Dinah Washington’s onstage wedding in early 1957 at the Casino Royal in downtown D.C. was big news in the black press. The star was getting hitched for the fifth time, and the Washington Afro-American gave it a splashy, front-page build-up. There were tidbits about the groom, sax player Eddie Chamblee, and about Dinah’s attire, “a hat designed by Olivia Turner, with yellow leaves and maroon grapes.”
But the real scoop was the size of the bride—“tilting the scales currently at 140 pounds”—described as if she were a prize fighter weighing in for a title bout: “After two months of dieting, Miss Washington has lost 40 pounds. By 7 p.m. Saturday, when the ceremony begins at the nightclub restaurant at 804 14th St NW, Dinah expects to have trimmed five more pounds from an already dwindling figure.”
“When I found the Afro-American write-up, I just winced,” says Nadine Cohodas, author of Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington. “But that to me was as poignant as anything. Her contemporaries, the other woman singers, may have struggled with the same thing, but they didn’t make that part of their lives so public. Dinah helped make it part of the public conversation.”
Kalorama resident Cohodas, 55, embarked on her three-and-a-half-year odyssey through “Dinah-Land” largely because she was inspired by Washington’s musical legacy. But the singer’s tragic story made Cohodas a fan of the resilient, hard-working woman as well as the flamboyant celebrity with seven marriages. “I found there was much greater poignance in her personal life than there was anything titillating. This was someone who in some fundamental way really didn’t want to be alone, and yet she lived a life that made a certain kind of stability difficult.”
Formerly a writer for the Raleigh News and Observer and Congressional Quarterly, Cohodas has lived in D.C. for 25 years. Her first book, on the political evolution of former segregationist Strom Thurmond, was followed by a study of racial politics at Ole Miss, And the Band Played Dixie. In 2000, she tackled the music business in Spinning Blues Into Gold, about the Chess brothers and their legendary record label.
Queen relies heavily on the extensive, almost obsessive, coverage of Washington by the black media of the ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s. “That was one of the special and extraordinary things for me,” says Cohodas. “I’m a white person from the upper Midwest, and it became so clear that you could never discover the life of Dinah Washington by reading the Washington Post and the New York Times and the white mainstream press.”
In now-defunct magazines such as Tan and Sepia, as well as such newspapers as the Afro-American, New York’s Amsterdam News, and the Chicago Defender, Washington was notable for her candor about her turbulent life, from her stormy romances to her relentless dieting. As Cohodas shows, the singer was no helpless victim of the press but a willing and able self-promoter. A high-living, mink-stole- and platinum-wig-wearing diva who cussed like a sailor, Washington assured a reporter for Tan that she would never forget her fans, “the people who pay $1.25 in hard-earned nickels and dimes and quarters tied at the end of a dirty handkerchief” for a 1957 profile titled “I Know I’m No Angel.”
Washington presented Cohodas with a singer who has been overshadowed in the decades since her death by the specter of Billie Holiday, whose drug-plagued life cast her as the epitome of the doomed songbird, as well as those of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, whose long, distinguished careers ensured their places in the pantheon. Washington, on the other hand, has come to be regarded as a quirky cult favorite revered more by fellow musicians than by posterity. It seems a cruel fate for a performer who had so many hit records in her heyday that she earned the title Queen of the Juke Boxes.
“Part of my interest in writing about Dinah was just really loving her music and feeling that here’s this great singer who never gets mentioned when she should be,” says Cohodas. “It’s a fascinating story…a wonderful lens to examine mid-century America in another way. Especially because she died so young, in December 1963.”
Indeed, six years after her D.C. wedding, after two more husbands and several hits on the pop charts, Washington succumbed to an accidental overdose of prescription diet pills. She was 39.
In her interviews for the book, Cohodas kept hearing how respected Washington was among her fellow performers. “It was clear that she was a really terrific musician,” she says. “I was kind of lucky in that there were a number of musicians who played with her that are still around, and how they loved to play with her. Her tempestuousness is somewhat overstated.”
One of Cohodas’ key sources was Keter Betts, bassist and longtime stalwart of the Washington jazz scene. The Silver Spring resident, now 76, remains an active musician and instructor after a storied career with the likes of Charlie Byrd and Ella Fitzgerald. Betts was just 23 when he first played with Washington, and he was the leader of her backing trio during the crucial period in the ’50s when she was gaining a mass audience.
“I realized from the moment I met Keter that he would essentially be my main tour guide from 1951 through 1956,” says Cohodas. “He has such a good memory, and here was a guy who was with Dinah for five years, when she made some of her best music. She so loved that trio behind her.”
With Betts on bass, Wynton Kelly on piano, and Jimmy Cobb on drums, Washington had found the perfect accompaniment for her versatile voice as she made the transition from gutbucket to more sophisticated jazz and ballads. Much of this adventurous music can be heard on a new CD, with liner notes by Cohodas, that serves as a companion to the biography.
