The Life of Dinah Washington


Dinah Washington always had a passion for music and became known as one of the most successful and popular singers of her time. Washington, born as Ruth Lee Jones on August 29th, 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, started her musical journey from the young age of three with her mother playing the piano and singing in church. She got her first break in the music when she won an amateur talent show, Chicago’s Regal Theater and went on to be noticed by Lionel Hampton at a Chicago night club, “the Three Deuces”. She went from singing in church to opening up for nightclubs and from there progressed into the “Queen of the Blues” and “Queen of the Juke Box” topping all the charts in the 1950’s. At the age of 18 Hampton hired Washington in 1943 to be the lead singer for three years. During this three-year musical journey is where Washington adopted the name Dinah Washington, from her previous birth name Ruth Lee Jones (Talevski).

By 1943, Washington had her first hit, “Evil Gal Blues” and began her solo career and became a R&B top artist. She showed her resistance against failure she had much success early on having various amount on top hits on the music charts. She was signed to Keynote Records, recording several other songs that included “Homeward Bound,” “Salty Papa Blues,” and “I Know How to Do It.” These songs she recorded made it onto Billboard Harlem Hit Parade Top 10. After a year of touring Washington did recordings for Decca Record and from there went to Santa Monica, California, signing for Apollo Records. While signed to Apollo Records, she recorded twelve songs with the band, the Lucky Thompson All-Stars. She recorded songs, “No Voot, No Boot,” “Chewin’ Mama’s Blues,” “My Lovin’ Papa,” “Mellow Mama Blues,” “My Voot Is Really Vout,” and “Blues for a Day.” She soon returned to Chicago where she was signed to Mercury Records. Washington had the ability to go from record label to record label, complete a tour and still come out on top in the music industry(Giarratani).


In the month of January in the year 1946, Washington worked with Gus Chappell and together they made two hits, “Embraceable You,” and “I Can’t Get Started with You.” Soon after she began to work with many producers in various music genres, such as blues, jazz, pop and country. She became very popular with many recording labels, such as Apollo, Mercury and Emarcy, they were all eager to have her attention. In 1951, she recorded pop songs for Mercury titled, “I Won’t Cry Anymore,” “I Wanna Be Loved,” and “My Heart Cries for You.” All these songs made it onto the Top 5 hits list. In her early thirties, Washington began recording with a new producer from Mercury Records and released more songs empowering her title as the “Queen of the Juke Box”. All the songs she recorded went right to the top of the charts, she produced hit after hit (Giarratani).

She continued her successful career and showing her characteristics of resilience with making a collection of top ten hits on R&B charts from 1948 to 1955. Washington even sung more than one genre of music and was incredible and every single one. Pointed out by All Music columnist Richard Ginell, “She sung blues, jazz and even made her way to pop. She was even memorable for her collaborations with jazz bands and artist, Cannonball Adderley, Clark Terry, Ben Webster, Wynton Kelly, and Joe Zawinul.”(Joravsky).


Washington was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1984, which gave her even more support of being a phenomenal artist along with having a stellar influence in the music industry. Additionally, in 1993 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was known all around for her distinct voice it was like no other, it was her trademark. She was a R&B headliner and took over the top artist spot in the music business in almost all music genres. The amount of success she was able to achieve is through each step of her life is amazing to see. It is clear to say she foresaw her destiny and made sure it came into fruition (Ginell).

Washington was loved by many but some criticized and accused her of selling herself short for commercialism by entering the pop music business. She was resilient in her career despite the criticism placed upon her. In 1959, she made her name known with her release of the hit, “What a Diff”rence a Day Makes” and “This Bitter Earth” in 1960. Additionally, in 1960 she made her way onto the top 10 pop music charts from duets with Brook Benton, “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” and “A Rockin Good Way”. Further her career she went from being signed to Keynote Label, moving to Apollo Records and then Mercury Records, and lastly being signed to Roulette Records in 1961. Washington was fulfilling her dreams and was successful all the way, she was a top pop and jazz artist and was known by so many. She did not let what people thought or said get to her she rose to the top despite adversity (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame).


The success of a person’s career and life is marked by the accomplishments they make along the journey. Washington has shown this in various ways, such as those acknowledged by scholar journalist Anthony Denselow, “She said she could sing ‘anything, anything at all’ and she has the back catalogue to prove it – seven volumes, 21 CDs, 447 songs stretching back to 1946 and covering vast tracts of American popular music. The blues crops up repeatedly, but her career takes in everything from torch songs and standards to R & B, jazz with big bands, groups or strings, country and western, gospel and simple hymns.” It is evident that she came to the music world determined to be the best woman artist of her time and resistant against anything that was not on that path to greatness.

With a successful and phenomenal music career comes awards and Washington has plenty to show for it. As pointed out by scholarly author Samantha Giarratani, during her career she was awarded, “National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Grammy Award for Best R&B recording of 1959 (What a Difference a Day Makes), in 1960 voted as one of top ten vocalists of jazz in Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of /azz; In 1993 the US Postal Service posthumously dedicated a stamp in Washington’s honor as part of a tribute to rhythm and blues artists.” It is thought by many that if one does not achieve winning awards of high standard, such as a Grammy then one has not gained the status or stature of being seen as a great artist. With this theory Washington was a great artist with many accomplishments and achievements under her belt.


