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April 2011

Dinah Washington
The Fabulous Miss D: The Keynote, Decca & Mercury Singles 1943-1953
Verve

When compact discs were still in their infancy, few if any vocalists fared better on the reissue front than Dinah Washington. Beginning in 1987, PolyGram released seven triple-disc box sets that, spanning 1946 to 1961, covered all 450 tracks Washington recorded for Mercury. Those sets are long out of print, though they remain available on iTunes. If you own them, even if only volumes one through three, you already have all but four of the 107 selections that fill this quadruple-disc salute to the first half of Washington’s illustrious, if too brief, recording career. Those four sides—“Evil Gal Blues,” “Homeward Bound,” “Salty Papa Blues” and “I Know How To Do It,” all co-written by Leonard Feather—represent Washington’s pre-Mercury solo output in its entirety, and were released on Keynote in early 1944. (Her sole Decca side, “Blow-Top Blues,” was actually a 1947 Lionel Hampton release with Washington as featured vocalist.) Apart from their obvious historical importance as Washington’s earliest commercial recordings as a solo artist, they also capture a sweeter, more vulnerable-sounding Dinah whose distinct sound was still developing. For the uninitiated, the rest of this set serves as a superlative Washington primer.

Always a marvelously dexterous vocal chameleon, Washington could holler the blues, navigate racy double entendres, cover pop hits and sell tender ballads with equal skillfulness. Consider, for instance, a February 1946 session that included both the playfully sophisticated “I Can’t Get Started” and the salaciously freewheeling “Joy Juice.” No other singer, not even Billie Holiday, could so easily bridge so wide a musical chasm. As a result, Washington filled a unique role in the evolution of popular music, providing the connective tissue between marginalized “race” music and crossover R&B (whose ripening coincided with the endpoint of this set).

At the same time, she, like Sinatra, spearheaded the phoenixlike rise of vocalists from the ashes of the big-band era. She referred to herself as the Queen, and no one questioned her right to several thrones. Yet the magic of Washington was her ability to maintain a common touch. It was a trait she shared with Bing Crosby—and, à la Crosby, she had a gift for peppering tunes with delightful conversational asides.

Washington was also never subjected to (or, perhaps, like Tony Bennett, refused to accept) schlocky material. There were no doggies in the window or little white clouds that cried for this slick chick. But even when the material was only so-so—the overwrought “My Heart Cries for You” and gimmicky “Wheel of Fortune” leap to mind—Washington’s interpretations proved remarkably elevating.

Simply put, whether snuggling in the folds of “Embraceable You” or making it indisputably clear what horizontal hold she is hoping the repairman will adjust in “TV Is the Thing,” you believe every word she sings. Nor is there ever any question as to who’s in charge. That sincerity, coupled with her unwavering fortitude, invariably shines through.

Originally published in April 2011
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1 Comment

  • Mar 28, 2011 at 12:16PM William Moon

    All the hoopla about the royal wedding in England reminds me of the story about Dinah Washington going to England and announcing to the reporters as she got off the plane, "Tell Elizabeth, the queen is here."

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