George Gershwin wouldn't know his own song when I'm through with it. I can't stay hidebound to any melody.
It was a Saturday night in February 1961 on Chicago's South Side. The patrons at Roberts Show Lounge were in a festive mood the men in sharp business suits, the women dressed somewhere between Sunday church and New Year's Eve. A few whites were scattered among the tables; the rest were black Chicagoans waiting expectantly for the show to begin even though most of them had seen the star attraction many times.
That didn't matter. When Dinah Washington was in town, the music was always good and always different. No one knew when something unusual might happen. What would she sing? What would she wear? What was new in the off-stage life that raised eyebrows and made headlines?
Dinah had just married her sixth husband, a slight, handsome actor twelve years her junior. But it was a good bet she'd have a story about the good-looking man who'd caught her eye the other day. She might tell a few jokes, too. And if the patrons were noisy when she sang, Dinah's sharp tongue would silence them. It was grand to watch as a spectator, though less inviting to be on the other end of her momentary annoyance.
Shortly after 10 the announcer came over the loudspeaker: "Ladies and Gentleman, Miss D - Dinah Washington."
She walked to the microphone with a slow, confident gait, sizing up this night's audience as they took her in from their seats. She was just over five feet but seemed much taller. It wasn't the high-heeled dress shoes but her command of the space and the moment. She turned to the band and signaled the key. The piano player hit the opening notes. The bass and drums came in a split second later, and Dinah was off. She opened upbeat, then sang some ballads, finally some blues, first the bawdy tunes and then the ones that made her cry with those lines about love gone sour and life all alone.
At the end the audience, on their feet, cheered for more.
Dinah treasured those moments, hard earned and savored in the early morning hours when the applause had faded. They were the culmination of the silent, even furtive dreams of the young girl born Ruth Jones far away from the glory of center stage and the fans who would one day call her Queen.
When Dinah returned to Los Angeles on August 13, she had to get ready for another session the next day. EmArcy producer Bobby Shad was in town and had rented the Capitol Studio at 5515 Melrose Avenue in Hollywood for a jam with Dinah and her friends. She wanted it to be a party with food and drink available and invited friends to sit off stage and watch.
The previous week in L.A. Shad had recorded with drummer Max Roach and his group, and apparently asked the group to stay in the city for the jam. The Ellington band was gone, but trumpeter Clark Terry remained. Shad may have recruited him, too, but Clark said his participation was at Dinah's bidding. As he was coming into the Watkins Hotel on the fourteenth, the day of the session, he heard Dinah shouting from her window to a friend on the street. "Hey Queen," he hollered, "what are you doing?"
"I'm recording today," she answered.
"Who's on the date? "
"You are," she shot back. So Clark said he got the details and showed up to find a stellar cast at the studio: Roach, Junior, Keter, two other trumpeters, Clifford Brown and Maynard Ferguson, Herb Geller, an alto saxophonist, Harold Land, who played tenor, and Richie Powell, who played the piano for Roach, and George Morrow, his bass player.
Because there were at least two musicians for each instrument except drums, the idea was to have them alternate on the tunes.
Ed Thigpen was matter-of-fact when he learned he would not be playing on the session. "Max was hot. Clifford was hot. She wanted to use them," he said. Not only that, now that Gus Chappell was gone, Dinah had taken up with Roach, at least for the moment, and she bestowed on him the gift she usually gave her boyfriend/husband if he was a musician: she designated Roach the session leader. (It entitled him to $82.50 for the afternoon twice what the other side men were paid. )
The session was called for 4 p.m. on August 14 and was to last three hours. Dinah had invited most of the guests, many of them friends from the Watkins Hotel her hair dresser, the manicurist and so forth. She also booked the catering company she knew the spots that made the best home-cooked food and she had been to Los Angeles enough times that the restaurants would take good care of her. Sometimes she had them cook for her and deliver the meals to the Watkins.
"The session was the first of its kind, with an audience," Clark insisted. It was going to be impromptu, too. "We hadn't had a rehearsal for nothing not anything," pianist Junior Mance said. He was impressed with the setup - spacious studio with its adjustable draped walls and plethora of microphones. And of course he and Richie Powell played on a grand piano. "It was very upscale. They had the best equipment, the best," Junior added.
