Whenever people think about all-time great jazz divas, the order typically goes: Billie, Ella, Sarah, Nina. Dinah Washington doesn’t necessarily get that first-name recognition, but she should. Because she was one bad bella.
Even if you’ve never heard of Dinah Washington, you might know one of her songs without realizing it– that Doubletree commercial that uses her song “Relax, Max” from her Swingin’ Miss D album is on the television all the time. Dinah Washington was among the sassiest of the great ladies of jazz. You can hear and see some of that spunky personality in this documentary clip, many of her best songs were as high spirited and tempestuous as she was off stage. Evil Gal Blues, Cold, Cold Heart, and It’s a Mean Old Man’s World, which was recorded just a year before her death, rank among her most feisty classics.
Her most famous song was probably What a Difference a Day Made (that’s an audio only version, enjoy).
She oozed sultry siren on Mad About The Boy, a song that reveals her complete range, from her crisp, clear, Eartha Kitt-esque diction to the kind of bold belting that inspired a young Aretha Franklin (and now Deborah Cox) to release a tribute album of Dinah Washington covers. Mad About the Boy is the kind of song on which careers are based. She makes you feel that song inside you when you hear it.
I love this live clip of her singing All of Me at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Man, that festival was one hot ticket back in the day.
Dinah’s in amazing voice, rockin’ awesome gold grape earrings, a short and sassy do (ala Sarah Vaughn), and wearing a dress that makes her look like a gift ready to be unwrapped. She looks happy in that clip, playing xylophone and singing. But although she smiled and sang so beautifully of true love, love and happiness continually eluded her.
She was married seven times and enjoyed a legion of lovers, including then-arranger (and then-hottie) Quincy Jones. In between marriages, Dinah filled her inner voids with extravagant purchases, buying cars and shoes and furs in the desperate pursuit of happiness.
The chronology of Dinah Washington’s life is reminiscent of Judy Garland’s, a grim and ceaseless downward spiral into the valley of the dolls. To keep up her performance schedule, she took pills. To keep her weight down, she took pills. To get to sleep at night, she took pills. Dinah Washington died of an accidental overdose in 1963. She was only 39 years old.