By Melina Paris, Music Columnist
For fans of the Great American Songbook, the window to see I Wanna Be Loved at Leimert Park is fast closing.
I managed to catch a show in the middle of its 6-week run at the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where the music venue’s namesake performs the role of the legendary blues queen, Dinah Washington.
Backed by an 18-piece Jazz Big Band under the musical direction of John Stephens, it was encouraging to see this talented band consisted almost evenly of older and younger musicians alike.
Formerly known by the name, Ruth Jones, it was with the hit, “What a Difference a Day Makes,” that Washington’s career took off. She performed 91 one-night gigs in a row and had 24 records on the charts at one time. Morrison, channeling Washington, noted, “That’s why they call me queen.”
As Dinah Washington, Morrison donned black sequins, crystal drop earrings and a silver crown atop her distinctive white hair. Speaking in the first person she opened with the line:
“Welcome to heaven, I was called Queen on earth and now they call me angel in heaven,” reflecting Washington’s audaciousness on the stage and the studio booth.
Washington said this during a show at the London Palladium on her tour of Britain, with Queen Elizabeth sitting in a box seat. She reportedly said to the audience, “There is but one heaven, one earth and one queen and your Elizabeth is an imposter.”
Morrison, through song and rhythmic phrasing, recounted Washington’s private struggles and professional triumphs in first person. One of the stories includes Washington’s fractured relationship with her mother after choosing to pursue a career in secular music.
Washington’s mother Alice, was a seriously religious woman who sang the spirituals and wanted her daughter to follow in her footsteps. She had no idea her daughter wanted to be a showgirl or that she snuck out to see Billie Holiday perform. Washington even got her initiation, as she put it, singing at the end of Holiday’s sets.
Alice’s disapproval of the “devil music” her daughter sang proved to be a lifelong problem causing Washington a deep pain she never got over.
Morrison chronicled Washington’s seven marriages, her time with the first record label that hired her, and even the time she met “the imposter Queen on the other side of the pond.”
“Come Rain or Come Shine,” was Morrison’s first number. Dinah Washington performed it on her live album Dinah Jams from 1954. She cultivated a distinct vocal style and was known to be at ease with rhythm and blues, blues, jazz and pop. Her diction was impeccable.
Morrison has a gift in the way she expresses a song that is not unlike Washington. She has a two-and-a-half octave range and her graceful vocalizing style is seamlessly seasoned with high spirited versions of jazz and blues classics that are as polished as Washington’s.
Morrison told the stories of how Washington’s mother would never come hear her sing, how she helped out other singers like Ernestine Andrews and Gloria Lee and even of her affair with Quincy Jones.
“I started him drinking,” Morrison, channeling the Washington, said. “We were tight.”
She explained how Jones was the first black artists and repertoire man in this country. Morrison, still channeling Washington, recalled that she wouldn’t work for a studio if it didn’t have black employees in the booth.
Washington, remarking on life under Jim Crow laws, said she signed up to the cause with Dr. Martin Luther King before singing “Too Tired Blues,” an anthem for that deep seated frustration.
Barbara Morrison can clearly hold down a show. She sang wonderful popular jazz and blues standards. With “You Go To My Head,” her smooth harmonies and vocal acrobatics demonstrated her range. Performing “Unforgettable” in reference to Washington’s two sons, her skill in vocalizing the last echo of a note so softly gives you the soothing feeling of landing on a velvet pillow.
Other numbers included “Make Me a Present of You,” “Blue Gardenia,” “I Wanna Be Loved,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” and “I Could Write a Book.” There were at least 18 more.
Throughout the show the audience learned and laughed about the many colorful stories of Dinah Washington’s short but eventful life. Ms. Morrison’s tribute to her counterpart was nothing less than the fullest celebration of her friend.
Speaking briefly with Ms. Morrison after the show I learned of some deeper similarities between these two entertainers as well as the depth of Morrison’s commitment to the music she loves.
Melina Paris: What inspired this show?
Barbara Morrison: I’ve been working on this show for 30 years and I have so many friends in this industry. Every time I wanted to do it one of my friends would do it and I don’t want to thump heads with friends.
Another reason is because our young lives were similar. She won a (singing) contest at 16. I won one at 15. I went away to college and sought the same rolls that she had, our lives were just parallel.
MP:Is there any deeper connection between the two of you?
BM: I think I had a hard time convincing myself that my mother loved me just like she did. That’s what I identify with the most. Maybe we were loved and didn’t know it. Maybe we were looking for something else.
MP: Do you know who wrote most of Dinah’s songs?
BM: When she was trying to cross over, she got into the great American songbook. A lot of things were written by the Gershwins and a lot of popular composers from Tin Pan Alley.
MP: Who put this repertoire of songs together?
BM: I did, as a result of working with the Long Beach Municipal Big Band for 25 years I knew I was going to do this. I accumulated the songs that I wanted to use over the years and I wrote this story.
MP: You’re having a 6-week run, is that correct?
BM: Yes. I hope to run it longer. Since I lost my legs I think I’ll try and use it as a vehicle. You know you hate to ask people to do things for you so you try to do them for yourself. Writing this show created a vehicle for me to work in my older years. I think I can probably run it for 7, 8 or even 10 years across the country and around the world.
I think it’s a pretty good show considering I can’t walk. Hopefully I’ll have a new prosthesis on my other leg soon. I’m trying to take good care of myself.
Morrison suffered the loss of one of her legs in 2011 from diabetes and received a prosthetic in 2011. About her surgery she was quoted as saying, ‘Just as long as I’ll be able to sing — do what you have to do.”
MP: So I understand you teach at UCLA?
BM: Yes, for 17 years now, I teach Ethnomusicology. In our department we have an array of music from all the cultures of the world; Chinese, African, Japanese, Arabic and more. I teach jazz studies, an American Art form. I have some students who have gone off to win Grammy’s; our entire department is very competitive. Not only in jazz and blues but in all of our cultures department’s people have won Grammys.
MP: How did you get the nickname queen?
BM: It was from a man named Larry Gales, who worked with Thelonious Monk. I was so young and dumb when I got started in this business because I was trying to sing jazz and I didn’t know who any of the jazz giants were like Miles Davis or Ella Fitzgerald. So they would say, “Oh lord, here comes the Queen.”
All the fellas would make fun of me and it just stuck. The other singers in town thought they were calling me queen because I could sing better than them but that wasn’t why. They were calling me Queen because I was too dumb to know anybody. That’s when I knew I had to go to school to learn and study and find out who these people were that were making me want to sing this music.
MP: Is there anything you would like people to know about this show?
BM: I would like them to know that it’s very informative and it’s from the heart and it’s very soulful. So if you’re in that kind of mood come to this show.
The Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center provides instruction and a showcase for developing performers in music, dance and theater.
Details: (323) 296-2272
Venue: Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center
Location: 4305 Dengan Blvd. #101 Los Angeles