Born August 29, 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was arguably one of best artists of our time. As a child, Ruth Lee Jones, later named Dinah Washington, moved with her family to Chicago, where she mastered the piano under the influence of her mother, who played at St. Luke’s Baptist Church. During this early stage of her development, Washington’s teachings was based on gospel music and spirituals. She sang and played the piano, for church choir, igniting the beginning of her musical career in 1939 where she began play as a jazz pianist and vocalist in various Chicago nightclubs, in addition to touring with Sallie Martin’s gospel group.
She began to perform with the acclaimed gospel pioneer Sallie Martin in 1940, with whose choir she toured the gospel circuit for a while. Although this is true, secular music had already had an effect on the young artist. Washington had won her first prize at an amateur contest, also known as a talent show, at Chicago’s renowned Regal Theater even before joining Martin’s group.
Her idol, she admitted, was Billie Holiday, who she admired not only for her blues treatment of popular tunes but also for the fact that Holiday seemed to be making money as a singer whereas she, was making very little.
With this experience she earned the attention of booking agent Joe Glaser, and Joe Sherman who ran the Garrick Stage Bar. She appeared at the Garrick in a featured billing. This brought her to the notice of prominent bandleader Lionel Hampton, who was said to have immediately recognized Washington’s talent in a Chicago night club, “the Three Deuces”, and signed her to perform with his band at the tender age of 18 in 1943.
Hampton hired Washington to be the lead singer for three years. During this three-year musical journey is where Washington adopted the name Dinah Washington, completely different from her birth name, Ruth Lee Jones (Talevski). Hampton claimed to have given her the stage name of Dinah Washington, although other accounts credit either Glaser or Sherman with the inspired choice (Joravsky).
Although Washington would not mix sacred and secular in her performances, as she refused to include gospel in her repertoire, her gospel roots could still be heard in soulful delivery and melismatic touches when singing. This characteristic is what sets her apart from many, as she brought an emotional depth to her material(Ginell).
Washington has been acknowledged for her excellent voice control and unique gospel-influenced delivery.
From 1943 to 1946 she sang with the Lionel Hampton band and in 1946 began a successful solo career.
She had her first hit, “Evil Gal Blues,” recorded under Keynote Records. Both the song and its follow-up, “Salty Papa Blues,” appeared on Billboard magazine’s Harlem Hit Parade, which was just the start for many. During her three years with Hampton’s band, Washington earned recognition for her live performances. It was found that in Hampton’s memoir he wrote that he always had her perform last, as her performances “eclipsed anyone who followed her”(Giarratani).
In his 2001 biography Q, music legend Quincy Jones vividly describes Washington’s style, saying she “could take the melody in her hand, hold it like an egg, crack it open, fry it, let it sizzle, reconstruct it, put the egg back in the box and back in the refrigerator and you would’ve still understood every single syllable”(Cohodas).
Contemporary singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, who also straddled jazz and pop music like Washington, never tried to sing the low down blues as Washington did; neither did Rosemary Clooney or Nancy Wilson.
This is is what made her one of a kind.
Washington has had a huge influence on R&B and jazz singers who have followed in her wake, notably Nancy Wilson, Esther Phillips, and Diane Schuur.
Washington was known for her extreme confidence, sassiness and personality, much of which was shown during her performances and clothing worn throughout her career, on and off stage.
Seven times married, divorced six, and struggling with weight problems, the singer’s emotional life was always turbulent. Washington died at age 39 of an accidental overdose of diet pills and alcohol, leaving two sons behind from different marriages.
Despite the troubles that she encountered, dealing with her insecurities concerning her weight, and many failed marriages, six to be exact, she still managed to remain confident and boisterous in the public eye. She showed why she was supposed to be the star that she was destined to be. Dinah Washington will always remembered for her amazing delivery, voice, style, personality, and sass that she brought everywhere she went.
In 2008, her birth city of Tuscaloosa renamed the section of 30th Avenue between 15th Street and Kaulton Park “Dinah Washington Avenue.” On August 29, 2013, Tuscaloosa dedicated the former Allen Jemison Hardware building at 620 Greensboro Avenue as the newly renovated Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center(Encyclopedia Britannica).
- 1947 – Mellow Mama
- 1950 – Dinah Washington Songs
- 1952 – Dynamic Dinah
- 1952 – Blazing Ballads
- 1954 – After Hours with Miss D
- 1954 – Dinah Jams
- 1955 – For Those in Love
- 1956 – Dinah!
- 1956 – In the Land of Hi-Fi
- 1957 – The Swingin’ Miss D
- 1957 – Dinah Washington Sings Fats Waller
- 1957 – Music for a First Love
- 1957 – Dinah Sings Bessie Smith
- 1958 – Newport ’58
- 1959 – What a Diff’rence a Day Makes!
- 1959 – Unforgettable
- 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
- 1962 – Late, Late Show
- 1963 – Back to the Blues
- 1962 – Dinah 63’
- 1963 – This is My Story
- 1963 – In Tribute
- 1964 – The World of Dinah Washington
- 1967 – Dinah Discovered
- 2004 – The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury
- 2004 – The Complete Roulette Dinah Washington Sessions
- 1959 – Best Rhythm & Blues Performance ( What a Difference a Day Makes)
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.”
- 2001 – Unforgettable (pop single)
- 1999 – Teach me Tonight (R&B single)
- 1998 – What a Difference a Day Makes (traditional pop single)
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
- 1953 – TV is the Thing (R&B)
- 1993 – Inducted in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
- 1984 – Inducted in Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame
Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame
- 1986 – Inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame
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
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“Dinah Washinton – Album Discogrphy”. AllMusic.
Haskins, James. Queen of the Blues: A Biography of Dinah Washington. New York: William Morrow, 1987.
Larkin, Collin. The Virgin Encyclopedia of Jazz. London: Virgin Books, 2004.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, December 10). Dinah Washington. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dinah-Washington
McDowell, Ian. Encyclopedia of Alabama: Dinah Washington, 2017. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-388
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, www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/dinah-wasand-wasnt/Content?oid=901004.
Talevski, Nick. “Dinah Washington.” The American Mosaic: The African American Experience. ABC-CLIO, 2016. Web. 26 Sept. 2018.
Washington, Dinah (1924-1963). (2020, April 29). https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/washington-dinah-1924-1963
Washington, Dinah. The Best of Dinah Washington. 20th Century Masters: Millennium Collection. Audio CD. Santa Monica: Universal Music Group, 2002.
Audio Musical References