierarchy in musical form by ignoring it. In her hands, gospel, the blues, Tin Pan Alley, and country and western music are all of a piece. She treated everything she sang as the rawest of materials, equal opportunities to impart her ebullient fury. When a British journalist asked her what kind of singer she considered herself, Washington said, according to Cohodas,

I don’t think of myself as anything except a singer. I like to sing, and I’ll sing ballads, church songs, blues, anything. I’ll sing [the Hebrew song] “Eli, Eli” if you hang around. To me the important things are soul and conviction…. The Negro has been downtrodden in America for a long time, as you know. Maybe when you’re singing a certain song you think of things that happened to you years ago…. Spirituals, blues, ballads, it doesn’t matter.

In Dinah Washington’s music, the traditional roles of the singer and the song are inverted: Washington provides the meaning, and the words and the music add the shading. When she sings Bob Russell and Carl Sigman’s “Crazy He Calls Me,” which might seem to call for a touch of wistful self-deprecation, Washington tosses off the words with her usual assurance, sounding wholly in command of her senses. We think: why, that fellow in the song must be the crazy one to talk to her like that. When she sings Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Mercer’s “I Thought About You,” a few lines of it recall a doomed love affair, but with an air of satisfaction, rather than regret. I thought about you, she seems to be saying, and I thought, “Good riddance! Self-confidence, rapture, wrath: these are what Dinah Washington came to share with us, and they were extraordinary to find on the same radio as the sweet murmurings of Doris Day and Teresa Brewer.

She had a strict policy of recording only one take of a song, thereupon terrorizing the producers, the conductors, and the musicians playing in the sizable orchestras which frequently accompanied her in an era when records were made “live” in the studio, without overdubbing to patch flubbed notes. As one of her producers, Clyde Otis, warned the arranger Belford Hendricks, “Work out all the kinks in the orchestration…. If she’s gonna give you one take, that’s what you’re gonna get.” At least once, Washington left a recording session before others were satisfied; as Cohodas describes the scene, she headed toward the door and said, “It’s not going to get any better. You fix it.”

As a result of her refusal to give more than one take, her work lacks the refinement that we tend to associate with the music of café society, but it has the fire, the tension, and the surprise often lacking there. It is also impressively short on vocal errors, al-though Washington sometimes avoided them by simplifying the melodies.

Cohodas’s Queen, for all its value in treating an underappreciated subject seriously, would have benefited from an injection of Washington’s vigor. It is a placid book weakened by slack prose. (“Recording companies provided for such payments, but the amount depended on the cost to make the record and the number sold.”) The author’s grasp of the history of American popular music seems shaky at times, as when she is mystified by Washington’s having recorded such novelty tunes as “One Arabian Night” in 1954. (“Perhaps someone at the label knew the writer and wanted to do a favor or take care of a debt.”) In truth, novelty songs (many of which drew upon the music of distant cultures as sources of exotica) were a craze in 1954, when the “Hit Parade” was filled with ephemera like Frank Weir’s “Happy Wanderer” and the Gaylords’ “Little Shoemaker.” The ubiquity of this silliness was the plague that rock-and-roll promised to cure.3

Ravaged by hard living, diet pills, and alcohol, Dinah Washington’s voice grew stiff and dry in her late thirties. She began to overuse her signature gesture, her way of abruptly clipping off the last word of a phrase, the vocal equivalent of a boxer’s jab, and took up parlando, talking her way through some lyrics instead of singing. Although she was not yet forty, she sounded at least half again as old. One of the last songs she recorded was “Stranger on Earth,” the lament of an embittered outcast:

Some fools don’t know what’s right from wrong
But somehow those folks belong,
Me, I travel all I’m worth
But I still remain a stranger on this earth

Washington called it “the story of my life,” and she sang it in full, strong voice, tapping what was left of her old reserve. It became the story of an alien who refused to be alienated. Whatever the singer had suffered in the past, it didn’t hurt anymore.

  1. 1

    Cohodas is the author of Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change (Simon and Schuster, 1993) and The Band Played Dixie: Race and the Liberal Conscience at Ole Miss (Free Press, 1997), as well as Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records (St. Martin’s, 2000).

  2. 2

    Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music (Pantheon, 2003); reviewed by Luc Sante in these pages, July 17, 2003.

  3. 3

    Cohodas also makes a number of small errors, such as crediting the jazz standard “Perdido” to the wrong composer and mixing up jobs on Mitch Miller’s résumé.

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