Washington, Dinah 1924–1963
Dinah Washington 1924–1963
Known as “The Queen” or “Miss D,” vocalist Dinah Washington emerged one of the most versatile cross-over artists of the post World Warera. Her gospel-trainedvoice-noted for its rhythmical precision and tonal clarity—performed blues, jazz, and ballads with equal authority. Arnold Shaw, in his book Honkers and Shouters: Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues, stated “She had a flutelike voice, sinuous, caressing, and penetrating. Master of all devices of the blues and gospel shadings--the bent notes, the broken notes, the slides, the anticipations, and the behind-the-beat notes—she handled them with intensity that came from her early church training.” Between 1948 and 1961 Washington made over 400 sides with the Mercury label, recordings that reveal her diversity and popular acclaim. Renown for her offstage brashness and erratic behavior, Washington spent these years struggling to maintain a successful music career while overcoming the affects of numerous marriages and sporadic crash dieting. Until her death in 1963 she toured nationally playing nightclubs and large venues such as Las Vegas and Carnegie Hall—a 20-year career that influenced younger singers from Ruth Brown to Nancy Wilson.
Dinah Washington was born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on August 29, 1924. At age three Ruth’s parents Ollie Jones and Alice Williams took her to Chicago. By age 11 Jones performed as a gospel vocalist and often appeared with her mother (who served her first music instructor) at church recitals across the country. In 1938 the 15-year old vocalist won first prize at an amateur contest at Chicago’s Regal Theatre. She married at 17 and subsequently worked in local nightclubs. Jones studied vocals with renown gospel singer Sallie Martin and became her piano accompanist. Around 1943 she left the gospel field and sang in various Chicago nightclubs, including the Rhumboogie and the Down Beat Room. Jones worked as washroom attendant at a downtown lounge, the Garrick, often singing with the house band led by trumpeter Walter Fuller.
In 1943 Jones’ performances at the Garrick gained the attention of music manager Joe Glaser who informed bandleader Lionel Hampton about the young singing washroom attendant. Hampton, whose band was booked at Chicago’s Regal Theatre came to listened to the young
At a Glance …
Born Ruth Jones, August 29, 1924, in Tuscatoosa, Alabama; died of an accidental dose of sleeping pills December 14, 1963; daughter of Ollie Jones and Alice Williams; married John Young 1942-43, George Jenkins circa. 1949, Walter Buchanan 1950, Eddie Chamblee 1957, Raphael Campos 1957, Horatio Malt. lard 1959–60, Jackie Hayes 1960, Richard Lane 1963 (all marriages not confirmed); children, two.
Career: Won talent contest as Chicago’s Regal Theater 1938; sang in gospel circuit; 1943 left religious field to perform in Chrcagoareanightclubs; joined Lionel Hampton’s orchestra 1943, and recorded on Keynote label; recorded on Apollo label in Los Angeles 1945; em–barked on solo career 1946; signed contract with Mercury Records in 1948, and over the next decade recorded over three hundred sides; 1958 appeared at the Newport jazz Festival; in 1959 toured Europe signed with the Roulette label in 1962 and owned a Detroit restaurant; performed with Count Basra and Duke Ellington 1963.
Awards: 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.
singer. Immediately impressed, he invited her to sit-in with his orchestra. Following Jones’ impressive Regal guest-performance Hampton hired the young vocalist and gave her the stage name Dinah Washington (other sources credit the name change to Glaser or the Garrick’s owner, Joe Sherman). Because of the American Federation of Musician’s recording ban (August 1942 to October 1943), and the fact that Hampton’s contract with Decca solely required instrumental music, Washington recorded only one side during her three-year stint with the orchestra. Though not a featured recording artist, Washington’s live performances with Hampton’s orchestra became legendary. As Hampton recalled, in his memoir Hamp, “Dinah alone could stop the show….I had to put her down next to closing, because nobody could follow her. She had a background in gospel, and she put something new into the popular songs I had her sing.”
