Queen of salt and sugar, sass and brass

A new book details Dinah Washington's influential singing and tumultuous life

Pop Music

August 29, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Receipts, old photos, marriage licenses, an autopsy report, a death certificate -- files and files of documents dominate the bookshelf in a corner of Nadine Cohodas' Washington office. And more stuffed folders are neatly stacked on the floor.

"This, all this is Dinah," the author says, gesturing to the shelf.

She's talking about the subject of her latest book, a 559-page project that took a "shade under four years" to complete. Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington, Cohodas' fourth book, hit stores Tuesday. An exhaustively researched biography about one of the most influential (and overlooked) vocalists of the 20th century, Queen finely details just about every facet of the singer's whirlwind life on and off the stage.

Her childhood in Chicago, her teen years on the gospel circuit, the years with Lionel Hampton's big band, the groundbreaking solo success, the husbands (seven in all) and the many lovers in between -- Dinah Washington led what Cohodas calls a "flamboyantly complicated personal life." And it all ended in the early morning hours of Dec. 14, 1963. At just age 39, the singer died from an accidental overdose of diet pills, leaving behind two teenage sons and a musical legacy of great depth and brilliance. Today would have been her 80th birthday.

Washington's brassy, salt-and-sugar voice turned maudlin fare -- "What a Diff'rence a Day Made," "Love Walked In," "This Bitter Earth" -- into wondrous declarations of resiliency and passion. Her precise diction and innate sense of time and rhythm revealed an intelligent vocalist with marvelous command of her instrument. She was also a fine pianist.

"I always knew of Dinah Washington," Cohodas says, sitting behind her desk. Pictures of the legend adorn the walls around her. "I discovered her in a personal way in the early '80s, a few years after I moved to Washington. I bought my first album, A Slick Chick on the Mellow Side, which was a reissue of some of her hits, a two-record set. And I thought, 'What an interesting voice.' It was fascinating to me -- the pull of it, the wit."

Washington was waiting

At the time, around 1983, Cohodas was a reporter for the Congressional Quarterly. Although she loved Washington's music and was interested in exploring her life, she was busy researching and writing Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change, which took 10 years to finish. Two more books -- The Band Played Dixie: Race and the Liberal Conscience at Ole Miss and the award-winning Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and Legendary Chess Records -- followed. But "Dinah was still sitting there," Cohodas says.

Not much had been written about the singer, save for James Haskins' 1987 biography, Queen of the Blues, which quickly went out of print. Cohodas read the book but "knew there were some things in there that weren't exactly right, and I knew that I would go about the research differently."

Despite the fact that Washington's large catalog has been in print for more than 10 years now, filling rows in CD shops, and despite the inclusion of her songs in the popular 1995 Clint Eastwood movie The Bridges of Madison County, eight publishing houses passed on the idea of a biography before Pantheon signed Cohodas to a deal. Seldom mentioned along with Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald in discussions of the great voices of the last century, Washington, who achieved more commercial success than the two jazz divas while firmly establishing herself in the high-brow jazz field, is still largely unknown to mainstream audiences. Even during her heyday in the 1950s, pop folks knew of only her 1959 crossover smash, "What a Diff'-rence a Day Made," a Grammy-winning string-laden affair that doesn't really capture what one critic called the singer's "electric vitality."

"Dinah was most revered in the black community," says Cohodas, a Michigan native and nonpracticing lawyer. "But that isn't where the power is in this country and certainly not back then."

Born in Alabama

Washington was born Ruth Jones in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1924. Her family moved to Chicago's South Side when she was 4. Under the stern guidance of her music-director mother, Alice, the teenager sang in churches throughout the city and occasionally in other cities in the Midwest and in the South. By the time she was 18, Ruth had become Dinah Washington and, after a short stint of performing in Chicago bars, landed the featured-vocalist gig in Lionel Hampton's jazz band, a hot ensemble at the time. By 1946, Washington was on her own and signed to Mercury Records. Over the next 15 years, she helped to define a style that came to be known as rhythm and blues, an amalgamation of jazz, blues and gospel.

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