Off the stage, her social and private life was nothing short of exciting and interesting. Washington was known for her extreme confidence, sass and personality, much of what was seen of her during her performances. Noted by scholarly writer of The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, Nick Talevski, “she lived a life that many celebrities lived, she had a large and lavish life having seven marriages and had large spending habit for clothes, cars, furs and shoes.” In 1945 Washington, who was pregnant married George Jenkins, and gave birth to her son George Kenneth. Later in her life at age twenty-two she married Robert “Bobby” Grayson and had their son Bobby Jr. The marriage did not last and Washington married three more times. Washington was resilient in her lifetime, having her hard times in life dealing with troubled marriages, battling weight problems and running thorough her profits, but she never let that get her down or affect her performances. She still sang like no other and was so nice and personable with everyone she encountered. Despite her life problems, Washington did not let it stop her from pushing forward in her career and continue to be a phenomenal artist.

In 1962, Washington continued her well established career with recording for the Roulette label returning to the jazz aspect of her music career. A reflection was made by John Koetzner in Jazz: The Essential Record Guide, captures the moment when Washington made an effort to return to her roots, and while it might not quite get there, she handles the material in such a way that it recalls her best singing on those early records.” She proved time and time again that she was still the “Queen of Blues” and forever will be, her voice was phenomenal and would leave a trademark in the jazz and pop music industry. Even though it was not the best of all time life her previous top hits, she was still amazing at what she famous for and she had her known title “the Queen of the Juke Box”. She showed people that she still had what it took to be the “Queen of the Blues” and no one could ever take that from her (Giarratani).


During the time of her recording for Roulette Records, she opened and started her night club, while recording over 100 records. Washington had made a name herself, starting businesses and living the live many could only dream of. She was an extravagant spender buying an eight passenger plane, buying 2,400 Christmas gifts and having nine mink fur coats. The success and happiness she had was unbelievable. Later on she began also working with Count Basie in Chicago and Duke Ellington in Detroit. Reflection of her career from Quincy Jones notes,

Every single melody she sang she made hers. Once she put her soulful trademark on a song, she owned it and it was never the same.”
She was happy with her life, career and success and had no problem showing it (Cohodas).

Washington lived an extravagant life, she was a top music artist of her time, was able to be amazing in so many genres of music. Unfortunately, on December 14, 1963 Washington passed away from an accidental overdose from sleeping pills. Despite the troubles of life dealing with her own insecurities and many failed marriages she managed to remain the star she was destined to be. She will always be remembered for her amazing voice, style, sass and personality she brought everywhere she went. 

Audio Musical References


1950 – Dinah Washington Songs 
1952 – Dynamic Dinah 
1954 – After Hours with Miss D 
1954 – Dinah Jams 
1955 – For Those in Love 
1956 – Dinah! 
1956 – The Swingin’ Miss D 
1956 – In the Land of Hi-Fi

1957- Dinah Washington Sings Fats Waller 
1957 – Dinah Sings Bessie Smith
1958 – Newport ’58
1959 – What a Diff’rence a Day Makes!

1959 – Unforgettable 
1962 – Drinking Again
1962 – Tears and Laughter
1963 – Back to the Blues 
1963 – This is My Story



 Grammy Award

1959 – Best Rhythm & Blues Performance ( What a Difference a Day Makes) 
Grammy Hall of Fame
1959 – Unforgettable (pop single)
1954 – Teach me Tonight (R&B single)
1959 – What a Difference a Day Makes (traditional pop single)
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 
1953 – TV is the Thing (R&B)

Honors and Inductions

1993 Received a stamp in her honer by US Post Office

Aretha Franklin recorded Unforgettable as a tribute 

2005 Park named Dinah Washington park in Chicago where she lived 

2008 in her birthplace renamed a street Dinah Washington Avenue

2013 building created as the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center 



Dinah Washington.” Verve Music Group. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2018
“Dinah Washington.” Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. N.p., 1993. Web. 26 Sept. 2018.
DENSELOW, ANTHONY. “ROCK / A Shame about the Girl: When She Died in 1963, Dinah Washington Was the Self-appointed ‘queen of the Blues’. Anthony Denselow Thinks Her Time Has Come Again.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 5 Aug. 1992. Web. 26 Sept. 2018.
Giarratani, Samantha. “Dinah Washington.” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia (2009): Research Starters. Web. 26 Sept. 2018.
Ginell, Richard S. “Dinah Washington.” All Music. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2018.
Joravsky, Ben. “Dinah Was…and Wasn’t.” Chicago Reader, Chicago Reader, 26 Sept. 2018,
Talevski, Nick. “Dinah Washington.” The American Mosaic: The African American Experience. ABC-CLIO, 2016. Web. 26 Sept. 2018.
The Life and Music of Dinah Washington Website,, (Nadine Cohodas, Random House, 2004)




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