Thursday, December 15, 2011

Remembering the Queen of the Blues

Nearly 50 years ago this week, Dinah Washington passed away at the young age of 39. Dinah Washington was born Ruth Lee Jones in 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Moving with her family at a young age to Chicago, she went on to become one of the most distinctive singers of her time. Her biggest triumph came with the 1959 Grammy-winning “What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" and she topped the charts again with “Baby, You’ve Got What it takes” a sizzling duet with Brook Benton. A gospel star at age fifteen, she was discovered by the legendary musician and fellow Alabamian Lionel Hampton at eighteen. She spent most of the rest of her short life in clubs and theaters and in the studio --- making music.

Dinah's distinctive and heartfelt voice quickly became her trademark -- she was a song stylist, crossing over from the "race music" category to the pop and jazz charts. Known in her day as the Queen of the Blues and queen of the Juke Boxes, Dinah was regarded as a rare "first take" artist, her studio recordings reflecting the same passion that she brought o every one of her live performances. She was known to make every single song she sang her own, having once said, George Gershwin wouldn't know his own song when I'm through with it. I can't stay hidebound to any melody."

Please enjoy Dinah's remarkable live performance of All of Me from 1958, complete with a very participatory audience. She was loved, and continues to be loved for her remarkable singing voice, an unmistakable sound that can never be matched. And she lived a fascinating, sad, and far too short of a life. To read more about Dinah, read Nadine Cohodas's book, Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington ( Pantheon, 2004). Much of the research on Dinah's earliest years was done at the Hoole Library! She spoke to a rapt audience at UA in 2005 about her book -- we even had a little Dinah-esque performance with blues singer, Elnora Spencer.

Not to be outdone, Nadine's latest book,
Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (Pantheon, 2010) is a look at the fascinating life of this incredible singer and activist. Mark your calendars -- Nadine may be joining us again in spring 2012 to talk about her work!

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