Washington’s recording break came in 1943 when pianist and songwriter Leonard Feather organized a session for Eric Bernay’s independent company, Keynote. For the session Feather recruited the Lionel Hampton Sextet which included Hampton on drums and pianist Milt Buckner. The Keynote recordings featured Feather’s numbers “Evil Gal Blues” and “Salty Papa Blues,” which became hits within the African American record market. Despite the success of her blues recordings, Washington did not return to the studio until May of 1945 when she cut Leonard Feather’s “Blow Top Blues” with the Lionel Hampton Sextet (a single that later became a 1947 hit). While in Los Angeles in December of 1945, Washington made several blues recordings for the Apollo label. Backed by saxophonist Lucky Thompson’s eight piece band, the Apollo dates featured several guest musicians such as Charles Mingus and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Washington’s voice on the Apollo sides, noted Arnold Shaw in Honkers and Shouters, “had a velvet sheen, and, in its bluer moments, it tore like silk, not satin.”
In late 1946 Washington left Hampton’s band for a solo career. During the same year, she recorded her anthem “Slick Chick on the Mellow Side” for Verve Records. Around this time, Washington received the billing “The Queen of the Blues”—a title she vehemently rejected (originally the title belonged to Bessie Smith). Yet she could sing blues with authority, as evidenced on her 1947 number “Long John Blues.” Written by Washington “Long John Blues” told, in double entendre and bawdy lyricism, the tale of a dentist lover and his sexually satisfy ing ways.
In 1948 Washington signed a contract with the recently founded Mercury label and cut the single “West Side Baby.” In 1949 she scored number one on the Billboard Charts with “Baby Get Lost.” A year later, she recorded with the saxophonist Dave Young’s orchestra, and by 1952 scored a number four hit with the blues classic “Trouble in Mind.” By 1953 Washington made numerous sides with strings. As Mercury records producer Bobby Shad recalled, in Honkers and Shouters, “I recorded Dinah with strings and probably cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars… She was a fantastic singer, unbelievable artist. But you had to catch her on the right night. She thought nothing of being up all night to eight a.m. and then record at ten a.m.”
During the mid to late 1950s Washington recorded in the company of many of the finest jazz musicians of the period from drummer Jimmy Cobb to saxophonist Julian “Cannonball ” Adderly. Washington’s 1954 album, Dinah Jams, caught her in a live Mercury studio date. The LP’s Los Angeles-based sessions included a nucleus group made up of the newly formed Clifford-Brown Max Roach Quintet, and guest trumpeters Clark Terry and Maynard Ferguson, as well as Washington’s sideman, pianist Junior Mance and bassist Keeter Betts. During March of 1955, Washington returned to the studio. Rejoined by Cobb, Terry, and other guests including saxophonist Paul Quinchette and pianist Wynton Kelly, she recorded the LP Dinah Washington: For Those in Love. Arranged by Quincy Jones, this jazz-based collection of standards included “This Can’t Be Love,” “I Could Write a Book,” and “You Don’tKnowWhatLovels.” The latter number, noted Barry Kernfield in The Blackwell Record Guide, “is a song of love leading to agony,” and “[Washington] convinces us that she knows fully, direct from experience.” Among the album’s plaintive torch songs,” Blue Gardenia,” noted Jazz scholar Dan Morgenstern, in the liner notes toDinah Washington, The Jazz Sides, emerged “one of Dinah’s greatest ballads. The tune and lyric are first-rate, and she creates and sustains a rare mood….Dinah does the bridge ad lib and then the band follows her out as she reaches the lofty plateau inhabited by Billie Holiday.”
Despite her expanding artistic talent, Washington possessed a difficult and demanding personality. In 1957 she worked an extended engagement at Chicago’s Roberts Show Club. In The Autobiography of Black Jazz, the club’s owner, Herman Roberts, recalled,” Dinah was a very complex person … If I made a comment about her show and she knew it wasn’t her idea, she would automatically reject it. She wanted to be the creator of everything she did.” As Roberts added,” She was both vain and insecure,” and would “cuss out” customers “without really knowing whether they were saying something derogatory or whether they were complimenting her.” In the following years, Washington would often make headlines regarding foul-mouthed comments and abrupt behavior. She often appeared in multi-colored wigs, full length and tight fitting-dresses, and was known to openly criticize performers whom she considered distastefully dressed.
