Washington, Dinah (1924–1963)
Washington, Dinah (1924–1963)
African-American blues and pop singer whose successful career, enhanced by her crossover into the white musical world, was cut short by her early death. Name variations: Ruth Jones. Born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on August 8(?), 1924; died in Detroit on December 14, 1963, from an apparently unintentional overdose of sleeping pills; daughter of Ollie Jones and Alice Jones; married John Young, in 1941 (divorced within a year); married George Jenkins (a drummer), in 1946 (divorced July 1947); married Robert Grayson, in 1947 (divorced within a year); married a saxophonist (divorced); married a cabdriver, in 1959 (divorced 1960); married an actor (divorced); married Dick Lane (a quarterback for the Detroit Lions), in July 1963; children: (first marriage) George Jenkins, Jr. (b. 1947); (second marriage) Robert Grayson, Jr. (b. August 1948).
Moved with her mother to Chicago at the start of the Great Depression; began playing the piano and singing in church choirs as a young girl; after winning a singing contest, began singing in local clubs, the owner of one of which gave her the stage name by which she would be known (1939); began touring with the Lionel Hampton Band as a blues singer (1942); became such a popular rhythm and blues artist (mid-1940s) that she left Hampton's band and put together her own act; known for the intense emotionalism of her interpretations, crossed over to the pop charts (1959) with her recording of "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" and reached a mainstream audience.
It seemed like the usual crowd filling the dim, smoky upstairs lounge of the Sherman Hotel on Chicago's South Side as the blues singer everyone knew as Ruth Jones began her first set of the evening. But there was one difference that night in 1942, for among the shadowy silhouettes huddled around the tables or leaning on the bar was Lionel Hampton, a former percussionist with Benny Goodman. Hampton now had his own big band and was looking for a female vocalist. "After listening to a few bars, I knew she was the girl I was looking for," he later said of his first exposure to the singer he would make famous to audiences across the country as Dinah Washington.
It was the break that had eluded Ruth's mother Alice Jones since she had moved with her daughter and son, Harold, to Chicago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1929. Ruth had been born five years earlier, although the exact birth date in August has never been pinned down, birth certificates not being routinely issued for the children of poor blacks in the Depression-era South. The date most often given is August 8, 1924. Abandoned by her husband Ollie Jones not long after Ruth was born, Alice decided to follow the great African-American migration north to Chicago to look for work. The only thing her daughter would remember about Alabama was the loneliness of those early years.
At first, conditions didn't seem much better in Chicago. "They were living in the projects, and there were rats and roaches, and they didn't have food or enough clothes to wear," a family friend once recalled. Most of Chicago's African-Americans in those days were crowded into the city's South Side, traveling to the wealthier white sections of town to work as domestics or on street crews. Others opened bars and "juke joints," where the hardships of daily life could be shared through that most native of American music forms, the blues, carried north from the fields and slums of the South. Alice Jones, however, would have none of it, finding her solace at St. Luke's Baptist Church, where she played piano for the choir and saw to it that young Ruth learned how to play, too. To her delight, Ruth also showed a great talent for singing, so much so that she became a celebrity on the church circuit for her ability to put over a rousing gospel song and bring a congregation to its feet. Soon, little Ruth Jones had come to the attention of Sallie Martin , Chicago's undisputed gospel star of the 1930s, who had formed a famous touring gospel choir and organized an annual Gospel Singers Convention. Ruth, Sallie told Alice, not only had a powerful voice but perfect diction and would be a great addition to the Sallie Martin Colored Ladies Quartet, a smaller group of Martin's more talented singers.
Ruth was soon touring with the Quartet, but it became evident that her interests lay elsewhere than gospel music. Her idol, she admitted, was Billie Holiday , whom 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, Ruth, was making very little indeed. Martin quickly noticed, too, that as Ruth entered her teens and her figure blossomed, it was the money that men could offer that was proving a real danger. "She could really sing," Martin later said, "but, shoot, she'd catch the eye of some man and she'd be out of the church before the minister finished the doxology." Neither Martin nor Ruth's mother knew that Ruth had been singing blues in clubs and juke joints one or two nights a week, using a different name each time, after winning a talent contest at the Regal Theater and coming to the attention of club owners. When Ruth's secret was finally discovered, it was too late. She left Sallie Martin's gospel singing behind and, at 17, married a man named John Young, who said he could find her work as a singer. "He talked my language and said he would help me get into show business," Dinah recalled. "I was seventeen and absolutely dumb about the ways of the world."
When you get inside of a tune, the soul in you should come out.
