Monday, August 29, 2011

Her Melody Lingers On ...

Dinah Washington born 87 years ago today

During the last weeks, I posted the »press item of the week« on Monday. Well, it won't do today, though there will be press items. Today is Dinah Washington's birthday, and this calls for celebration.

Baptized Ruth Lee, »Dinah« was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Aug. 29, 1924. She was one of the greatest voices of 20th century music. Hailed by many for her ob- vious talent, others criticized her for sell- ing her soul and voice out to commercial MOR pop. But hers was without doubt the rare talent that couldn't be undone by the choice of unsuited material. She could sing everything, and she did. There are obvious parallels to the career of Aretha Franklin here. (Fittingly, the only tribute album ever recorded by Aretha was devoted to Dinah.)
     Dinah led a stormy life that ended much too soon by an overdose of sedatives. During the last five years of her career, everything she did and said was closely monitored, and often blown up, by the rainbow press (mainly by the tabloids for the black market). By her vocal artistry and her stage performances Dinah had earned herself a dozen nicknames: »Miss D«, »The Queen«, »Great Dinah« ... in early 1960, she was billed as »The Unforgettable Queen of Songs«. Yet, after a pistol threat charge, she wasn't amused to find herself billed as »Pistol-packin' Mama« in front of a night club.
     Her volatile personality, to put it mildly, is legendary. Anecdotes about her abound, and we fortunately posess the fine biographical study by Nadine Cohodas (Queen. The Life and Music of Dinah Washington, New York 2006), arguably one of the most captivating and well-researched artist biographies. Shyness was an un- known feeling to Dinah, or so it must seem to the public. (After her death, many details came to the fore that shed a somewhat different light on her private per- son.) She often flew into a rage and was cussing in public. Her favorite expression was said to be »j.a.m.f«, i.e. »jive ass motherfu**er«. When she arrived at Sammy Davis's marriage party, she was told to go around to the back door. »I guess you know I told them where they could go« was her reply. Once in a while, she insulted the audience while on stage, and this brought her even charges of anti-Semitic remarks in Jan. '63. (The night club owner of Pittsburgh couldn't prove his case, though, and the charge was dropped.) Apart from that, she frequently arrived late at an engagement or walked out of concerts, sometimes she didn't show up at all. When a dress designer presented her a $700 bill, Dinah allegedly threatened her with a pistol.
     By mid-1960, she had 6 ex-husbands and speculations about no. 7 were under way. She received roses and cards saying »From your Egyptian servant«, but even- tually she didn't marry the Egyptian S. Ares Omar  but went, in February 1961, into a Mexican registry office with Dominican actor Rafael Campos. She was wild on fancy dresses, mink coats and glitzy shoes. Her wardrobe consisted of several $6.000 furs, and once she said she doesn't wear earrings because »she has not been able to find any with a large diamond.« In order not to pass unobserved, she often wore showy wigs, gold-blonde or flaming red (... she could have swapped them with Etta James). Her apartment was filled with expensive luxury items, and when engaged in some club she demanded a private phone line to be installed.
     But it all boils down to one essential truth: She is unforgettable, and so is her voice.
* * *

At the beginning of May 1960, Mercury released another of her numerous LPs. The new album (Mercury # SR 60232) was simply called »Unforgettable«, after the title song. It was actually the follow-up to her hugely successful album »What A Diff'rence A Day Makes!« (rel. November '59), even though Mercury had put out still other LPs in the meantime. The title-song »Unforgettable« was already out as single in November '59, but the most remarkable song on the album was, also according to critical acclaim, »This Bitter Earth«, soon to become one of Dinah's signature songs. The rest of the album did in general not find much praise. Critics said that the album was proof of Mercury's strategy to capitalize on Dinah's »new- found pop acceptance«. That was to say that Dinah's way to pop stardom was paved with MOR ditties, or in other words: She sacrificed her very talent and being by selling herself out to the mainstream pop market. Well, economically it made sense. But there is no need to be over-critical about this album, because for once the Billboard reviewer got it right when he wrote about this LP:
»Dinah Washington proves why she's entitled to be called "The Queen." She takes a brace of pop tunes and infuses them with believability so that they take on the aura of classics. Her own type of blues feeling is injected into such songs as "I Understand," "This Love of Mine," Alone" and "The Song Is Ended"« (Billboard, May 30, 1960).
I think that is quite accurately observed and does justice to this album. Let me add that the songs were recorded with Joe Zawinul on piano (Dinah's close buddy and musical companion during that time) and the Belford Hendricks Orchestra. Recording sessions were held in New York, between July and October 1959. I chose two tunes from the album:  »The Song Is Ended (But The Melody Lingers On)«, which particularly befits my mood today, and  »A Bad Case Of The Blues«, which is indeed the »bluesiest« song on the album and not much remembered nowadays. The first was recorded in NYC in mid-1959, the second on September 28 of the same year:

Dinah Washington: »The Song Is Ended« / »A Bad Case Of The Blues« from the Mercury LP # SR-60232 (1960):

* * *
... couldn't stop here, anyhow, also in case you're waitin' for the usual press item of Mondays. Well, here they come. In tune with today's songs and today's occasion, I best put them into context by saying something about Dinah's life and career around the time the album »Unforgettable« was released. At that time, in May '60, she already had recorded her legendary duets with Brook Benton, and the first single had been released in January (»Baby You've Got What It Takes«). In mid-February, she had another recording session in New York, whose results were released later on the Mercury LP »I Concentrate On You« (This session produced, among other songs, the memorable »I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good«). However, during the next months no sessions followed or were cancelled. The reason for that is that, in the first half of '60, Dinah was on a strenuous dieting trip. And this is where the press comes in.
     Already in January, the L.A. police had searched her local apartment and con- fiscated many bottles with pills. It was found that these were merely sleeping and weight reducing pills, so the matter ended here. Thing is, at any rate, that Dinah's diet didn't consist in eating less or differently, but in going on eating as before and trying to reduce the carbohydrate imput by swallowing lots of diet and reducing pills. (Elvis adopted the same strategy 15 years later.) The impact of all those pills, which seem to have had some effect, weakened Dinah to the point that she had to cancel (or, according to others, shorten) a recording date in March. In April, she denied »that she was "weak and near collapse" from following a rigid diet designed to make her shed poundage. "I never diet," Dinah snorted.« (quoted in Jet, April 21, 1960, p. 59). Three weeks before, the same magazine had published a curious photo of Dinah's unshod feet. It was reportedly taken during a recording session in Chicago (Jet, April 7, p. 37):

And of course there was the by-then common hint at her dieting, its effects ... and its motivation (the next husband-to-be!). Dinah went on negating any dieting, but to little avail. In May she was reported to have lost 35 pounds in 6 weeks, »primarily as a result of taking reducing pills and injections from a doctor«. Dinah gave in and finally admitted her dieting efforts, not without stressing of how cleverly she proceeded: »Her secret: reducing pills after taking meals.« Today's dietologists will be astonished to hear that this »diet« helped her to »confine her eating to only two meals a day, although they are often heavy«:

From EBONY, May 1960, page 110.

As you can imagine, Dinah's dieting didn't go as planned. Her physical condition deteriorated further and things became worse in summer. She collapsed again in June, during an engagement, and was still sick in July. Only a stationary medication in July could resolve, for the moment, Dinah's self-inflicted diet problems. She remained addicted to many kinds of legally prescribed pills (no dope, though). It finally killed her. May her soul rest in peace.


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