“I’m an evil gal. Don’t you bother with me!”
Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington is easily the strongest body of work from Aretha Franklin’s tenure at Columbia Records in the early-to-mid 60’s. It was recorded and released rather quickly (2 months and 4 days) following Dinah Washington’s sudden death at the age of 39, and Aretha sang the hell out of Dinah’s songs. “Evil Gal Blues” is one of the most poignant and powerful cuts.
Written by Leonard Feather and Lionel Hampton, the song was originally “Evil Man’s Blues” with sole writing credit given to Feather. The first known recording was done by the Hot Lips Page Trio in 1941. After a guitar-solo introduction, Page performs a set of lyrics that describe a womanizer who has 900 women but needs 100 more. He’s such a womanizer that he believes they’ll put a padlock on his door. The second verse reinforces the first, detailing women in every direction, more than he knows what to do with. He brushes off a potential suitor because he can’t make her happy.
The song changes with each recording. Dinah Washington’s version spares the numerics of the “Evil Man’s Blues,” instead implying the quantity as opposed to quantifying. It’s likely that the quantification by a woman would have been met with pushback in the 1940’s. Instead, Dinah simply says she’s surrounded by men. Just not how many. This protagonist knows she’s evil, and she needs an evil man by her side.
Feather wrote the back jacket notes for Aretha’s Unforgettable: A Tribute To Dinah Washington, and described how he gave Dinah “Evil Gal Blues” during her very first recording session in 1943. It was the first song Dinah recorded.
Dinah’s version is like “Evil Man Blues,” a standard blues cut. There’s a piano focus here though, along with a consistent drum pattern, and walking bass line. It takes more than a minute before her vocal even begins. The lightness of Dinah’s voice compliments the horn part. It was such an impactful record that Dinah kept it in her repertoire all the way up to her final performance, according to Feather. Dinah gave a great performance of the song at Carnegie Hall in 1945.
When Aretha got her hands on “Evil Gal Blues,” it lyrically transformed once again. It’s unknown who adjusted Dinah’s version, but Aretha’s changes came right from the source. Leonard Feather wrote two brand new verses especially for Aretha to sing. Instead of the womanizing and man-eating lyrics of the first two recordings, Aretha’s version takes a lighter approach. This gal is evil because she’s going to “empty your pockets and fill you with misery.” She’s got expensive taste (caviar for breakfast, champagne every night), a bad attitude and no bones about it, ending the song by doubling down with “and I’m so jive, yes I am.”
Vocally, Aretha is convincing as ever. Her delivery further distances her from the original versions. Aretha rarely sang anything straight, and this is a prime example. She has no qualms about taking the melody and lyrics wherever she feels fit. At the start of the second chorus, she diverts from the melody and takes the “evil” up, intensifying the impact. After the harmonica solo, she bursts back with a “well” before knocking out a final chorus with gusto.
This is also one of the few Columbia Records songs where Aretha accompanies herself on the piano, and it shows. This version is far from the blues cut it originally was when Page and Dinah recorded it. Aretha’s piano-playing gives credence to the jazz records she used to teach herself to play, and even harkens back to some of Little Richard’s early recordings. It also has flourishes of blues in certain progressions, early rock’n’roll in the rhythm, and even a touch of folk when the harmonica solo starts. With all elements combined, it sounds like an early R&B record, before Aretha really rolled her sleeves up to forge her classic R&B/soul sound.
In 1964, Aretha accompanied herself at the piano and performed “Evil Gal Blues” on The Steve Allen Show. Like the recording, the performance is very blues-centric, especially with the addition of the electric guitar. The mix isn’t great so Aretha’s piano doesn’t take center stage the way it should. It’s incredible to watch Aretha, just 23 years old, performing with the conviction and soul of someone far beyond her years. An interesting note: She mixes her lyrics and Dinah’s together, using Dinah’s first verse and her second verse.
Listen to Aretha pour it all out on “Evil Gal Blues”
Though there are no other known performances of “Evil Gal Blues,” an second version unapproved by Aretha does exist. After Aretha departed Columbia Records in 1966 and hit it big with Atlantic Records in 1967, Columbia decided to seize the opportunity and rearrange some of Aretha’s Columbia sides in hopes of selling some records. A series of overdubs were recorded in October/November 1967 and April 1968. They retained Aretha’s vocals and nothing else. Acclaimed pianist Richard Tee replaced Aretha on piano for some of the cuts, possibly on this new version of Evil Gal Blues. The electric guitar overdub gives it more of an electric blues, but the mix is muddy and draws focus away from Aretha.