Royalty in her own right

E. Faye Butler, playing Dinah Washington in the play 'Dinah Was,' tells how the famed singer earned her title Queen of the Blues.


April 01, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

Dinah Washington loved being called the "Queen of the Blues" -- just "Queen" to her friends -- and she did not tolerate rivals.

When she was in London preparing to perform for the Queen of England, Washington was cautioned to mind her manners and watch her language. Her lusty command of basic Anglo-Saxon was legendary.

"So you knew she had to do something," says E. Faye Butler, who is performing as Dinah Washington in "Dinah Was," the play that opened Friday at Center Stage. "She goes on stage, and she sings a couple of songs and she says 'Stop.' "

Butler laughs a fairly lusty laugh of her own.

"She says, 'There is one Earth. There is one heaven. And there is one queen, and Miss Elizabeth is an impostor.

"And, of course, Queen Elizabeth stood and applauded. That's Dinah Washington."

Washington was one of the great divas of American song and perhaps the most versatile. She started as a gospel singer, became a superior jazz artist, the Queen of the Blues, of course, and crossed over as an extremely successful pop singer with her more or less immortal version of "What a Difference a Day Makes" She even recorded Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart."

"We play her from the time she's 17 years old until just before her death," Butler says. "So I get to do the big stretch."

And it is a big stretch, indeed. She's on stage for more than two hours, singing 14 songs along the way.

"I chose to approach this role from the person Dinah Washington as opposed to the singer Dinah Washington," Butler says. "I don't try to sound like Dinah Washington. That's not my goal at all.

"Some people will tell me I sound like her at times. I think that's involuntary. I don't even go there. You can't imitate somebody like that. You're setting yourself for the biggest fall of your lifetime."

But she's played the role for nearly two years in six cities around the country and gotten uniformly good reviews for her singing. And she's just a few months back from singing Etta James songs in Cuba with the Washington Ballet Company.

She grew up in Chicago like Washington, and she's done lots of research there.

"I've done the inside work," she says. "I've talked with a lot of club owners who worked with Dinah. I've talked with her sisters. I've talked with her sons. I've talked with people who knew Dinah, not just wrote a book."

Washington grew up in the tenements of Chicago.

"She was an unattractive child because she had short hair. She had a pudgy nose. She had big eyes. A lot of her clothes were ragged, so the kids at school used to call her 'Alligator.'

"So it made her a tough girl. And because she was a tough girl, she grew up that way. So men always engaged her as one of the boys. ... She could curse as hard as they could curse. She could tell the worst jokes in the world. She could drink them under the table. She was never found drunk. She drank Courvoisier, neat."

She was married nine times, apparently a couple of times without worrying about getting a divorce.

"She married some great men," Butler says. "From football players to taxi drivers to horn players, comics; she went from one extreme to the other with men.

"And they usually were younger than she, if not her age. She didn't particularly care for older men."

And she didn't live to get very old. She was 39 when she died from a reaction to diet pills and alcohol.

"In the play," Butler says, "they kind of combine all the husbands."

But ultimately Washington was a single mother with two sons.

"Dinah Washington was an absolutely amazing woman," Butler says. "She made strides at a time in life when no woman would have ever tried to do some of the things she does, regardless of whether they be white or black.

"She was one of the first persons to have people working for her. She didn't like the fact she had to work for people. Working for a club owner was bad enough, just going into his club. She didn't like to be beholden to people; she wanted people to be beholden to her."

She was one of the first performers to come up with the concept of having a comic as an opening act, "because she refused to sing for three or four hours."

"Club owners wanted you to sing for, like, three hours. She said, 'I'm not doing that.'

"So," Butler says, "she started the careers of so many wonderful people."

She took the comedians Slappy White and Redd Foxx on the road with her. She gave a 16-year-old Lola Falana an early job as a dancer. Quincy Jones was one of her young bandleaders. Gregory and Maurice Hines got their first break as solo performers with Washington.

"If you worked for Dinah, she'd pay for your mother's medical bills," Butler says. "You didn't have to worry about clothes. You were never hungry. ... That is one of the best things I have heard from every musician. They all said Dinah was generous to a fault."

She's said to have paid for Billie Holiday's funeral.

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