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Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington by Nadine Cohodas

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To date, the great female singers have fared extremely poorly in the biography stakes. Though there have been several worthwhile volumes devoted to Billie Holiday, we’ve yet to see a truly satisfying tome about Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald or Carmen McRae-and if Anita O’Day, Rosemary Clooney and Nina Simone hadn’t had the gumption to lay open their roller-coaster lives in gutsy autobiographies, their legacies, too, would remain underdocumented. It seemed Dinah Washington was sure to suffer the same inconspicuous fate. Since Washington’s tragically premature death in 1963, at age 39, few books have surfaced, most notably Jim Haskins’ thinly unsatisfying Queen of the Blues from 1987. Fortunately, though, Washington’s remarkable but too-brief career, along with her tempestuous personal life (seven husbands, plus endless in-between lovers, in two decades) get deservingly detailed, indeed exhaustive, coverage in Nadine Cohodas’ impressive, 450-page portrait.

Though not the most colorful of writers, often drifting dangerously close to clinical in her examination of recording dates, tour stops and publicity jags, Cohodas makes up for any shortage in vivacity with depth and breadth that is remarkable. It’s all here: the formative years with Lionel Hampton, the explosive solo success, the volatile temper, the incredible musicality, the obsession with clothes, shoes, furs and men, and the intense insecurity about her looks and weight that, thanks to an accidental overdose of diet pills, ultimately killed her.