Dinah Washington (August 29, 1924 – December 14, 1963)
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Dinah Washington born Ruth Lee Jones, was a blues, R&B and jazz singer. She has been cited as “the most popular black female recording artist of the ’50s”, and called “The Queen of the Blues”. She is a 1986 inductee of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
Ruth Jones was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and moved to Chicago as a child. Dinah became deeply involved in gospel and played piano for the choir in St Luke’s Baptist Church while she was still in elementary school. She sang gospel music in church and played piano, directing her church choir in her teens and being a member of the Sallie Martin Gospel Singers. She sang lead with the first female gospel singers formed by Ms Martin, who was co-founder of the Gospel Singers Convention. Jones’ involvement with the gospel choir occurred after she won an amateur contest at Chicago’s Regal Theater where she sang “I Can’t Face the Music”.
After winning a talent contest at the age of 15, she began performing in clubs. By 1941-42 she was performing in such Chicago clubs as Dave’s Rhumboogie and the Downbeat Room of the Sherman Hotel (with Fats Waller). She was playing at the Three Deuces, a jazz club, when a friend took her to hear Billie Holiday at the Garrick Stage Bar. Joe Sherman was so impressed with her singing of “I Understand”, backed by The Cats & The Fiddle, who were appearing in the Garrick’s upstairs room, that he immediately hired her. During her year at the Garrick – she sang upstairs while Holiday performed in the downstairs room – she acquired the name by which she became known. Joe Sherman is generally credited with suggesting the change from Ruth Jones, but both Joe Glaser, the booker-manager who brought Lionel Hampton to hear Dinah at the Garrick, and Hampton himself have occasionally been given the responsibility for the name change. Hampton’s visit brought an offer, and Dinah went to work as his female vocalist in 1943 after she had sung with the band for its opening at the Chicago Regal Theatre. She sang with the Hampton band for two years.
She made her recording debut for the Keynote label that December with “Evil Gal Blues”, written by Leonard Feather and backed by Hampton and musicians from his band, including Joe Morris (trumpet) and Milt Buckner (piano). Both that record and its follow-up, “Salty Papa Blues”, made Billboard’s “Harlem Hit Parade” in 1944.
She stayed with Hampton’s band until 1946 and, after the Keynote label folded, signed for Mercury Records as a solo singer. Her first record for Mercury, a version of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, was another hit, starting a long string of success. Between 1948 and 1955, she had 27 R&B top ten hits, making her one of the most popular and successful singers of the period. Both “Am I Asking Too Much” (1948) and “Baby Get Lost” (1949) reached # 1 on the R&B chart, and her version of “I Wanna Be Loved” (1950) crossed over to reach # 22 on the US pop chart. Her hit recordings included blues, standards, novelties, pop covers, and even a version of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” (R&B # 3, 1951). At the same time as her biggest popular success, she also recorded sessions with many leading jazz musicians, notably Clifford Brown on the 1954 live album Dinah Jams, and also recorded with Cannonball Adderley, Clark Terry, and Ben Webster.
In 1959, she had her first top ten pop hit, with a version of “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes”, which made # 4 on the US pop chart. Her band at that time included arranger Belford Hendricks, with Kenny Burrell (guitar), Joe Zawinul (piano), and Panama Francis (drums). She followed it up with a version of Nat “King” Cole’s “Unforgettable”, and then two highly successful duets in 1960 with Brook Benton, “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” (# 5 pop, # 1 R&B) and “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love) (# 7 pop, # 1 R&B). Her last big hit was “September In The Rain” in 1961 (# 23 pop, 5 R&B).