Betts recalls Washington as a fun-loving woman with a fierce devotion to her fellow musicians. “Some people said, ‘The Queen was mean,’ and, yeah, she had her ways, but to us she wasn’t like that,” he recalls. “She was very happy with us, and she would take us everyplace. She introduced us to everybody in show business. She used to be able to get the sharks off her that way, too. In the clubs they’d say, ‘Queen, can I buy you a drink?’ and she’d say, ‘Sure, I’m drinking champagne—and so is my trio.’ And we didn’t even drink champagne!”
Washington showed her generosity in a multitude of ways, even footing the bill for Betts’ wedding. “We were playing Birdland, and I had started dating this lady who lived in Washington, and she’d come up on weekends. One night Dinah says, ‘Keter, why don’t you two settle down? I’ll arrange the wedding.’ And she set it up at Adam Clayton Powell’s church—she wanted him to officiate. That’s how she was—she was something else.”
Washington had her petulant side, as well. Queen is littered with anecdotes about those who bore the brunt of her wrath, whether it was a promoter on the make, a drunken spectator talking over her music, or other singers who were imitating her vocal style. “One that really copied Dinah was Little Esther [Phillips],” says Betts. “One night we were at a club, and Esther came in, and Dinah said, ‘Bitch, you still trying to sound like me?’”
Long before she crossed over onto the pop charts, Washington was breaking racial barriers with her music in the segregated South. The dance halls often had a rope to separate the blacks from the whites, with one group or the other attending as “spectators,” depending on the venue.
“One night with Dinah, they cut the rope four times,” says Betts. “The sheriff said, ‘Y’all get back over here—you ain’t supposed to be over there!’ and he’d put the rope up again, and they would cut it again. And that really fascinated me: I realized that here we are in the heart of the South, [and] regardless of their daily lives or how they think, the power of the music would make you want to be out there and dance with people you don’t like. The music was so hot and powerful.”
In 1959, Washington hit paydirt with “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,” a languid, strings-drenched ballad that was the first of three Top 10 pop hits for her. She gained a huge mainstream audience, all the while pursuing the image she felt she needed to keep herself in the spotlight. In 1962, Betts attended a show in Washington and saw firsthand the physical toll that fame and fortune had taken.
“All the time I worked with her she was kind of hefty, but that was her,” says Betts. “Then when she came to the Howard Theatre, my wife and I went to see her, and we went backstage. Dinah pulled up her dress to show us her legs and said, ‘Look, I’m down to a size 7.’ I didn’t like that at all, because she was a big-boned woman, and that was too thin. “
For years, Washington’s recorded output was in a shambles, though a two-LP reissue in the early ’80s, A Slick Chick (On the Mellow Side), brought her work to a new generation, including Cohodas. “It always has something to do with who is managing your legacy,” she says, “and when Dinah died, nobody did much.”
The book, besides chronicling the hardships faced by a black female musician on the road in the land of Jim Crow—Washington’s responses to the standard bigotry were usually anything but: She once pulled a pistol on a gas-station attendant who wouldn’t let her use the restroom—traces the grueling schedule that helped drive Washington to her early death. The touring and recording was nearly nonstop for her two-decade career, pausing only after her two pregnancies. Betts was an invaluable resource in helping re-create the details of the tours, which often involved all-night drives to clubs in the sticks. “I would unfurl the map, and he would tell me everything he could remember,” says Cohodas.
Washington’s event-packed life as a traveling musician put Cohodas’ reporting skills to the test. She crisscrossed the country herself, tracking down all the primary sources she could. “I was very pleased that I have five of the seven marriage licenses,” she says, noting that on the D.C. license Washington answered “none” to the question about previous marriages.
Still, it was Washington’s recorded legacy that Cohodas found most overwhelming. “There is this huge body of music she left behind,” she says. “Here’s a woman who was the queen of the blues. Then she shifted to R&B. Then she goes to the Newport Festival and she gets a jazz presence. Then she cuts a couple of country tunes, and later she records with strings—and she’s still on the charts. She could make any genre work. She loved to say, ‘I can sing everything—anything at all.’”
Besides penning the liner notes, Cohodas selected the songs for the new CD, Queen: The Music of Dinah Washington, to be released on Verve next week to coincide with what would have been Washington’s 80th birthday. The 11-track compilation shows the breadth of Washington’s talent, from jaunty show tunes to lowdown Bessie Smith blues. “It’s not the usual stuff like ‘Unforgettable’ and ‘What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,’” says Cohodas. “I wanted to pick tracks that haven’t been in circulation for a long time, or not at all.”
For the compilation’s opener, Cohodas chose “I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” a cover of Hank Snow’s country smash that was an R&H hit for Washington in 1954. “It’s my all-time favorite by her,” she says. “The words of the title end the book. The first sound you hear on that record is Dinah’s voice—no horns, no bass, no nothing—just that distinctive sound of her voice….Dinah just stands at the microphone and delivers—the music just pours out of her. “You know what I mean about singers who could swing standing still? That’s my feeling about Dinah, God bless her.”CP