From one blues mama to another.
Just like so many other music aficionados, I first knew great, late Queen of the Blues from her late 1950s hits arranged by Belford Hendricks where surrounded with strings and backing chorus she crooned ballads like "What a Diff'rence a Day Made", "Unforgettable" and "This Bitter Earth" - these were massive pop hits that catapulted her into super stardom and signalled upward mobility of sorts, where all the previous rough edges were smoothed over and transition into wide market made possible by leaving risque R&B material behind. Even in that sugary framework Washington was surprisingly earthy and sassy, so its very rewarding to dive in her back catalogue and discover where exactly she came from before she hit the commercial jackpot. After all, she was known as 1950s Queen of the Jukebox and had huge following long before metamorphosing into torch singer.
These - some of the earliest recordings she had ever made - present shockingly young 19. years old singer surrounded with the big band orchestras, because this is how in those days vocalists had to start. There are Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus and Milt Jackson around her, so youngster was in a seriously heavy league although none of songs given to her was really outstanding - they sound like good-hearted and lightweight R&B fun created for dance and probably this is what they were. What is very interesting (besides the sound of her baby quack) is that from the very start, Washington was given the role of sassy mama with an attitude - although she didn't write lyrics herself, there have must been something in her that either gravitated towards this kind of material or people perceived her as such, because she is constantly on defence, attacking her treacherous lover and snarling with that sweet, young voice. It is very unusual for girl singers of the time because most of them were cooing and whispering, where Washington hisses and shows fangs. It is also psychologically interesting because obviously she lived with (and trough) these kind of songs and not surprisingly they went under her skin, making her personal relationships difficult - even when later she embraced romantic ballads, there was always a dangerous edge and defiance in them and as we know, that independence and strength that made Washington so successful in business proved to be intimidating for most of the men in her life. Amongst early recordings with Lionel Hampton there are war-time hits "No Love No Nothin" and "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" but the real dessert here is live performance with Duke Ellington on "Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me" - this is the sound of much older and commanding Washington who roars above orchestra, still playful but dangerous.