Nice cleavage shot of Dinah Washington, the great torch singer of R&B
This Bank Holiday Saturday afternoon Dr Sketchy at The Old Queen’s Head was nicely mellow and boozy (well, I’m speaking for myself here) with no stressful technical glitches (apart from some last-minute drama about locating a microphone for emcee Ophelia Bitz, but nothing major).
The performer / model this time was Tallulah Tempest, making her Dr Sketchy debut. We were all dazzled by Tempest: A former ballerina-turned burlesque performer, she still wears her white satin ballet shoes and displayed her ballet skills by posing en pointe for long, tortuous stretches. Ophelia and I admired Tempest’s powerful calf muscles while she modelled – impressive! Tempest performed to The Doors's version of the Kurt Weill song "Alabama Song". Her costume was great, too: a sort of harlequin / Pierrot black and white diamond-patterned ballerina outfit, with black tear drops drawn coming out of the corner of one eye. She looked like an escapee from the 1950 Kenneth Anger film Rabbit’s Moon.
You can actually watch Kenneth Anger's wondrous Rabbit's Moon in its entirety on Youtube. I recommend you do. Or better yet, get it on DVD. The dream-like imagery, married to a doo wop soundtrack, is sublime
The vivacious Ophelia Bitz and I enjoying some sparkling repartee. How we laughed! Photos by Maria Depaula-Vazquez
When I was in Vegas in April I spent a whole afternoon exploring the maze-like Charleston Antiques Market. One of the used books I skimmed and was tempted to buy was Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington by Nadine Cohodas. (The other one I almost bought: a pristine edition of Funeral Rites by Jean Genet. I really should have snapped that up!). I’ve never read any biographies of the great Rhythm and Blues torch singer. Her life and career are fascinating. One of the true jazz and blues greats, Washington’s influence is incalculable: just as Washington as a young singer was initially indebted to Billie Holiday, you can recognize Washington's idiosyncratic phrasing in the like of Esther “Little Esther” Philips, Lula Reed and Timi Yuro. (When I play Timi Yuro’s swinging, finger-snapping version of “Fever”, people assume it’s Dinah Washington). Today, Amy Winehouse has declared she reveres Washington.
Washington’s life was short but tempestuous and decadent – qualities audible in her remarkable gritty, bluesy wailing voice. A dedicated boozer and pill-popper, she was dead by the age of 39 (in 1963) of an apparent accidental overdose when she unwisely mixed diet pills (which in those days were essentially amphetamines; Washington struggled with her weight) with sedatives and alcohol – a combination that proved lethal. What a loss, as Washington was still at the peak of her powers at the time of her death.
There was a great photo in the biography of Washington shortly before her death wearing a platinum blonde bouffant cotton candy wig, a mink coat and an outrageous pair of diamante-trimmed cat’s eye sunglasses: the caption says something like “Dinah wearing her two favorite accessories: a wig and a mink coat”. One of the first African-American superstars to enjoy crossover success on the white pop charts, Washington was financially able to indulge her love of bling. Luxuriating in jewelry, furs and sports cars, she embraced the ghetto fabulous ethos decades before hip hop. Washington was called The Queen of The Blues in her lifetime, and by all accounts her manner was definitely imperious. A defiant and willful tough cookie, she was known to pull out a gun in disagreements. During recording sessions she would pound back magnums of pink champagne (no wonder her vocals sound so relaxed and effortless!). By the end of her life Washington was married seven times.
Her career was as volatile as her private life. As a recording artist, Washington was very prolific and there wasn’t always the highest quality control (the liner notes to one of my CDs claims “Records were released that Dinah didn’t even remember making”). On the plus side, that means there are always more treasures to discover in La Washington’s oeuvre. Dinah Washington is definitely an artist I play a lot at Dr Sketchy. I know she’s most loved for classics like “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” and “September in the Rain”, her duets with Brook Benton and her sumptuous, string-drenched version of Noel Coward’s “Mad About the Boy”, but I think I like her best at her most subdued and melancholy, when she drops the trademark bravado and sassiness to reveal a sensitive, bruised side. Check out these two stunning, goose-bump inducing heartbreak ballads I’ve recently discovered – to me they sound like Dinah Washington baring her soul. I’ve been playing both these a lot lately when I want to drop the tempo to something sultrier and dramatic.
"You're Crying" by Dinah Washington
"I Want to Cry" by Dinah Washington
Miss Irene - Ginny Kennedy Cheesecake - The Nite Sounds That's Why I'm Asking - Carl Dobkins Jr with Lew Douglas Orchestra & Chorus Heartbreakin' Special - Duke Larson Rock'n'Roll Waltz - Ann-Margret Leave Married Women Alone - Jimmy Cavallo Little Ole Wine Drinker Me - Robert Mitchum Too Old to Cut the Mustard - Marlene Dietrich and Rosemary Clooney Jungle Walk - The Dyna-Sores Oui je veux - Johnny Halliday Over the Rainbow - Gene Vincent It's Only Make Believe - Billy Fury Little Things Mean a Lot - Jayne Mansfield Directly from My Heart - Little Richard The Strangeness in Me - The Runabouts Love Letters - Ike and Tina Turner The Heel - Kay Martin Bombie - Johnny Sharp Out of Limits - The Marketts The Coo - Wayne Cochran The Chase - Chaino Khrushchev Twist - Melvin Gayle Stop Talking, Start Walking - Annie Laurie Save It - Mel Robbins De Castrow - Jaybee Wasden That's a Pretty Good Love - Big Maybelle Blockade - The Rumblers Torture Rock - The Rockin' Belmarx Salamander - Mamie van Doren Please Don't Go Topless, Mother - Troy Hess My Baby Cried All Night Long - Lee Hazlewood Raunchy - Bill Black Combo Do It Again - April Stevens Anasthasia - Bill Smith Combo The Beast - Milt Buckner Screwdriver - Luchi Willow Weep for Me - Nina Simone Lullabye of Birdland - Eartha Kitt Night Walk - The Swingers I Want to Cry - Dinah Washington Blues in My Heart - John Buzon Trio Boulevard of Broken Dreams - Denise Darcel The Sneak - Jimmy Oliver I Need Your Lovin' - Don Gardner and DeeDee Ford Everywhere I Go - Ted Taylor Daddy Daddy - Ruth Brown This Thing Called Love - Esquerita Fever - The Delmonas Stranger in My Own Hometown - The Earls of Suave Beat Party - Ritchie & The Squires Comic Strip - Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg Rigor Mortis - The Gravestone Four Black Tarantula - Jody Reynolds The Whip - The Frantics A Guy Who Takes His Time - Marlene Dietrich Bonjour Tristesse - Juliette Greco Drums-a-Go-Go - The Hollywood Persuaders Intoxica - The Centurions Crawlin' - The Untouchables Like a Baby - Wanda Jackson The Stalk - The Giants Blues in the Night - Julie London Sleep Walk - Henri Rene & His Orchestra What is This Thing Called Love? Lena Horne Rollercoaster Blues - Diana Dors Let's Get Lost - Chet Baker The Lady is a Tramp - Hildegard Knef Mambo Miam Miam - Serge Gainsbourg Gopher - Yma Sumac What is This Generation Coming To? Robert Mitchum Lover - Peggy Lee Bossa Nova Baby - Elvis Presley You Know I'm No Good - Wanda Jackson