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Dinah (1925)

Origin and Chart Information
Louis Armstrong’s version from 1930 is a tour-de-force, giving us a brief, three-minute glimpse of what his extended live versions must have been like.

- Chris Tyle

Rank 134
Music Harry Akst
Lyrics Sam M. Lewis
Joseph Young

Eddie Cantor starred in producer Florenz Ziegfeld’s musical Kid Boots which opened on Broadway on December 31, 1923 and ran to February 21, 1925. The music for the show was written by Harry Tierney and Joe McCarthy. However, during the show’s run the song “Dinah” by Sam M. Lewis, Joe Young and Harry Akst was added to the finale and sung by Cantor, becoming the hit of the show. But it was vocalist Ethel Waters who is responsible for popularizing the tune. She is often credited with introducing it because she performed it in a nightclub show from 1925, Plantation Revue, and the tune took off like wildfire the next year with her recording reaching the second spot in the charts:


Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

The Plantation Revue, staged at the Plantation Club at Broadway and 50th Streets in New York, had been featuring the popular actress Florence Mills. But during the summers Mills would tour, leaving the oppressive heat and humidity of New York behind. The owners of the Plantation planned a new show for the summer, auditioning and hiring vocalist/actress Ethel Waters as the star. Waters’ autobiography, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, tells the tale regarding how “Dinah” came to be in the show.


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Songwriters Joe Young and Harry Akst brought her the number, playing it for her at a bright tempo. Waters asked if that was the way they expected her to do it. Surprised, they said, “Why not sing it your way?” Waters took the tune home and worked on it with her accompanist, creating a moving version at a much slower tempo, similar to the approach she would use for a blues. She sang the song for both songwriters and producer Sam Salvin and landed the role.


More on Harry Akst at JazzBiographies.com

When Florence Mills returned in the fall of 1925, Waters worked for a short time with a traveling version of the Plantation Revue. The next year she was hired for the show Africana, where she introduced the tune “I’m Coming, Virginia” and reprised her hit from 1925, “Dinah.”

The collaboration of Waters with composer Akst was responsible for another hit, “Am I Blue,” from 1929 which became Waters’ first number one recording.

Bing Crosby’s 1932 recording paired him with the newly formed singing group the Mills Brothers. Crosby had recorded with them briefly as part of a medley of music from the show George White’s Scandals. Bing liked the group and wanted to record with them, but the conservative management of Brunswick Records would undoubtedly have nixed the idea. So Bing slyly showed up during a Mills Brothers recording session and had the engineers make a “test” recording for his own use. A short time later Crosby played the test for the Brunswick execs, who realized how good it was and released it on the flip side of Crosby’s version of “Can’t We Talk it Over.” It soared to number one, the first such hit for the Mills Brothers. It was possibly the first time an African-American vocal group had been recorded with a white singer, and to quote the great clarinetist Artie Shaw, “Bing Crosby...was the first hip white person in American.”

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Music and Lyrics Analysis

The “Dinah” lyrics were typical, southern-belle, Tin Pan Alley fodder. The verse tells us “Carolina brought us ‘Dinah’,” and then the chorus explains how wonderful she is with her “Dixie eyes blazing,” then how one would “wander to China” or “hop an ocean liner” to be with “Dinah Lee.” Chris Tyle

Musical analysis of “Dinah”

Original KeyAb major - tonal shift to relative minor in “B”
FormA1 - A2 - B - A3
Tonality“A” is major throughout; “B” is minor.
Movement“A” is built on a rising and falling pentatonic scale; three-note rising chromatic run into “B” based on a “Charleston” figure built on an interval of a major descending third.

Comments     (assumed background)

Harmonically, this tune is simple; “A” goes from I to V7 and back, with a I - iii°7 - ii7 - V7 turnaround at the end of the first “A” and a plagal (IV - I or “amen” cadence) at the end of “A2.” “B” is really the minor variation of the same, but there are some descending and ascending embellishments that add harmonic interest and facilitate the modulation back into the major key.
K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath’s book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
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Reading & Research

CD Recommendations for This Tune
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Ethel Waters

Am I Blue?
(1999 ASV 5290) Original recording 1925
Waters sets an early standard that would be almost impossible to match. Hers is simply one of the finest vocal renditions of this song. Her powerful voice, over the top of a lazy swing tempo, allows her a bluesy reading that renders the wonderful lyrics with precision.

Jimmy Rushing

Oh Love
(1999 Vanguard Records 79606) Collection of mid-‘50s recordings
Up-tempo, boisterous fun characterizes one of the greatest male jazz vocalists of all time. Rushing swings this one hard, daring the band to keep up with him as they chase him up and down the verses.

Doc Cheatham/Nicholas Payton

Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton
(1997 Verve 314537062) Original recording 1997
A rollicking, infectious blast is had as the old guard makes way for the new. Both trumpeters are at the top of their game, and it is hard to tell who is having more fun, the student or the master.
Jazz History

One of the most popular tunes of jazz musicians prior to World War II, “Dinah” was recorded by almost every jazz player from Louis Armstrong to Clarence Williams. Two interesting versions from January, 1926, recorded two days apart, feature Coleman Hawkins on bass sax (an instrument he vehemently denied playing) with Clarence Williams and then with Fletcher Henderson.

A session led by cornetist Red Nichols from 1929 features up-and-coming jazz players Jack Teagarden on trombone and Benny Goodman on clarinet, both of whom were working with drummer Ben Pollack’s band.

Louis Armstrong’s version from 1930 is a tour-de-force, giving us a brief, three-minute glimpse of what his extended live versions must have been like. There’s also a splendid film version of Armstrong from 1933 in Copenhagen, his first film appearance.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Clarence Williams

Clarence Williams 1924-1926
Classics 695

Fletcher Henderson

Fletcher Henderson 1925-1926
Classics 610

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong with the Big Bands
Written by the Same Composer or Team...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team. Click on a name to see all of a writer's jazz standards.

Harry Akst, Sam M Lewis and Joseph Young

Reading and Research
Additional information on “Dinah” may be found in:

1 paragraph including the following types of information: anecdotal and summary.

1 paragraph including the following types of information: anecdotal, film productions, history and performers.

Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.

3 paragraphs including the following types of information: music analysis and performers.

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