There never was any doubt that Dinah Washington was going to be a star. The big surprise was how fast celebrity came and how far she went in the 78-rpm era. In three short years after leaving Lionel Hampton's band in late '45, Washington was crowned Queen of the Jukebox by music critics based on revenue from the machines, earning her a fortune in the process. The Fabulous Miss D: The Keynote, Decca & Mercury Singles 1943-1953—a new four-CD set released today by Hip-O Select—charts the singer's trajectory and offers irrefutable proof of her ability to send songs into orbit.
First full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes to this set. To bring Washington's story to life, I interviewed Washington's lover and drummer Jimmy Cobb, trumpeter Joe Wilder, guitarist Mundell Lowe and the late trombonist Benny Powell. While Washington's 78-rpm-era recordings were issued on CD back in the early 1990s on a series of boxes, this new set presents a superb remastering of her 107 singles issued on flip sides of shellac platters.
What's more, the singles here are ordered according to when they were released (not when they were recorded), giving you a sense of how she was marketed by Mercury (her Keynote and Decca dates were few), and how the label built her "slick chick" brand through the jukebox.
In the days before the Internet and television on a mass scale, a jazz singer had three ways to attract notice. The first was touring to perform, which was fundamental but limiting, since one had to physically be present to touch audiences and collect revenue. If you were black, large sections of the country and lucrative box offices were off limits. The other two were cash cows: radio and jukeboxes. These allowed you to be everywhere—even if you were at home in a bath.
But radio wasn't ideal until roughly 1947, since musicians between 1942 and 1944 were prohibited from recording largely over the union's battle with the radio airplay of records and their displacement of live musicians. Once the strike was settled in 1944 and the union received royalties on radio-spinning discs, disc jockeys emerge in greater number to play records but the royalty trickle-down took time.
The big bang was jukeboxes, which were spread out all over the country and highly democratic. For one, the revenue was direct since coins were fed into the machines. For another, 78-rpms wore out, forcing jukebox operators to order new copies, resulting in new sales and more royalties. The more a side was played, the faster it ground down and needed to be replaced. Washington's platters had to be reordered regularly, and they stimulated record sales for play at home.
Washington starts out as a blues shouter. But before long it's clear that she has no intention of resting too long in this space, since "race records" typically attracted narrow interest. So Washington started to mix in striking Billie Holiday touches. This impersonation was so formidable, Jimmy Cobb told me, that Holiday herself used to go hear Washington sing in her style. Washington's Lady Day phase is evident on I Can't Get Started and Embraceable You.
The first big turning point in Washington's singles development came in April 1947 with the recording of I Want to Be Loved, featuring members of Woody Herman's band. Here, Washington is in complete command in front of a dramatic arrangement and already employing the coy phrasing tricks that would become her hallmark on recordings.
A long string of songs with big buildup arrangements followed. Charts opened with blazing orchestral drama, often leading to a walking blues. By 1947, Washington had taught herself when to let loose and when to leave space—a technique she developed to push her voice through the small jukebox speakers and out over a bar's clinking glasses and chatter.
The next turning point came in late 1947, when Washington recorded a flurry of singles with the Rudy Martin Trio. The small combo was used to maximize output while minimizing error by instrumentalists. With the threat of a second recording strike by union musicians on January 1, 1948, Mercury's goal was to wax as much Washington as possible to tide over the label until the threatened labor dispute was settled. Interestingly, the trio recordings compelled Washington to dial down the zeal and grow more intimate. [Pictured: Dinah Washington in 1947]
When the recording ban ended in the fall of 1948, there was a distinct shift in the kinds of songs Washington recorded. Already soaring on the charts, Washington had been known for delivering blues about cheating men who needed to be put in their place. But after the ban, the lyrics in Washington's material repositioned her as a jilted lover whose heart had been broken. Songs like I'll Wait, It's Funny and Am I Really Sorry more often cast her as a sympathetic victim of love's misfortunes rather than a blues-belting roadhouse henpecker.
The next turning point came in 1950 with the recording of Harbor Lights, a deliberate move into pop featuring a big band and strings arranged by Jimmy Carroll (who had just recently arranged Charlie Parker with Strings). Harbor Lights was followed with the release of I Cross My Fingers and the magnificent Time Out for Tears, perhaps her greatest singles-era recording.
Out in the Cold Again and Hey Good Lookin' with the Ravens vocal group and Wheel of Fortune, complete with Kay Starr-like overdubbing, was also part of this toe-dip into pop.
By 1953, Dinah was swinging with the times, releasing singles with a strong R&B bent. Songs like Lean Baby, TV Is the Thing This Year, Fat Daddy and My Man's an Undertaker all wisely attempt to position Washington as the belle of the big beat. Washington even took a crack at calypso on Since My Man Has Gone and Went, which Mercury released to capitalize on Harry Belafonte's 1953 hit Matilda.
Washington's 11-year, 78-rpm period ended in 1954 as the vinyl 45-rpm made the shellac single obsolete and the 33 1/3 microgroove long-playing (LP) record was pressed in greater numbers. From 1954 until her death in 1963, Washington would be found more often playing on home phonographs than jukeboxes. Albums had become the thing.
JazzWax tracks: The Fabulous Miss D: The Keynote, Decca & Mercury Singles 1943-1953 (Hip-O Select) will run you about $77 ($46 as a download). The 107 tracks (four discs) have been lovingly restored and there is a comprehensive discography complete with chart positions for each track. In addition, the discs comes a 7.5-inch square book with discs slipping into reproductions of album covers. Go here for the CD or here for the download.