Sixty years ago, Dinah Washington, the Grammy-winning “Queen of the Jukeboxes,” left this bitter earth behind at the tender age of 39, hooked on prescription pills for weight loss and insomnia.
Imagine that, frozen in aspic at 39 forever — Patsy Stone would kill for that.
That was in mid, rather than late, December 1963. But if I can paraphrase that Four Seasons stomper, Oh, what a life she packed into her brief time on the planet. In that short and turbulent period, a volatile mix of undeniable talent and deep-rooted insecurity took her to the heights of fame and the depths of self-doubt. Her musical gifts were offset by a wild and extravagant personal life, reportedly going through as many husbands as cats have lives, and racing through her profits buying shoes, furs and cars in an effort to lift her spirits.
This behaviour was reflected in her music, but her songs were also able to stabilise her in many ways, and no finer example of that is 1954’s Dinah Jams — a superb set of classic jazz standards that showcases Washington’s vast abilities to manipulate melodies in the most creative ways.
As 2024 will mark the centenary of Dinah’s birth, a throwback to her only posthumous ‘hit’ to date — the sublime Mad About The Boy, written in 1932 by the great Noël Coward. The subject matter was about the adulation of a matinee idol by a number of women as they queue outside a cinema, though closeted Coward also wrote a version which was never released, containing references to the then-risqué topic of homosexuality, then still illegal in Britain.
Dinah recorded the song twice: firstly in 1952 with orchestral accompaniment by Walter Roddell, and then two years before her demise, on 4 December 1961 in her native Chicago, with Quincy Jones and his orchestra. The later recording is possibly the most widely known version of the song, and on the back of its use in a ubiquitous Levi’s jeans ad charted in April 1992.
In his 2001 biography Q, Quincy vividly describes Washington’s vocal dexterity, saying 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.”
There can be no greater epitaph.