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American Routes Shortcuts: Baby Washington

Baby Washington
Baby Washington

Baby Washington grew up in Harlem and became a noted R&B solo singer for Neptune Records with hits like “The Time” and then “That’s How Heartaches are Made” for Sue Records. But she started her career as a girl group singer, with the Hearts and the Jaynetts. Baby shared with me stories from the road and the stage including a pivotal moment that occurred backstage with the Hearts.

Baby Washington: We were at the Apollo Theater, and we saw our contract, and we went back to the manager to get an increase in our pay, and we were fired. So the band that worked with the Hearts, they asked me did I want to sing and work with them, which I did. I was working with them, and then they mentioned the man that owned Neptune Records–

Nick Spitzer: Donald Shaw?

BW: Yes. And he had come out to listen to me, and I was playing “The Time” for him, and I guess he liked what he heard.

NS: “The Time” from 1959.

NS: You worked I know over the years with Juggy Murray at Sue Records. What was the scene like at Sue for you as a recording scene?

BW: Oh that was, he was just a lovely person, a real nice person, easy to get along with. He came up with a lot of different songs at that time for me to learn and record, and it was just a pleasure working with him.

NS: Well “That’s How Heartaches Are Made” is a memorable song from that period.

BW: I think that was the first time that I’d heard strings behind my music, and he had the vocals there, the musicians there, and it was, it was just nice. It was really nice.

NS: What was the name you went by at that time? Your given name is–

BW: Justine Washington. But in the set of the Hearts that I was in, I was the youngest one, so they called me Baby.

NS: Oh so that’s how you got Baby.

BW: Yeah, that’s how I got Baby.

NS: Early on you were with a group called the Hearts. Tell me about the Hearts.

BW: I was with them when I was at this dance studio, and the lady, their manager–the Hearts’ manager–she came in. She wanted two girls to replace the ones that were just let go. And she chose me and another, a singer. I was still in school so we would travel like on the weekend, sing on the weekend, and then in the summer I could travel with them.

NS: How was it for you on the road as a woman? Was it difficult for you to be a solo lady out there doing this work and singing? BW: No because I was chaperoned by Donald Shaw’s sister, Estelle Johnson, she traveled with me on all my work.

NS: She looked after the baby.

BW: Yes that’s the only way that my mother would allow that.

NS: How did your mom feel as you started to have these recordings be listened to on the radio and have hits? Did she feel pretty good about it happening? BW: It seems like she enjoyed it more than I did. To me it was a job. To her it was, you know, she just loved it. I guess she figured I had sense enough to do my work and come back home, okay? If not, I had to answer to her.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.