Thank you to Pirl Harbour for the comment on my blog about Amy Jade Winehouse (I like to use her full name to separate the artist and person from the object that we and the media made of her). In the piece I said I was comparing her to Sarah Vaughn. My MISTAKE. I really meant Dinah Washington! I think I just got distracted by the photo of Sarah that reminded me so much of AJW.
So I figured I owed Dinah, who was truly my favorite as a teenager, a few words that might send people back to her music. She was called the ‘Queen of the Blues’ and sometimes the “Queen of the Juke Box,” before she died too early.
Her definitive recording of “What a Difference a Day Makes” was a pop hit and won her a Grammy in 1959. It played continuously on the juke box at the Four Eleven Lounge in Boston where my step mother was a chef and I waited tables starting when I was 14. My musical underpinnings can pretty much be defined by the 45s that spun through those smoky nights. I was in the ‘musical room’ with everyone from Dinah to Billie, to Count Basie to Stevie Wonder to Jackie Wilson. It was a time when the musical streams all converged in juke boxes and on radio stations that hadn’t yet fractionalized the audiences so we didn’t get to understand any music other than the one they were selling us.
In the club Dinah’s voice was like a velvet fog that surrounded me; not an obscuring fog but a cleansing one. It had a combination of subtlety and an almost tenor timbre that cut through everything. Whenever I hear her voice I can practically hear the tinkling cocktail glasses of that other era when African American communities had night clubs and stars and understood creativity to be part of what lifted us up out of despair, not just a get rich quick scheme.
She didn’t have that crackled, layered sorrow that was the brilliant Billie Holiday’s voice. But she had something else that must have grown out of the gut of who she was—a place of insecurity and sophistication at the same time.
She married eight times and divorced seven something considered highly controversial at the time…remember the pope dissed Elizabeth Taylor publicly for it! And she battled weight (ahhh how familiar), insomnia, and a business that was not created to sustain quirky genius. The drift of the music business from small individual labels…including the ‘race’ records…to corporate control was slowly encroaching. If someone as raw as Nina Simone was advised to make a record with strings, she did! Often singers popped up in a variety of strange instrumental contexts that made fans scratch our heads…but the voice always cut through.
Dinah was only 39 when she was found by her 8th husband in bed dying of a barbiturate overdose, probably an accident. Like AJW I wish I could have heard her voice ripen with age. But sometimes, as they say: Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.
Since I’ve been writing my play about James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry in the 1950s I’ve been listening to a lot of music from that period so I revisited Sarah and remembered that “This Bitter Earth” was really my favorite of her songs followed closely by “Drinking Again.” Call her jazz, pop, whatever you will; it’s a voice not to be forgotten. Thank the ancestors for You Tube Music! I just listened to her again and she still gives me goosebumps! Check her out.
Jewelle Gomez is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories. Her new play Waiting for Giovanni, in Collaboration with Harry Waters Jr., will be playing at The New Conservatory Theater Company August 19, 2011 – September 18, 2011 . The story is based on a split second of indecision in the mind of world-renowned author James Baldwin, Waiting for Giovanni explores the emotional and professional dilemmas that loom over a fierce young Harlem man who insists on being true to love, to politics, and to the ghosts that live in his head. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp. Or her website: www.jewellegomez.com