If there was one film that influenced me both musically and stylistically at a certain period of my life, then ‘Jazz on a Summers Day’ by Bert Stern from 1959, would certainly be the one. I remember being blown away the first time I watched it in the mid 1980s I guess on a VHS, capturing as it did, an amazing array of colourful Ivy League clobber among the hip crowd and the musicians on stage. Blimey, what a line-up of great players and singers to choose from, among them Anita O’Day, Thelonious Monk, Chico Hamilton, Battersea’s own George Shearing and Dinah Washington.
Now, Dinah was a name I knew from my dad’s record collection, but it was great to actually see her perform on stage. Her vibrant rendition of ‘All of Me’ really hit the spot, as it was a song, I had heard a hundred singers murder in a hundred pubs in my early teens, following my dad and his pals around ‘singers pubs,’ where all the amateur Matt Monro’s and Frank Sinatra’s dreamed of one day topping the bill at The Talk of the Town.
On the back of that film, I was soon off buying up albums by Anita and Dinah in particular, quickly becoming a fan of her work.
She was born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the August of 1924, and named after her grandfather, Rufus. Her family, mum Alice and Dad Ollie then moved to Chicago in search of work when little Ruth was a small child.
From a young age she became soaked in the gospel music and sang in many choirs and gospel groups. Her winning a local talent show, paved the way to then performing at clubs by 1941. She sang with Fats Waller and then picked up a year’s engagement at the Garrick Stage Club appearing upstairs, whilst Billie Holiday worked the downstairs room. It was during this period that she picked up the stage name we know her as today. When band leader Lionel Hampton came to check her out, the visit brought an offer for her to work as the female vocalist in his band.
He said later – ‘Dinah alone could stop the show. I had to put her down next to closing because nobody could follow her. She had a background in gospel, and she put something new into the popular songs I had her sing.’
Her first recording Evil Gal Blues was backed by the Hampton band in 1944 and she remained in the line-up until 1946, when she then signed for the Mercury record label, where she released a prodigious number of albums until 1955.
Her repertoire included jazz, blues, standards, novelty numbers, and pop tunes, most of which found success on one chart or the other . Her versatility was incredible, with her clear and strong voice suiting all genres. Known as the ‘Queen of the Jukeboxes’’ she was making $15,000 a night in some venues, such was the demand to see her perform.
That popularity ensured plenty of bookings, and she was a big favourite at the Newport Jazz festival, where she appeared from 1955 to 1959.
Her version of What a Difference a Day Makes brought her national fame in 1959. She followed up that success with another hit with Unforgettable and then duets with Brook Benton including Baby (you got what it takes) and
A Rockin’ Good Way in 1960, followed by her last big chart hit September in the Rain in 1961.
By then she had become a ‘singers singer.’
Tony Bennett – ‘She was a good friend of mine, you know. She was great. She used to just come in with two suitcases in Vegas without being booked, and she’d stay as long as she wanted. And all the kids in all the shows on the Strip would come that night. They’d hear that she’s in town and it would be packed just for her performance.’
In 1963 she worked with not one, but two of the all-time greats in Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
Sadly at the end of that year, her sixth husband Dick Lane found her unconscious at home and she died later aged just 39. A deadly combination of prescription drugs – to help her sleep and to help with weight loss – added to her already heavy drinking, contributed to her passing. Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, both paid homage to her, when they sang at her funeral.
Quincy Jones – ‘She could take the melody in her hand, hold it like an egg, crack it open, fry it, let it sizzle, reconstruct it, put the egg back in the box and back in the refrigerator and you would’ve still understood every single syllable.’
The Mumper of SE5
THE SPEAKEASY VOLUME 2 – AVAILABLE NOW
THE SPEAKEASY Volume Two by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)
Illustrations by Lewis Wharton
Foreword by Rhoda Dakar
Available to ORDER here
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