Even though the marriage lasted less than a year, Young did manage to find her work, first as the opening act at a new lounge in the Sherman Hotel called the Down Beat room, where Fats Waller was the headliner. Jobs at other clubs followed, although club managers didn't pay her a regular salary, and the only money Ruth made was from tips from customers. It was no different at the even more prestigious Garrick Stage Lounge's upstairs club, but a big bonus for Ruth was that Billie Holiday was booked downstairs in the first floor lounge. In between her own sets, Ruth would be sure to watch Holiday's act and soon began to mimic her idol in her own performances, swaying her body slightly and softly snapping her fingers as she sang. Soon, customers were nearly as numerous upstairs as they were below, for Ruth's emotional range during a song—from a soft-spoken tenderness to a high-pitched intensity drawn from her gospelsinging days—made any number she tackled distinctly her own. Impressed by her growing audience, the Garrick's owner paid Ruth her first real salary, $50 a week; and, by the time Lionel Hampton came to see her, had come up with the name Dinah Washington which, he said, "rolls off people's tongues like rich liquor."
Hampton had been touring with his band for five years by the time he hired Washington, whose blues style proved to be the perfect complement to his penchant for big band rhythms. From Dinah's perspective, Hampton's band gave her what Chick Webb's band had given Ella Fitzgerald ten years earlier—a much wider audience, and a home. While Hampton refined Washington's repertoire and stage presence, his wife Gladys Hampton took Dinah's wardrobe and deportment as her own responsibility. By the time Washington opened with Hampton at New York's Apollo Theater in December 1943, standing ovations for her performance had become routine. The influential jazz composer and critic Leonard Feather was as impressed as everyone else when he first heard Dinah sing at the Apollo, but he thought the pop standards Hampton had given Washington to sing were too restrictive. Feather suggested to Hampton that Dinah and some of the players from the band record a few blues numbers he'd written for a small, private label. "I thought she'd make a wonderful blues singer," he said. "She had a very biting quality to her voice, and unique timbre. She didn't sound like Bessie Smith , but it was in the same tradition, just a generation later—a more sophisticated sound."
Hampton was so agreeable to Feather's suggestion that he and five musicians from the band backed Washington up at Feather's recording session, even though Hampton's contract with Decca prohibited him or any members of his band from playing on anybody else's label. When Dinah's treatment of Feather's "Evil Gal Blues" was released, listing the Lionel Hampton Sextet as the backup, Decca successfully sued to halt distribution of the single; but the release got enough airplay on the radio to put Dinah's name on the black music charts and considerably increase her influence with the band; so much so that Decca finally relented and allowed Washington to legally record another Feather number, "Blowtop Blues," released in 1945. Dinah's star power had risen sufficiently by now, so much so that when Hampton demanded rights to the song so his band could perform it without her, Dinah refused and left the band in 1946 to form a solo act, when she was just 21. Hampton, she complained, would only let her sing big band tunes when it was the blues that was making her money.
Signing with an independent record label, Apollo Records, Washington churned out 12 blues singles, made her first tour of the West Coast, and married a drummer, George Jenkins, all within the first seven months of her new solo career. Soon pregnant, Dinah returned to Chicago to give birth to George Jenkins, Jr., early in 1947. Jenkins pére was not in attendance at the birth. The marriage disintegrated and ended in divorce in July 1947. Washington returned to touring, but not before marrying for a third time, taking as her new husband Robert Grayson who, as the son of the pastor at St. Luke's in Chicago, she had
known as a girl. The birth of Robert Grayson, Jr., followed in August 1948. Dinah, accompanied by a girlhood friend to look after the children, went back to touring and recording after the birth of her second child. Once again, her marriage ended within a year even as her prestige as an important new blues and jazz singer increased with recordings featuring innovative instrumentalists like Max Roach and Charles Mingus.
By mid-century, with white audiences discovering the blues and Billboard changing the name of its "Race Records" chart to "Rhythm and Blues," Washington's audience grew even larger when she signed with mainstream Mercury Records. "Baby Get Lost," released in 1949, went to No. 1 on the new R&B lists; and when Dinah began inserting more pop-oriented tunes into her repertoire, even Variety sat up and took notice. "Uninhibited as a rule, the buxom Miss Washington is considerably toned down in chirping the sedate Without A Song," Variety said of Washington's appearance at the Apollo in 1949. Dinah was now earning over $100,000 a year and could afford to take a suite of rooms at a hotel near the Apollo during her appearance. She was, in fact, approaching full diva status, with expensive wardrobe, volatile temper and lavish habits to match. "If she didn't like you, she would cuss you out in a minute," said a close friend. Among those Dinah chose to disparage were the three husbands she had gone through since divorcing Robert Grayson, as well as Ebony magazine, which was careless enough to call her "plump, good-natured Dinah." She had developed a fondness for good brandy, expensive automobiles and luxury gifts for those who pleased her, running up such bills that she was forced to tour and record nearly constantly to pay for it all. It must have brought some relief when Mercury offered her a $20,000 advance for a new five-year contract. With her work schedule now even heavier, Washington turned to prescription drugs to keep her awake during show times and put her to sleep at night. "A lot of people thought she was on street stuff," one friend pointed out, "but it was all prescription, all legit." Legal or not, Dinah's drug usage took its toll on her personal life. Her fifth husband walked out one night when Dinah smashed his saxophone against a brick wall during an argument about that night's performance.
