A Neglected Rhythm And Blues Artist
Baby Washington (b. 1940 as Justine Washington in South Carolina)grew up in Harlem. She had a series of modest rhythm and blues hits in the late 1950s and 1960s for some small recording companies. In the mid-1950s, she recorded as part of a girl group called the Hearts and then went on her own as a soloist. Washington was a fixture in her day on the "chitlin" circuit and, at the age of 66, still performs frequently in clubs and in oldies shows. She has appeared several times in the Washington D.C. area in recent years.
Baby Washington never successfully became a "crossover" artist and her recording career faded in the early 1970s. I was unfamiliar with her during the days of her prime in the 1960s and only discovered her some years ago through my interest in blues and old doo-wop. Washington has a wailing, expressive, and soulful voice, and she never has received the recognition as a soul singer that she deserves.
As with many singers, Washington was hampered by poor material. But this CD consisting of 12 songs and most of her hits does indeed showcase her at her best. Most of Washington's songs are slow or moderately paced. The occasional uptempo novelty number, such as "Move on Drifter" seems to me less successful. Washington is frequently backed by a group -- male or female -- and often accompanied by strings. Her voice is amplified by an echo on many tracks. The songs are mostly about lost love and feelings of isolation and loneliness ("Nobody Cares", "Leave me Alone"). Baby Washington also sings of the passage of time in her hit "The Clock" with its "tick-tock" phrase and in the far better song "The Time" which moves slowly and sadly over the simplest chords. Baby Washington wails: "Though time has turned its back on me/ though time has no sympathy/ now the time has taken my love."
Washington's more popular songs include "The Time", "The Clock","That's How Heartaches are Made" and "The Bells". They are all included on this CD. But for me the best of Baby Washington lies in two songs that did not become as popular even as these: "Handful of Memories" and especially "You Never Could be Mine". The latter song was among Baby Washington's earliest efforts. It includes a rolling, sad opening theme, and it develops with a faster-paced secondary theme. The highlight of the song is the break which features a jagged piano accompanied by a honking sax. Baby Washington sings with abandon: "Moving around with someone else/ is out of my line/ so if your going from one to another/ I'm going to put you down/ And then I'll change like the weather/ change from you -- you to another/ And you'll be the one left alone crying/ Hey, Crying!/ Because you never could be mine."
A great deal of rhythm and blues beyond the star names remains to be discovered by those who love this American music. This CD includes the legacy of Baby Washington, a pioneering soul singer who deserves to be remembered.