Born: Tuscaloosa, AL

(Aug. 29, 1924-Dec. 14, 1963)

1991 Inductee  Alabama Music Hall of Fame (Lifework Award)

Dinah Washington 1952Shifting effortlessly from extraordinary work in gospel, blues, jazz, rhythm-and-blues and pop, Tuscaloosa native Dinah Washington became known one of the most versatile female vocalists in the history of American popular music.

Born Ruth Lee Jones, her family left Alabama for the north when she was three years old.  Washington grew up in Chicago, where she first entered the world of music playing piano and directing her church choir. For a while she divided her time between performing in clubs and singing and playing piano in Salle Martin’s gospel choir.  She won an amateur contest at the Regal Theatre when she was fifteen.

Stories differ about Ruth Jones’ sudden name change to Dinah Washington.  Some say the name was given to her by the manager of the Garrick Stage Bar, while others insist that she was rechristened Dinah Washington once she came to the admiring attention of legendary jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.  Once he heard her sing, Hampton hired Washington to perform with his band from 1943 from 1946.

Washington’s penetrating, high-pitched voice – along with her incredible sense of drama and timing, her crystal-clear enunciation and equal facility with sad, bawdy, celebratory or rousing material – enabled her to sing anything and everything.  The so-called “Queen of the Blues” recorded any style of music she liked, regardless of whether the material was considered suitable for the commercial market.  She even recorded a hit cover of Hank Williams’ country standard “Cold, Cold Heart.”

Some of Washington’s biggest rhythm-and-blues hits – including her first, the 1943 “Evil Gal Blues” – were written by Leonard Feather, the distinguished music critic who was also a successful composer in the 1940s.  The singer dominated the R&B charts in the late ’40s and ’50s, but she also recorded straight jazz sessions for EmArcy and Mercury, with horn accompaniment by Clifford Brown, Clark Terry and Maynard Ferguson and piano by Wynton Kelly, a young Joe Zawinul and Andrew Hill.  Although best known as singer, Washington also wrote two of her Top 10 R&B hits, “Good Daddy Blues” and “I Only Know.”

Washington’s most gripping recordings were released during the first fifteen years of her career, leading up to her biggest hit on the mainstream pop charts, “What a Difference a Day Makes,” a Grammy Award-winning revival of the Dorsey Brothers standard set to a Latin American bolero tune.  The following year, Washington recorded two duets with Brook Benton – “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” and “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love)” – that climbed to No. 1 on the R&B charts and rose into the Top 10 on the pop charts.

For the rest of her career, Washington would concentrate on recording ballads backed by lush orchestrations for the Mercury and Roulette labels.  Her personal life was turbulent – including seven failed marriages – and her vocal interpretations of sultry, sensual torch songs reflected that emotional complexity.  Not no matter what style of music she was singing, she displayed a tough, totally unsentimental grasp of the heartbreaking theme of lost love.  Latter-day singers Nancy Wilson, Esther Phillips and Diane Schurr have cited Washington as one of their principal musical influences.

Struggling with a weight problem, Washington was nevertheless still in peak musical form when she died of an accidental overdose of diet pills and alcohol at the age of 39.  She was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1986.  Washington’s music found a new generation of admirers through the 1988 release of a seven-volume musical retrospective, The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted her as an early influence in 1993.

Chart Songs as a Songwriter

Song Title Recording Artist Chart* Year
Good Daddy Blues Dinah Washington


I Only Know Dinah Washington



*Chart position is based on Billboard Magazine Pop, Country, R&B, & A/C Charts. Other music industry charts may have shown higher chart positions.

Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame

Born: August 29, 1924

The versatile vocalist Dinah Washington was born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa Alabama on August 29th 1924. She grew up in Chicago where her family moved in 1928.

Her mother was heavily involved in church community centered around St Luke’s Baptist and Dinah was surrounded by gospel and church music since her early childhood. She exhibited musical talents at an early age and was part of the church choir playing the piano and singing gospel in her early teens. At age 15, enamored by Billie Holiday, she started playing and singing the blues in local clubs and made quite a name for herself. In 1942 Lionel Hampton heard her and hired her for to front his band. Hampton claims that it was he who gave her the name Dinah Washington but other sources disagree.

Some suggest the talent agent Joe Glaser suggested the new name and others cite the manager of the bar where she was performing at the time as the person who recommended it. This was also the year when she married her firs husband; John Young (she would marry 6 more times). She remained with Lionel Hampton from 1943-1946 and during this tenure made her recording debut, a blues session produced by Leonard Feather for Keynote records. She became quite popular both as the band singer for Hampton and as a solo artist. She used her new found financial success to buy a home for her mother and sister. She left Hampton’s orchestra early 1946 while she was living in LA and shortly afterwards recorded blues sides for the small Apollo label. Her big break came very shortly afterwards when she signed with Mercury label on January 14 1946. During her stay with Mercury she recorded a number of top ten hits in a multitude of genres including blues, R&B, pop, standards, novelties, even country. She never was strictly a jazz singer but did record number of jazz sessions with some of the most influential musicians of the day including Cannonball Adderley, Clark Terry, and Ben Webster. Her most memorable jazz recording is with Clifford Brown; the classic Dinah Jams from 1955.

After the unexpected commercial success of “What a Diff'rence a Day Makes,” in 1959, which marked Washington’s breakthrough into the mainstream pop and won her a Grammy; she stopped recording blues and jazz songs and concentrated on more easy listening tunes characterized by lush orchestrations. The critics decried this shift in her career but it did bring her music more widespread exposure and commercial success. She started having problems with her weight so she became dependant on diet pills and on Dec. 14, 1963 she died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and diet pills in a hotel room in Detroit. She was buried at Burr Oak Cemetery in Chicago.


Dina Washington Evil GalEvil Gal Review

By Richie Unterberger

If you want a more complete, collector-oriented retrospective of Dinah Washington's early- to mid-'50s recordings, volumes three and four of the series The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury (each of which are three-CD sets) are far more comprehensive than this 22-track compilation of 1953-1955 sides. If you want a less expensive and briefer overview of her material from this era, however, this is good enough, even if the liner notes are skimpy. The songs run the gamut from bona fide R&B (especially on the 1953-1954 cuts with Jackie Davis on organ) to straight jazz ballads and swing numbers. Plenty of major jazz musicians participate at one point or another, including drummers Jimmy Cobb, Max Roach, and Ed Thigpen; trumpeter Clark Terry; tenor saxophonists Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Harold Land; pianist Wynton Kelly; and (as arranger) a young Quincy Jones. While not all of the songs are equally durable ("TV Is the Thing," for instance, is an inoffensively dated novelty), Washington's vocal performances are always fine, and the accompaniments and arrangements accomplished and sympathetic. A lot of ground is covered here, from Latin-tinged bluesy R&B ("Fat Daddy") and standards (a live version of "I've Got You Under My Skin") to numbers with playful, comic undertones ("My Man's an Undertaker" and "One Arabian Night").


More info: Wikipedia

NPR Dinah Washington: A Queen in Turmoil Biography Tells of Singer's Volatile Life and Unforgettable Music

Youtube Dinah Washington videos:


iTunes: Dinah Washington

Amazon: Dinah Washtington

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