By 1957 Washington married her fifth husband, tenor saxophonist Eddie Chamblee, and would, over the next few years, marry four more times (though not all of these nine marriages were legally confirmed). Though she suffered through several successive short-lived marriages and battled personal problems, Washington continued on a promising music career. She performed two sets at 1958 Newport Jazz Festival—one of which appeared in part for the documentary film Jazz On a Summer’s Day. After years of being featured as a blues and jazz-style singer she broke into the pop music market with the 1959 Mercury single “What a Difference a Day Makes” (written and listed on the original recording as “What a Diff’rence a Day Made”). The single made the top ten, appeared on Billboard’s 1959 honor roll of hits, and won a Grammy for best R&B record. During the following year, Washington topped the Billboard charts with two pop duets sung with BrookBenton,” Baby (you’ve Got What it Takes)” and “A Rockin’ Good Day.” 1960 also saw the release Washington’s hit single “This Bitter Earth.” A ballad set in an orchestral accompaniment,” This Bitter Earth” opens in bleak lyrical mood and, by its closing lines, is transformed by Washington into a ballad of love found within an otherwise cold and uncaring world.
Voted as one of the “Giants of Jazz” (in the vocalist category) in Leonard Feather’s 1960 work, The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Washington began the decade in anticipation of reaching new artistic and commercial heights. During 1962 she recorded for the Roulette label. Though most of Washington’s Roulette material proved weak pop material, she did cut Back to the Blues, an album that, as John Koetzner noted 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.” Six of the tracks were co-written by Washington, and, as Koetzner added,” she closes with ’Me and My Gin, ’ and there’s an ominous sense that’s she’s long been living the song.”
Around the time of her Roulette recordings, Washington established a small restaurant in Detroit. In 1963 she worked with Count Basie in Chicago and Duke Ellington in Detroit. That same year, at age 39, she married her ninth husband, Detroit Lions defensive back, Dick “Nightrane” Lane. Recently married and not planning to perform until after the New Year, Washington, who persistently fought to keep her weight down, went on a crash diet. On December 14, 1963, she died from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. Singer Ruth Brown recalled, in her memoir Miss Rhythm, “I know Dinah’s death was accidental, for that lady had too much in life to ever put an end to it. I believe she got those pills mixed up because she was desperately trying to lose weight with the aid of mercury injections pumped into her by her ’weight doctor’…. We know today that mercury builds up in the system and can cause liver failure….[Her] final deadly cocktail of brandy and sleeping pills” may have quickly ended her life. Washington’s funeral services were held by prominent Detroit church leader, Reverend C.L. Franklin (the father of Aretha Franklin) at his New Bethel Church, where the Queen’s body laid in a bronze coffin.
Washington left behind a vast body of work containing powerfully moving performances and accompaniment by some the finest jazz and studio musicians of the period. Often backed by modernist jazzmen, she nevertheless remained uninfluenced by the scat stylings of bebop. A powerful exponent of blues, Washington’s role in the idiom has, nevertheless, been overemphasized by journalistic music writers (despite her stereotyped billing as “blues singer” she is rarely listed in books on the subject). By emphasizing Washington’s early blues period many writers have overlooked her gospel training--the integral influence responsible for a projecting delivery and vibrant soulfulness. Proud of her claim that she could sing any kind of music, Washington possessed, as Linda Dahl asserted in Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women, “a riveting personality” which “came through all her material.” Testament to her musical diversity, Washington is often mentioned in works dealing with jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues.
Today Washington’s voice accompanies commercials and film soundtracks such as Bridges of Madison Country, which included the numbers “Blue Gardenia” and “Soft Winds.” Among the large number of her rerelease are The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury Vol. 1-7, aseven volume CD set as well as reissues of her earlier blues material. In 1993 the US Postal Service issued, as part of a tribute to rhythm and blues singers series, a stamp in the Queen’s honor, reminding Americans of a great vocalist and a woman of unique character and uncompromising integrity.
Dinah Washington, Mellow Mama, (1945 Apollo recordings), Delmark, 1992.
Dinah Washington, The Queen of the Blues 1943-1947, EPM (French CD import), 1998.
Dinah Washington, The Complete on Mercury, Voll (1946-49), Vol. 2 (1950-52), Vol. 3 (1952-54), Vol. 4 (1954-56), Vol. 5 (1956-59), Vol. 6 (1958-60), Vol. 7 (1962-65), EmArcy, 1989.
Dinah Washington, The Jazz Sides, EmArcy, 1976.
Dinah Jams, (recorded 1954), EmArcy, CD reissue 1990.
Dinah Washington, In the Land ofHifi, EmArcy, 1956.
What a Diff’rence a Day Makes, EmArcy.
September in the Rain, EmArcy.
I Concentrate on You, EmArcy.
For Lonely Lovers, EmArcy.
The Fats Waller Songbook, EmArcy.
Dinah ’62, Roulette.