According to Richard S. Ginell at Allmusic:
“[She] was at once one of the most beloved and controversial singers of the mid-20th century – beloved to her fans, devotees, and fellow singers; controversial to critics who still accuse her of selling out her art to commerce and bad taste. Her principal sin, apparently, was to cultivate a distinctive vocal style that was at home in all kinds of music, be it R&B, blues, jazz, middle of the road pop – and she probably would have made a fine gospel or country singer had she the time. Hers was a gritty, salty, high-pitched voice, marked by absolute clarity of diction and clipped, bluesy phrasing…”
Washington was well known for singing torch songs. In 1962, Dinah hired a male backing trio called the Allegros, consisting of Jimmy Thomas on drums, Earl Edwards on sax, and Jimmy Sigler on organ. Edwards was eventually replaced on sax by John Payne. A Variety writer praised their vocals as “effective choruses”.
Dinah Washington’s achievements included appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival (1955-59), the Randalls Island Jazz Festival in New York City (1959), and the International Jazz Festival in Washington D.C. (1962), frequent gigs at Birdland (1958, 1961-62), and performances in 1963 with Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Performing at the London Palladium, with Queen Elizabeth sitting in a box, Dinah told the audience: “There is but one Heaven, one Hell, one queen, and your Elizabeth is an imposter.” Imperious was the word for Dinah.
Washington was married eight times and divorced seven times, while having several lovers, including, according to Patti Austin, Quincy Jones. She had two children. Her husbands were John Young (1942–43), George Jenkins (1949), Walter Buchanan (1950), saxophonist Eddie Chamblee (1957), Rafael Campos (1957), Horatio Maillard (1959–60), Jackie Hayes (1960), and Dick “Night Train” Lane (1963).
Early on the morning of December 14, 1963, Washington’s eighth husband Lane went to sleep with his wife, and awoke later to find her slumped over and not responsive. Doctor B. C. Ross came to the scene to pronounce her dead. An autopsy later showed a lethal combination of secobarbital and amobarbital which contributed to her death at the age of 39. She is buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
Year Category Title Genre
1959 Best Rhythm & Blues Performance What a Diff’rence a Day Makes R&B
Grammy Hall of Fame
Recordings by Dinah Washington were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have “qualitative or historical significance.”
Year Title Genre Label Year Inducted
1959 Unforgettable pop (single) Mercury 2001
1954 Teach Me Tonight R&B (single) Mercury 1999
1959 What a Diff’rence a Day Makes traditional pop (single) Mercury 1998
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed a song of Dinah Washington as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock.]
Year Recorded Title Genre
1948 Am I Asking Too Much? R&B
Honors and Inductions
Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington is a 1964 album recorded by Aretha Franklin as a tribute.
In 1993, the U.S. Post Office issued a Dinah Washington 29 cent commemorative postage stamp.
In 2005, the Board of Commissioners renamed a park, near where Washington had lived in Chicago in the 1950s, Dinah Washington Park in her honor.
In 2008, the city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Washington’s birthplace, renamed the section of 30th Avenue between 15th Street and Kaulton Park “Dinah Washington Avenue.” The unveiling ceremony for the new name took place on March 12, 2009, with Washington’s son Robert Grayson and three of her grandchildren, Tracy Jones, Tera Jones, and Bobby Hill Jr., in attendance.
Year Title Result Notes
1993 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inducted Early Influences
1984 Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame Inducted
1950: Dinah Washington (MG-25260) [a]
1950: Dynamic Dinah! – The Great Voice of Dinah Washington [a]
1952: Blazing Ballads
1954: After Hours with Miss “D”
1954: Dinah Jams
1955: For Those in Love
1956: In the Land of Hi-Fi
1956: The Swingin’ Miss “D”
1957: Dinah Washington Sings Fats Waller
1957: Dinah Sings Bessie Smith
1958: Newport ’58
1959: What a Diff’rence a Day Makes!
1960: The Two of Us (with Brook Benton)
1960: I Concentrate on You
1960: For Lonely Lovers
1961: September in the Rain
1962: Dinah ’62
1962: In Love
1962: Drinking Again
1962: Tears and Laughter
1962: I Wanna Be Loved
1963: Back to the Blues
1963: Dinah ’63
1963: This Is My Story
1964: In Tribute
1964: Dinah Washington (SR-25269)
1967: Dinah Discovered