The casualness of the session was apparent in the way the musicians dressed. The men wore short-sleeved sport shirts and pants; Dinah wore a shirt-waist dress with a full skirt. The white collar and white cuffs on the elbow-length sleeves, though, gave her a proper look, as though she were going to lunch with the ladies instead of tearing it up with her musician friends.
Dinah, Keter Betts, the bass player, and Junior knew each others styles and musical habits; Clark had been on other sessions; and Shad had already recorded with the quintet of Roach, Morrow, Powell, Brown and Land. So while the musicians had not all played together, common ground existed. Even if it hadn't, the craftsmanship was so high, the concept was bound to work.
Dinah was not a jazz singer the way Ella Fitzgerald was with her scat singing, and she didn't improvise around the lyrics and melody with the same panache as Sarah Vaughan, but she had much the same sensibility. She felt the rhythm and found the beat and made her hallmark diction a counterpoint to music that pulsed behind her.
Bobby Shad introduced the proceedings. "We got a lot of people here," he said. "So let me introduce them to you. So lets open up the curtain and let me tell you who's here."
He announced Dinah first. She stood on stage in front of a music stand that had been placed near some card table chairs, the mike hanging over her tilted at just the right angle to pick up her voice. Then Shad nodded to "a pretty fab drummer called Max Roach," and finally the rest of the group. When he got to the bass players, he noted that there were two of them, Morrow, "and when he gets tired, there's an archer here, Keter Betts."
The jam opened with Roach setting a fast Latin-beat that Dinah joined a capella on Cole Porter's I've Got You Under My Skin." Her intonation was perfect, her timing precise. After a few bars the other musicians joined in, the three trumpeters alternating solos. Dinah came back with a flourish, slowing down a few phrases and then picking up the tempo to clip off the lines "use your mentality, wake up to reality" before the final fanfare. The guests loved it.
"Lover Come Back" raced from the start, opening with a bass solo and then the piano. Dinah, at ease, joined right in, singing about a blue sky, a blue moon, and memories. Few other singers could have been so clear at that tempo on the line "I remember every little thing we used to do." "Little," not "liddle" she sang, determined not to sacrifice clarity for speed. After a few more bars, Dinah gave way to nearly eight minutes of solos on the trumpet, sax, bass and drums each accompanied by applause from the guests.
The session slowed with "Come Rain or Come Shine," with Dinah accompanied by Roach and Morrow on bass and Powell on the piano. She sang it like a blues number, but this time only hinting at those trills she had used so effectively years earlier on "Evil Gal" and "Blow Top." The guests burst into applause when she cranked it up a notch to sing, "Days may be cloudy or sunny, we're in or we're out of the money."
The guests got a chance to hear Dinah's prized Billie Holiday impression on "Crazy He Calls Me," copying Holiday's insouciant phrasing and shaky vibrato. "I"ll goof if you cut it," she said, stopping after some giggles, an indication that Dinah may have intended the takeoff to remain in the studio. Dinah's version wasn't a caricature, but it wasn't an homage to Holiday either. She was just having a good time, demonstrating the command she had over her instrument.
"I know a good one," Dinah said after the applause died down, " `No greater Love.' "I'll do that. That's real bad. Come on Junior Mance," she said, signaling her piano player to start the next song.
Clark Terry loved every minute of the jam. "You don't forget her - her tonality. She had pitch. Her intonation was fantastic. Her diction was impeccable. There is never a question about what did she say. You knew right away," he said. He didn't mind when Dinah called him on something musical - "Clark Terry your treble is flat," she said during one session, stopping in mid-song to correct him. "She had confidence. She wasn't over confident. She had grace and style, but she was still one of the gang."
Junior was ecstatic. "It was the greatest record date I ever made the camaraderie - we all knew each other, respected and loved each other. I consider the whole record date one of the highlights of my career." When he left the Bee Hive to join Dinah, one of Junior's bandmates had told him, "You'll be the best blues player in the world." A few dates into this trip west, he knew it was true. "I learned a lot about phrasing from Dinah, " Junior said, "just the whole entire scope of interpreting music....With Dinah I really learned how to get a tune across."