By the late 1950s, with rock 'n' roll beginning to encroach on rhythm-and-blues territory ("It'll die out," Dinah predicted), Mercury decided to move Dinah's repertory even further toward pop standards. Dinah's first purely pop album, Look to the Rainbow, was released in 1956. Backed by a full, lush string section, she crooned her way through songs like "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "More Than You Know." Radio stations were at first resistant to playing anything from the album. "At that time, if you brought a record by a black artist to a pop disk jockey, you were dead," recalled Washington's Mercury producer Bobby Shad. "They would refuse to play them. I remember bringing up records, and I would refuse to tell them who the singer was. I'd say, just listen to the record." "Look to the Rainbow" was not a success, but white audiences slowly began to pick up on Dinah's talent for taking a song everyone had heard before and making it sound new. "Getting inside a tune is so important," Washington said, "and when you do, there's a feeling that comes out. It should flow out of you. That's what I want and try to do." Her second pop album, Land of Hi-Fi, sold somewhat better than its predecessor; but it wasn't until Mercury put its first black producer in charge of Washington's next recording, "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes," that Dinah won full acceptance from white listeners. The song had been brought to her by composer Arnold Shaw, who had originally called it "What a Difference a Day Made." Dinah's insistence on changing the title and lyric to the present tense was a perfect example of "getting inside a tune." Shaw personally promoted the record on its release in the spring of 1959. By June, it had crossed over from the R&B listings to the pop charts, where it rose to No. 9. Arguably Dinah's most famous recording, "What a Diff'rence" won her a Grammy award that year as best R&B artist.
Mercury was sufficiently encouraged to send Washington on her first European tour in the fall of 1959, to Stockholm and London. Assured of her reputation as "queen of the jukebox," Dinah caused a stir in the British capital when she told her audience that "there's one heaven, one earth, and one queen—and your Elizabeth is an imposter." Aboard ship between the two cities, Dinah married a cabdriver she had met on the way to the New York ship terminal (she had flown him to Europe for the occasion). It lasted no longer than her other marriages, ending in divorce in 1960.
On her return to the United States, the toll taken by 20 years of nearly constant touring began to become apparent. Her reliance on brandy during her rare off hours was now supplemented by sips of champagne during long recording sessions, so many of them in between takes that she often had to be led from the studio. Added to the diet pills she used to control her weight were weekly injections of mercury which, Washington claimed, "drew water from the body." Even the most innocuous comment about her weight would send her into a rage, Dinah once pulling a revolver on a dressmaker who thought one of her dresses should be let out. Even more telling, Washington began missing gigs. "A lot of times she just didn't feel up to performing," said a friend of those days in the early 1960s. "She was taking those pills, and her voice began to come and go, and she couldn't hit the notes like she wanted to. And if somebody said something to her, then she'd get nasty." Friends hoped that Washington's purchase of a failed Chicago nightclub, which she renamed Dinahland, would give more focus to her life. But her venture into club management, and marriage to an actor she had met while touring, both ended within a year. Hopes rose again when, in July 1963, Dinah married Dick Lane, a quarterback for the Detroit Lions who seemed devoted to her and to as normal a home life as could be arranged by two stars of the sports and music worlds. Plans had been made for a family Christmas in Detroit with Lane's children from a previous marriage when word came of Dinah's death from an overdose of sleeping pills. She had died at home while Lane was in Chicago picking up the children for the trip back to Detroit. The death was ruled accidental, and Lane theorized that Washington had simply forgotten how many of the pills she had taken in her search for desperately needed sleep. She was just 39 at her death.
At Dinah Washington's funeral in Chicago, Lane spoke of her ability to reach people of all backgrounds through her music. "It was unbelievable how she could take kings and bring them under her spell," he said, "and she could take the tramp out there in the street and the prostitute and do the same thing." It was Washington's great talent to find her own soul in her music and teach her audiences that it was their soul, too.
Haskins, Jim. Queen of the Blues: The Story of Dinah Washington. NY: Morrow, 1987.
Sadie, Stanley, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd ed. NY: Macmillan, 2001.
Slonimsky, Nicholas, ed. Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. 8th ed. NY: Schirmer, 1992.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York