DINAH WASHINGTON / “Roulette Years Mixtape”
When did it happen? When did thick, dark-skinned women singers fall out of favor?
I know it’s still happening in the church but when it comes to videos and movies, well, let’s just say thin is the new fine and light is the only black many of us seem to dig. Ah, but there was a time…
There was a time and sisters like Ruth Lee Jones, women we called queen and revered. Born on August 29, 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, her family moved to Chicago while little Ruth Lee was still a young child.
Up north she started out as a stalwart of the church, singing, playing piano, and while still a teenager, directing the church choir. She learned music from the legendary Walter Dyett, director of music at DuSable High School. Jones eventually, toured the gospel circuit with Roberta Martin.
And then she made a profound choice: she started singing in the nightclubs of Chicago.
In 1942 Lionel Hampton heard her perform and was knocked out by what he heard. He offered her a chance to sing with him at the Apollo in Harlem, next thing she was a regular member of the band. Less than a year later she recorded her first hit record, “Evil Gal Blues” on the Keynote Records label. In 1948 she signed with Mercury Records in Chicago.
Her name was now Dinah Washington and around the time of the Korean Conflict she was crowned “The Queen of The Blues.” Dinah reeled off a string of R&B hits, eventually crossing over to the top ten of the Billboard Pop Charts with 1959’s “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes.”
It’s important to note that most of her recordings made the top ten R&B Charts. There was something in her sound that got all up in us some kind of way. There was a keening quality: sharp and slightly nasal but full and robust at the same time.
Her voice was as effective as a pearl handled-straight razor in a close-quarters alley fight. It wasn’t just her timbre, it was also the precision of her pronunciations, or the way she phrased: slightly behind the beat—faster than Billie Holiday and with more use of sliding tones and a judicious use of the gospel moan and hum.
But then again it could have been the casual and relaxed precision of her rhythmic sense. She could swing like mad without popping a sweat but she could also drive a crowd into utter hysterics.
On the other hand she had what almost no other singer could match: Ms. Dinah Washington was both skilled and comfortable in three major styles of singing. She was a master of the blues. For others she was the leading jazz vocalist of the fifties. Also, an ever expanding general audience was mesmerized by her mastery of pop music and Tin Pan Alley standards, especially songs of love lost and found (commonly called “torch songs”). She had numerous recordings that each contingent could use as evidence.
In 1961 she moved from Mercury Records to Roulette Records. Although all of her major hits were behind her, Dinah’s artistry was still potent. In a brief two year period leading up to her tragic death, she produced some of the most engaging recordings of that era.
Just listen to the selections on the mixtape. It’s all there: blues, jazz and pop. All performed with impeccable artistry. Dinah Washington was the inspiration for an incoming generation of vocalists who are often considered the greatest of all time. Singers such as Aretha Franklin and Nancy Wilson are direct descendants of the magnificent Miss “D.”
My opening question was not simply a rhetorical device. The music changed dramatically in the sixties. Public aesthetics, particularly with respect to principles of feminine beauty also changed. One could argue that Dinah Washington was the last big, black musical queen.
Tragically, although Dinah Washington was popularly known as the “Queen,” Ruth Lee Jones suffered severe anxiety about her size and physical appearance.
She wore furs year round. It was deeper than simple ostentatious displays of wealth. It went to the core of self esteem. She married seven times, had interminable struggles with alcoholism, and died from an accidental overdose of prescription diet pills.
Her music was beautiful. Her life was tortured. What great cost is exacted for the creation of our art??!!
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Dinah Washington Roulette Years Mixtape Playlist
All selections are taken from The Complete Roulette Dinah Washington Sessions. Unfortunately, this limited edition box set is no longer in print.
01 “Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning”
a. Ill Wind
b. For All We Know
c. I Could Have Told You So
d. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
f. Make The Man Love Me
g. Blue Gardenia
h. I Concentrate On You
03 “How Long, How Long Blues”
04 “You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You”
05 “The Blues Ain't Nothin' But A Woman Cryin’ For Her Man”
06 “Where Are You”
07 “I'll Be Around”
08 “Drinking Again”
09 “Blue Gardenia”
10 “These Foolish Things”
11 “It's A Mean Old Man's World”
12 “A Stranger On Earth”
13 “The Good Life”
14 “Lord, You Made Us Human”
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