December 14, 1963 – Dinah Washington was born Ruth Lee Jones on August 29, 1924 in Tuscaloosa Alabama, but moved to Chicago as a child. She sang gospel music in church and played piano, directing her church choir in her teens and being a member of the Sallie Martin Gospel Singers. She sang lead with the first female gospel singers formed by Ms. Martin, who was co-founder of the Gospel Singers Convention.
After winning a talent contest at the age of 15 at Chicago’s Regal Theater where she sang “I Can’t Face the Music”, she began performing in clubs. By 1941–42 she was performing in such Chicago clubs as Dave’s Rhumboogie and the Downbeat Room of the Sherman Hotel (with Fats Waller). She was playing at the Three Deuces, a jazz club, when a friend took her to hear Billie Holiday at the Garrick Stage Bar. Club owner Joe Sherman was so impressed with her singing of “I Understand”, backed by the Cats and the Fiddle, who were appearing in the Garrick’s upstairs room, that he hired her. During her year at the Garrick – she sang upstairs while Holiday performed in the downstairs room – she acquired the name by which she became known.
She credited Joe Sherman with suggesting the change from Ruth Jones, made before Lionel Hampton came to hear Dinah at the Garrick. Hampton’s visit brought an offer and Washington worked as his female band vocalist after she had sung with the band for its opening at the Chicago Regal Theatre.
She stayed with Hampton’s band until 1946 and, after the Keynote label folded, signed for Mercury Records as a solo singer. Her first record for Mercury, a version of Fats Waller’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’, was another hit, starting a long string of success. Between 1948 and 1955 she had 27 R&B top ten hits, making her one of the most popular and successful singers of the period. Both “Am I Asking Too Much” (1948) and “Baby Get Lost” (1949) reached Number 1 on the R&B chart, and her version of “I Wanna Be Loved” (1950) crossed over to reach Number 22 on the US pop chart. Her hit recordings included blues, standards, novelties, pop covers, and even a version of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” (R&B Number 3, 1951). At the same time as her biggest popular success, she also recorded sessions with many leading jazz musicians, including Clifford Brown and Clark Terry on the album Dinah Jams (1954), and also recorded with Cannonball Adderley and Ben Webster.
In 1959, she had her first top ten pop hit, with a version of “What a Diff’rence a Day Made”, which made Number 4 on the US pop chart. Her band at that time included arranger Belford Hendricks, with Kenny Burrell (guitar), Joe Zawinul (piano), and Panama Francis (drums). She followed it up with a version of Irving Gordon’s “Unforgettable”, and then two highly successful duets in 1960 with Brook Benton, “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” (No. 5 Pop, No. 1 R&B) and “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love)” (No. 7 Pop, No. 1 R&B). Her last big hit was “September in the Rain” in 1961 (No. 23 Pop, No. 5 R&B).
She has been cited as the most popular black female recording artist of the 1950s.
During her career, Dinah Washington also recorded a number of sessions with leading jazz musicians of the time, including Clifford Brown, Cannonball Adderley, Clark Terry, and Ben Webster. In 1961, she scored her last big hit with the song September in the Rain.
Dinah was well known for singing torch songs, but also had a strong and outspoken personality. In one recorded account before her death, Dinah Washington was performing at the London Palladium, with Queen Elizabeth sitting in a box. She told the audience: “There is but one heaven, one hell, one queen, and your Elizabeth is an imposter.”
It was said that:“Washington was at once one of the most beloved and controversial singers of the mid-20th century – beloved to her fans, devotees, and fellow singers; controversial to critics who still accuse her of selling out her art to commerce and bad taste. Her principal sin, apparently, was to cultivate a distinctive vocal style that was at home in all kinds of music, be it R&B, blues, jazz, middle of the road pop – and she probably would have made a fine gospel or country singer had she had the time. Hers was a gritty, salty, high-pitched voice, marked by absolute clarity of diction and clipped, bluesy phrasing…”
Her personal life was as turbulent as her musical choices. Dinah Washington was married eight times. Early on the morning of December 14, 1963, Dinah’s eighth husband Lane went to sleep with his wife, and awoke to find her slumped over and not responsive. Doctor B. C. Ross was called to the scene and he pronounced Washington dead. An autopsy later revealed a lethal combination of the drugs secobarbital and amobarbital. Dinah Washington was only 39-years-old and her death was officially ruled an accidental overdose.
In 1959, Dinah won a Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance and she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and her song “TV is the Thing” was declared one of the songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.