8/29 is Dinah Washington's birthday! Here's a section on the Queen of the Blues from my book HOT FROM HARLEM:
Three scenes from "Unforgettable": an imaginary movie based on the life of Dinah Washington.
"Any minute now that son-of-a-bitch is going to come through that door," Dinah Washington shouts. She thrusts out her hand—a drink tightly clutched in it—in the door's direction, and holds it there for several seconds. Then she pulls it back, mutters something inaudible, and takes a swig of her drink. The dressing room is very quiet, very intense. This isn't just another date. This is the "downhome" and popular Roberts' Show Lounge in Chicago, a club Dinah has played many times before. Ordinarily she'd be laughing and joking with the musicians, holding court backstage as friends and admirers dropped by to pay their respects between sets. She'd be cooking too, passing around plates of some special dish or other to whoever wanted it. And above all there would be Dinah's furs. She loves nothing better than taking out her many minks and sables to comb and pet them. She loves showing them off to others. She loves looking at herself before a full-length mirror. Tonight, though, Dinah isn't in the mood, and she isn't making her upset a secret.
"That son-of-a-bitch from Mercury Records," she barks to her band leader, Danny Young. "Jacking me around for months, and now he's coming over." She tells Young how her contract is coming up for renewal with the record company, and how they aren't rushing to have her re-sign. "They're trying to bluff me, those mother-fuckers—trying to get my price down." Then comes a knock at the dressing room door. "Well, who the hell is it," Dinah yells, knowing perfectly well who is there.
The record executive, a typically middle-aged, business-suited individual comes through the door. Dinah sits with her back to him. "Can we talk a minute?," he asks. Go ahead and talk," she says, not moving around to look at him. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Well, it's private," he says pointing at Danny Young.
"Shit!," hisses Dinah. "You can say anything in front of him you want to, but you won't change my mind. I've spoken to three other companies already. You fucked up." The man puts a large box on the dressing room table before her.
Mr. Mercury Records then leans over the box and opens it slowly. It is a mink coat. White. Full-length. Tens of thousands of dollars. Dinah stops talking; Dinah starts smiling. A great big lusty smile obliterating the gloom that had come before.
"Well, why the hell didn't you say you wanted me to sign the godamned
contract?, she says, picking up the mink coat and wrapping it around her in a continuous motion.
Everything is going to be alright.
The occasion is a Royal Command Performance in Great Britain in the late 1950s. Orchestra leader Val Parnell strikes up the first few bars of "Unforgettable" Out strides Washington onto the stage of London's Palladium. She looks up approximately in the direction of the Royal Box. A mischievous look passes over her face. "There is one heaven, one hell, one queen and your Elizabeth is an imposter," she outrageously remarks, then launches into her opening number. Cut to a shot of HRH Elizabeth II, Queen of Great Britain, not knowing quite what has hit her.
A montage of Dinah's 1963 funeral. At a Chicago mortuary 25,000 mourners come to view the body, 6,000 attend her funeral, and 30,000 attempt to attend memorial services at the Detroit church of Aretha Franklin's father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin, which is inundated with 400 floral sprays. The casket is solid bronze, she wears a glittering tiara, one of Dinah's many beloved mink coats is draped across her and expensive rhinestone shoes twinkle up at endless procession of those that has come to pay tribute. The cortege consists of twenty-five Cadillac limousines and over a hundred cars, resulting in a thirty block traffic jam.