QUEEN by Nadine Cohodas


The Life and Music of Dinah Washington
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The tempestuous life of a versatile singer gets a detail-heavy if unenlightening full-length treatment.

Dinah Washington has long been a suitable and unjustly neglected subject for a biography: The singer distinguished herself in the R&B, blues, jazz, and pop fields before her death at 39 in 1963. Cohodas (Spinning Blues Into Gold, 2000, etc.) has taken on the task, but she manages to bury her subject under an avalanche of unsifted research. Cohodas has unearthed a prodigious mountain of facts about Washington's life: Few press clippings about the vocalist's 20-year career appear to have gone unperused. The Queen of the Jukeboxes' ascent—from her bow with Lionel Hampton's band in 1943 through her long run as a solo star on Mercury Records, culminating in her major 1959 pop hit “What a Diff'rence a Day Makes”—gets session-by-session, gig-by-gig treatment. However, over the course of more than 450 pages of narrative, the pileup of data, drawn from trade publications, jazz journals, and daily papers, adds up to little more than an unnecessarily minutiae-laden itinerary. If the writer's primary interview sources supplied any illuminating reflections, they prove elusive here. Frustratingly, Cohodas never manages to figure out what made her subject tick. How did teenage gospel-music luminary Ruth Jones become Dinah Washington, a profane, promiscuous, pistol-packing, pill-popping doyenne of all things hip? Why did she marry seven times, often to shiftless and violent men? What abiding unhappiness led to her growing dependence on drugs, which climaxed with her death from an apparently accidental overdose of barbiturates? The reader never finds out. Cohodas is a graceless writer with no feel for the nuances of vocal or instrumental performance. Worse, in her needlessly fussy day-to-day approach, she supplies hardly an iota of intelligent analysis about the singer's creative impulses or internal life.

This weighty but incomplete work is a blown opportunity that never succeeds in getting inside a gifted and tragic performer's head, heart, or soul.

Pub Date: Aug. 24th, 2004
ISBN: 0-375-42148-3
Page count: 576pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2004


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