The Royal Blues

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, can now be added to the thin …

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