- - -
Dinah was married seven times. Husband number five was saxophonist Eddie Chamblee, who, like Dinah, grew up in Chicago.
Dinah and Eddie decided to combine the personal with the professional at Dinah's next job. They would get married in Washington, D.C. at the Casino Royale, a night club two blocks east of the White House, where Dinah was booked for a week starting Monday, February 18. Even though little time remained to plan her wedding, Dinah insisted on three things: she wanted her sons to be there, she wanted a real ceremony, and she wanted a new dress. The event was set for 7 p.m. Saturday, February 23.
Dinah wanted Bobby and Molly Shad to be there, too. The relationship between them was not just musical now. Dinah considered them her friends and vice versa. Molly loved it when Slappy White would drive Dinah out to the house on Long Island to spend the day. They would cook, and visit and sometimes Dinah would sing if she felt like it. There was always plenty of laughter. When Dinah invited Molly to lunch at 145th Street, she also took her to the Apollo but not before they stopped at the barbershop near the Bowery Bank Building so Dinah could play the numbers.
Though Dinah had been married four times before, she was still a bit nervous on the evening of the twenty-third as she put on her wedding outfit, a new pale blue short-sleeved, v-neck dress with a matching hat that reportedly cost $750. Bobby Shad, so used to keeping Dinah calm in the studio, provided the steady hand to give her away as a local band played the wedding march.
Eddie, dressed in a dark suit and dark tie, waited for her at the makeshift alter with the Reverend Browning J. Peyton of the Goodwill Baptist Church, who officiated. LaRue Manns was the maid of honor, and Molly Shad, was the matron of honor at Dinah's insistence. Shouldn't one of the family members have that designation? Molly asked. Dinah was insistent, though she chided Molly for wearing a tasteful black dress instead of something more colorful. Slappy was the best man. Though this was Dinah and Eddie's wedding, the attendants were from Dinah's orbit, a quiet reminder that he was marrying into her life, not vice versa. (The District of Columbia's marriage licenses asked bride and groom about any previous marriages. Perhaps to avoid difficulties, Dinah answered "none.")
She carried a white orchid bouquet; her two attendants carried purple orchids. Patti Austin, who came with her family from New York, was the ring bearer.
The simple ceremony didn't take long, and afterwards, Dinah and Eddie cut their wedding cake and posed for a few pictures. Dinah's good friend, Georgia Mae Scott, who had introduced her to LaRue, was honored with a corsage even though she was not an official member of the wedding party. Dinah's son Bobby, as elegantly dressed as the groom, kept his eyes on the cake, eager for his mother and Eddie to finish the formalities so he could share in the dessert. While he was waiting, Bobby gulped down a glass of champagne claiming he thought it was water. The drink made him a bit tipsy, and he broke up the wedding guests when he ran around the room giggling.
Eddie gave Dinah a $2,000 mink stole; she gave him a new $600 saxophone. Slappy gave the couple five crisp, new one hundred dollar bills. Then it was time for work the newlyweds had to go on for the late show.
Dinah was now a full-fledged celebrity in black America. Her wedding was big news, the papers and magazines making much of the fact that this was her fifth though only Eddie's second. The Associated Negro Press sent out a story that was picked up in several papers across the country, but Dinah was irritated that the piece got her age wrong: she was thirty-two, not thirty-six. Equally striking was the attention to her size and shape, a continuation of the public conversation she herself had started years ago with all the talk about her diets. The Washington Afro-American story was likely the only time the paper began a marriage notice by citing the bride's weight: "A demure Dinah Washington tipping the scales currently at 140 pounds...." The story added that Dinah intended to lose another five pounds within a week.
Dinah was fast with a quip and wasn't above embroidering the facts to make a good story. Several publications reported that after the ceremony she waved four telegrams around, insisting that they were good-natured regrets from her four ex-husbands who had been invited to the wedding. It made for amusing repartee even if it wasn't true. No one had seen or heard of Walter Buchanan, number four, since he and Dinah split up six years earlier.
Sparring amiably with Eddie, she promised this marriage would be her last.
"But Dinah," Eddie interjected with a smile, "you've said that four other times."
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© 2004 Nadine Cohodas. All Rights Reserved.
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