Dinah Washington was raised in the gospel tradition. Although this became almost the norm for many black singers by the late 50s it was a relatively unusual training ground for jazz and blues performers in the 40s. It probably explains why her highly distinctive phrasing seems so different from most of her peers while becoming such a strong influence on all who followed her. You can hear Washington very clearly in Jimmy Scott and Nancy Wilson and Aretha, of course, recorded a whole album of Dinah’s songs.
She was another singer who could, apparently, sing anything, turning her voice to jazz, blues, R&B and pop. In some ways it was her downfall as, when she began to enjoy real success in the pop charts in the late 50s, she was accused of selling out. It’s true that, in later years, there were a lot of string heavy ballads and even a few novelty numbers which, perhaps as a black artist who was not initially perceived as having a wider appeal, she was largely able to eschew in her early years. The recordings from the first decade of her career as a soloist, many collected on the recent The Fabulous Miss D! The Keynote, Mercury & Decca Singles 1943-1953, include a higher than average number of solid blues tunes, decent pop songs, classic standards – and more than a handful of definitive interpretations like I’ll Never Be Free and Time Out For Tears.
What many critics miss about the later recordings is how Dinah’s earthiness and clipped phrasing cuts through the arrangements to considerable emotional effect – her 1962 album of torch ballads with Don Costa, Drinking Again, being a case in point. She also never condescended to the lighter material so tunes like Destination Moon work surprisingly well too.
Washington re-recorded a number of the songs from her early years but one she never seems to have returned to – perhaps because of its unshakable association with Billie Holiday – is I Cried For You. It never appeared on any of the early compilation albums of her singles and remains relatively obscure but it’s tremendous. There’s a great tenor solo from Paul Gonsalves who, unusually on a jukebox singe of the time, is accorded a whole chorus. Dinah’s second chorus is masterly with flashes of her gospel background appearing in melismatic decorations that were beyond the scope of most pop or jazz vocalists in the early 50s.