Dinah Washington – Queen of the Blues

Dinah Washington lived her short life hard and fast – the epitome of a blues diva who lived the life she sang about.  

She was born Ruth Lee Jones, on August 29, 1924, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her father, Ollie Jones, was a gambler and rarely at home, leaving her mother, Alice Williams Jones, to support her two children. The young girl was often alone and lonely, complaining about it later in her life. In 1928 the family moved to the south side of Chicago. When the Great Depression hit soon thereafter, Ollie was again jobless.

Ruth and her mother both sang and played piano in their church, St. Luke’s Baptist Church, and the girl despite her youth was one of the best gospel singers in the choir.   When she was ten she began giving church recitals and throughout her grade school years the girl sang in many of Chicago’s churches.

At fifteen Ruth joined one of the major gospel singers, Sallie Martin, and she toured the gospel circuit with the Sallie Martin Gospel Singers. But the teenager’s idol was Billie Holiday and she was increasingly attracted to secular music.   After she’d won a talent contest at 15 at Chicago’s Regal Theatre there was no stopping her. She began sneaking out of her house to sing in local nightclubs, while telling her mother she was going to a church to sing – and this despite the fact that she was still underage and not legally allowed in nightclubs where liquor was served.

Sallie Martin offered little money to the young singer and in 1942 she opened at the Garrick Bar, where noted talent agent Joe Glaser (who represented Louis Armstrong, among others) heard her. Glaser recommended her to Lionel Hampton, and Hampton hired her to sing with his band.  

It was at this point that Ruth Jones became Dinah Washington. Hampton claims it was he who gave her the name, but others dispute that, claiming that it was the Garrick Bar manager or maybe Glaser who renamed her.   What is not in dispute is her enormous talent as a singer, and the success which followed her debut with Hampton.

In 1943 she made her recording debut for the Keynote label, in a blues session organized by Leonard Feather. Feather was a British jazz fan who emigrated to America and subsequently became a major jazz producer and critic. For the session she sang Feather’s “Evil Gal Blues,” b/w “Salty Papa Blues.” It was an immediate hit in the early R&B market (still then called “race records”) and established her reputation as a powerful and soulful singer.

Dinah Washington had a brassy voice that was often compared with a horn, or a trumpet.   Wielding it with control and finesse, she could cut through the smoke and noise in a crowded club and bring an immediate hush to her spellbound audience. Richard S. Ginell in All-Music Guide describes hers as “a gritty, salty, high-pitched voice, marked by absolute clarity of diction and clipped, bluesy phrasing.” When she left Lionel Hampton’s band in 1946 to embark on a solo career, she was already a headliner.   She signed with the new Mercury label, a successor to Keynote, and quickly began producing a string of Top Ten hits on the R&B charts. She sang blues, standards, novelties, and pop covers – including Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” Her version of “Love For Sale” was so perfect that no other singer could approach it.

In the early and mid-Fifties she also recorded straight jazz sessions with both big bands and more intimate small combos. In this period she recorded with Clifford Brown (who died tragically young soon thereafter) on Dinah Jams, as well as with Cannonball Adderley, Clark Terry, and Ben Webster.   A young Joe Zawinul was her regular accompanist for several years. During the Fifties Dinah achieved and perhaps even surpassed the fame enjoyed by one of her idols, Bessie Smith, in the Twenties.

She lived her life fully, perhaps extravagantly. On one occasion she is reputed to have emptied out a Los Angeles nightclub by firing a gun at one of the dancers in the chorus line whom she suspected of fooling around with her current boyfriend.   She married seven times.

Among her hits are “Baby Get Lost” (R&B #1, 1949), “Trouble In Mind” (R&B #4, 1952), “What A Difference A Day Makes” (R&B #4, Pop #8, 1959), and “This Bitter Earth” (R&B #1, Pop #24, 1960).   “What A Difference A Day Makes” was her “breakthrough,” a revival of a Dorsey Brothers hit, set to a Latin American bolero tune. This tended to fix her in producers’ minds as a ballad singer and for the remainder of her career she was locked into ballads backed by lush strings – which many of her fans decried as a sell-out.

In 1960 Dinah sang two #1 R&B duets with Brook Benton, “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes),” which went to #5 on the Pop charts, and “A Rockin’ Good Way,” which made it to #7 on the Pop charts. The hits bolstered the careers of both, but they had a love/hate relationship and she later refused to record more songs with Benton.

An attractive woman, Dinah struggled with her weight and turned to prescription diet pills, to which she may have become addicted. She also drank heavily on occasion, and on December 14th, 1963 in Detroit the combination killed her. She was only 39.

Dinah Washington recorded almost thirty albums and numerous singles during her life. After her death a nearly equal number of albums has also been released, and presently most of them are available on CD.

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