Back to the Blues, Roulette.
Dinah Washington, Jazz Masters 15, Verve, 1994.
Dinah Washington Sings Standards, Jazz Masters 40, Verve, 1994.
Ultimate Dinah Washington, Verve, 1997.
Slick Chick (On theMellow Side), Indigo Records, 1997.
The Ultimate Dinah Washington (as selected by Abbey Lincoln), Verve, 1997.
The Singin’MissD, Verve, 1998.
Brown Ruth, Miss Rhythm: The Autobiography of Ruth Brown, Rhythm and Blues Legend, Donald Fine Books, 1996, pp. 247-249.
Dahl, Linda, Stormy Weather: The Music and the Lives of a Century of Jazz Women, Limelight, 1984, p. 53.
Dempsey, Travis J, An Autobiography of Black Jazz, Urban Research Institute, 1983, pp. 192-194.
Feather, Leonard, The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Da Capo, 1960, p. 90.
Hampton, Lionel, with James Haskins, Hamp: An Auto-biography, Warner Books, 1989, pp. 85-88.
Koetzner, John, MusicHound;Jazz, The Essential record Guide, Invisible Ink Press.
Shaw, Arnold, BlackPopular Music in America: From the Spirituals, Minstrels, and Ragtime, to Soul, Disco, and Hip-Hop, Schirmer, 1986, pp. 181-182.
Shaw, Arnold, Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues, MacMillan, 1978, pp. 143-147.
The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Jazz, second edition, edited by Barry Kernfield, pp. 335-336.
liner notes: Dan Morgenstern, Dinah Washington, The Jazz Sides, EmArcy, 1976.
Vocalist Dinah Washington “was not just a creature of the blues,” according to Betty De Ramus and Leslie Gourse in Ebony. “She could strut through jazz, slide through pop and break your heart with ballads.” After singing with jazz great Lionel Hampton’s band, she began a successful solo career in the late 1940s that lasted until her untimely death in 1963. Washington’s hits include “I Only Know,” “Time Out for Tears,” and her greatest smash, “What a Difference a Day Makes.” As De Ramus and Gourse elaborated, “Dinah Washington could work magic with a song, taking it apart and stitching it back together in her own quirky and moving way.”
Washington began her life as Ruth Jones; she was born August 29, 1924, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. When she was 3 or 4 years old, her family moved to Chicago, Illinois. By this time, Washington was already telling her mother she wanted to be a show girl, though her primary exposure to music was through church. When she was 8, her voice was strong enough to sing harmony with her mother, and she was learning to play the piano. Washington soon joined the church choir, and about the time she graduated from high school, she started serving as its director.
Meanwhile, Washington was learning more about secular music. She loved big bands, and for high school shows she often performed popular romantic ballads. Her mother disapproved of this interest, and frowned on the idea of Washington singing in local nightclubs; the young vocalist resolved this when, while still in her late teens, she married the first of her many husbands, John Young. After the wedding, she and Young lived with his parents, and she could fulfill singing engagements without her mother’s approval. Wanting to maintain family ties, however, Washington often shared money from these early performances with her relatives without divulging her source of income.
For a short time Washington returned professionally to her gospel roots, singing with Sallie Martin’s gospel group. But in 1943 she auditioned for Lionel Hampton’s band and won a place. When she joined Hampton, she changed her name to Dinah Washington for professional reasons. While with Hampton’s band, her musical efforts won her popularity among jazz fans, and by the late 1940s Washington had decided to pursue a solo career. Having already recorded with Hampton’s band, she easily won a contract with Mercury Records.
Beginning in 1950, Washington was constantly topping the rhythm and blues charts. In that year she had several hits, including “I Only Know,” “I Wanna Be Loved’ ‘I’ll Never Be Free,” “It Isn’t Fair,” and “Time Out fc., ears.” Though she followed this feat with yet
Name originally Ruth Jones; born August 29, 1924, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; died September 14, 1963, in Detroit, Mich., of an accidental overdose of diet pills; daughter of Alice Jones (a pianist and choir director); married at least seven times: husbands included John M. Young; Eddie Chamblee (a saxophone player); and Dick Lane (a professional football player); children: George Jenkins, Bobby Grayson.
