Dinah Washington: Ballads

Dinah Washington
Roulette Jazz

This collection comes from Dinah Washington’s time at Roulette Records, by which time she had already waxed most of her classic material. She signed with Roulette in 1962 and recorded these tracks, with lush string arrangements by Fred Norman, Marty Manning, and Frank Sinatra arranger Don Costa, on several albums, including Drinking Again, Dinah, In Love, and A Stranger on Earth. In December of 1963 Washington passed away from an accidental overdose of diet pills and alcohol at the age of 39.

By the time these sessions were recorded, Dinah had already had more than one career. She came to attention as a blues-soaked singer in Lionel Hampton’s band from 1943 to 1946. She recorded a number of songs while working with Hampton, including some (“Evil Gal Blues” and “Blowtop Blues”) written by composer Leonard Feather, who later became an influential jazz writer and critic. In 1946 she began a fruitful association with Mercury Records, recording some R&B classics like “Long John Blues” and “TV Is the Thing This Year”. In the early ’50s she was able to cross over into jazz, blurring the lines between that genre, blues, and R&B with an incredible interpretation of Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart”. Washington was fully accepted by the best jazz musicians, and she frequently sang with them both in clubs and on records like Dinah Jams. Some of the high profile names she was working with at the time included Clifford Brown, Clark Terry, Max Roach, Wynton Kelly, and Cannonball Adderley.

Near the end of the ’50s she broke through with her recording of “What a Diff’rence a Day Made” and became a pop music star. She continued in this vein with songs like “Unforgettable” and “This Bitter Earth” as well as continuing to score R&B hits in her recordings with male vocalist Brook Benton (“Baby, You Got What It Takes”).

The Mercury material continues to be reissued and comprises the lion’s share of Dinah’s legacy, so the question must be asked-how good is the Roulette material and is it something anyone needs? The fact is that many of these performances are pretty good, but they are nowhere near Washington’s best. The arrangements are warm and comfortable, but they don’t fit the singer very well and there is serious distance between Washington’s voice and the mood of the arrangements. The same could be said about Blue Note’s packaging of this disc. The brief liner notes acknowledge that the material Washington recorded for Roulette was pretty much a coda to her career. Why, then, did Blue Note see fit to release the disc as part of its Ballads series with a title that would seem to indicate that this is a representative sample from across the singer’s career? The answer that springs to mind is that every label wants to capitalize on the portion of a performer’s legacy that it holds in its vaults, whether that small portion is integral to the performer’s legendary status or not. If that sounds terribly cruel and calculating, well, welcome to the world of jazz reissues.

That is not to say that the performances included here are very bad-that is not the case. Some of Washington’s readings of these ballads are very good (“Lover Man”, “He’s Gone Again”, “These Foolish Things”). They are not, however, Washington at her best, either in terms of voice or phrasing. In addition, Washington sounded much better with the sympathetic backing of a great combo of top-notch jazz musicians or on a straightforward R&B arrangement. While Costa and company are fine arrangers, Washington’s vocals were not well served by the phalanx of strings and insipid woodwind ensembles found on these recordings. If one is looking for a place to start listening to Washington or understanding the enormity of her career, the Verve collection Dinah Washington’s Finest Hour is a much better starting place. Ballads will no doubt find its place among those looking for romantic mood music who have no conception of the singer Dinah Washington was or of her accomplishments in blues, R&B, and jazz. It’s simply too bad when labels choose to cash in on the inferior material in their vaults with little regard for the reputation of the artist involved.