Long before crossover and eclectic became part of the journalistic vernacular, Dinah Washington defied categorization and embraced any and every type of song. Her delivery was instantly identifiable, and she prided herself on crystal-clear diction, precise pitch and spontaneity. Washington made brilliant recordings, beginning with her days as a pianist accompanying gospel pioneer Sallie Martin, through swing and R&andB sessions with Count Basie and Lionel Hampton, on to modern jazz ventures with Clifford Brown, Max Roach and Cannonball Adderley and later pop hits with Brook Benton.
Author Nadine Cohodas, whose previous book on Chess Records marvelously outlined that historic company, now gives the same exacting treatment to Washington in Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington. Cohodas also selected the songs on a companion CD, released on Verve Records.
Queen is the first truly comprehensive volume on the late singer. Cohodas conducted numerous interviews with insiders and family members and discovered documents and letters that reaffirm her assessments. Cohodas ably illuminates the quirks and contradictions of Washington's personality. Washington could be extremely kind and appallingly crude. She complained about her inability to find happiness in relationships, yet married seven times. A smart, extremely knowledgeable artist who had definite ideas about her music, Washington frequently clashed with bandmates, despite often being accompanied by the greatest jazz musicians on earth. Thankfully, Cohodas also presents Washington's upbeat, joyous and celebratory side, thus not totally resigning her to tragic victim status.
Sadly, Washington's ongoing conflicts and struggles with lovers, relatives and executives in many ways prevented her from achieving the fame she deserved, along with the fact that black female singers had extremely limited options during the '50s and early '60s. But Washington influenced numerous vocalists who followed her, most notably Esther Phillips and Nancy Wilson, while creating an exceptional body of work that's still captivating almost 41 years after her death at 39. Songs like Unforgettable, This Bitter Earth, What a Diff'rence a Day Makes and Baby You Got What It Takes remain as documents of her excellence. Queen is a wonderful and invaluable addition to music biography and cultural history. Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and several other publications.