Served as a church choir director in her teens; sang in local nightclubs in Chicago, 111., during the early 1940s; sang with Sallie Martin’s gospel group in the early 1940s; performed with Lionel Hampton’s band c. 1943, when she changed her name to Dinah Washington; solo recording artist and concert performer, late 1940s-1963.
more success during the early 1950s, and was the best-selling female artist in the rhythm and blues genre at that time, her music did not cross over to white audiences. Washington had the frustrating experience of watching white artists have bigger pop hits with cover versions of songs she had recorded first—such as Kay Starr’s rendition of “Wheel of Fortune,” which had afforded Washington a hit in 1952. Washington’s other rhythm and blues chartmakers of the period include “Trouble in Mind,” “Fat Daddy,” and “Teach Me Tonight.”
Washington’s recording career fell off somewhat during the mid-1950s, but she came back in a big way with 1959’s “What a Difference a Day Makes.” On this bluesy ballad, Washington broke racial barriers to ascend to the Top 10 of the pop charts. She followed “What a Difference” with a popular rendition of the standard “Unforgettable.” In 1960 Washington got together with burgeoning singing success Brook Benton to record the album The Two of Us, which contained the pop hits “Baby, You’ve Got What It Takes” and “A Rockin’ Good Way.” She continued to have rhythm and blues hits in the early 1960s as well, such as “This Bitter Earth.” Washington switched to Roulette Records in 1962, scoring a Top 40 pop hit with “Where Are You.” As early as 1955 the vocalist had begun appearing in films—that year’s Rock and Roll Revue and 1960’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day being notable among them.
In addition to having an affecting voice, Washington also possessed a forceful personality. She was not shy about calling herself “the Queen of the Blues.” A friend recounted for Ebony’s De Ramus and Gourse a time when she was speaking to Washington on the phone while watching singer Lou Rawls on television. Noticing her friend’s attention wandering, Washington rebuked her: “She’s telling me she watchin’ Lou Rawls and she talkin’ to the Queen. Are you crazy for real?” Washington also had a tendency to call other women that she worked with “bitches.” Nevertheless, she reportedly possessed a kind heart. Eddie Chamblee, one of Washington’s husbands, told De Ramus and Gourse that “she would curse you out or she would curse out a club owner and then put a girl in the hospital for her to have a baby and pay all the expenses.”
But Washington also had trouble controlling her use of diet pills. According to one of her pianists, quoted in Essence, the singer often gained weight and didn’t know how to lose it again without the aid of pills. Chamblee explained further to De Ramus and Gourse: “Dinah would take pills, drink and forget she had taken her pills.” He stressed, however, as have most other sources, that “her death was a pure and simple accident.” Though she was not suicidal, Washington died of an overdose of diet pills on December 14, 1963.
Selected singles; on Mercury Records, except where ected
“I Only Know,” 1950.
“I Wanna Be Loved,” 1950.
“I’ll Never Be Free,” 1950.
“I sn ’ t Know,” 1950.
“Time Out for Tears,” 1950.
“I Won’t Cry Anymore,” 1951.
“New Blowtop Blues,” 1952.
“Trouble in Mind,” 1952.
“Wheel of Fortune,” 1952.
“Fat Daddy,” 1953.
“TV Is the Thing,” 1953.
“I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” 1954.
“Teach Me Tonight,” 1954.
“That’s All I Want From You,” 1955.
“What a Difference a Day Makes,” 1959.
“This Bitter Earth,” 1960.
(With Brook Benton) “Baby, You’ve Got What It Takes,” 1960.
(With Benton) “A Rockin’ Good Way,” 1960.
“September in the Rain,” 1961.
“Where Are You,” Roulette, 1962.
Selected albums; on Mercury Records and subsidiaries
Best of the Blues, 1957.
Dinah Washington Sings Bessie Smith, 1958.
What a Difference a Day Makes, 1959.
(With Benton) The Two of Us, 1960.
For Lonely Lovers, 1961.
September in the Rain, 1961.
This Is My Story, 1963.
Late, Late Show, 1964.
Dinah Washington Sings Fats Waller, 1965.
(With Quincy Jones) Queen and Quincy, 1967.
Also recorded albums on Roulette Records, including Back to the Blues, Best of Dinah Washington, Dinah ’62, Dinah ’63, Dinah Washington, Drinking Again, In Love and Tribute, Strangers on Earth, World of Dinah Washington, and Dinah Washington Years.
Haskins, James, Queen of the Blues: A Biography of Dinah Washington, Morrow, 1987.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul,. St. Martin’s, 1989.
down beat, May 1988.
Essence, May 1983.