Dinah Washington

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Dinah Washington
Washington in 1962
Washington in 1962
Background information
Birth nameRuth Lee Jones
Born(1924-08-29)August 29, 1924
Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S.
OriginChicago, Illinois, U.S.
DiedDecember 14, 1963(1963-12-14) (aged 39)
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
  • Singer
  • musician
Years active1941–1963

Dinah Washington (born Ruth Lee Jones; August 29, 1924 – December 14, 1963) was an American singer and pianist, one of the most popular black female recording artists of the 1950s.[1] Primarily a jazz vocalist, she performed and recorded in a wide variety of styles including blues, R&B, and traditional pop music,[1] and gave herself the title of "Queen of the Blues".[2] She was a 1986 inductee of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

Early life[edit]

Ruth Lee Jones was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Alice and Ollie Jones,[3] and moved to Chicago as a child. She became deeply involved in gospel music and played piano for the choir in St. Luke's Baptist Church while still in elementary school. She sang gospel music in church and played piano, directing her church choir in her teens and was a member of the Sallie Martin Gospel Singers.[4] When she joined the Sallie Martin group, she dropped out of Wendell Phillips High School. She sang lead with the first female gospel singers formed by Sallie Martin,[5] who was co-founder of the Gospel Singers Convention. Her involvement with the gospel choir occurred after she won an amateur contest at Chicago's Regal Theater where she sang "I Can't Face the Music".[6]


After winning a talent contest at the age of 15, she began performing in clubs. By 1941–42 she was performing in such Chicago clubs as Dave's Café 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.[6] 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 made her recording debut for the Keynote label that December with "Evil Gal Blues", written by Leonard Feather and backed by Hampton and musicians from his band, including Joe Morris (trumpet) and Milt Buckner (piano).[1][7] Both that record and its follow-up, "Salty Papa Blues", made the Billboard "Harlem Hit Parade" in 1944.[8] In December 1945 she made a series of twelve recordings for Apollo Records, 10 of which were issued, featuring the Lucky Thompson All Stars.[9]

portrait of Dinah Washington, 1952
Dinah Washington in 1952

She stayed with Hampton's band until 1946, after the Keynote label folded, and 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-10 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.[8] 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.[1][7]

In 1950, Dinah Washington performed at the sixth famed Cavalcade of Jazz concert held at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles which was produced by Leon Hefflin, Sr. on June 25. Also featured on the same day were Lionel Hampton, PeeWee Crayton's Orchestra, Roy Milton and his Orchestra, Tiny Davis and Her Hell Divers, and other artists. There were 16,000 reported to be in attendance, and the concert ended early because of a fracas while Lionel Hampton played "Flying High".[10][11] Washington returned to perform at the twelfth Cavalcade of Jazz also at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles on September 2, 1956. Also performing that day were Little Richard, The Mel Williams Dots, Julie Stevens, Chuck Higgin's Orchestra, Bo Rhambo, Willie Hayden & Five Black Birds, The Premiers, Gerald Wilson and His 20-Pc. Recording Orchestra and Jerry Gray and his Orchestra.[12]

In 1959, she had her first top ten pop hit, with a version of "What a Diff'rence a Day Made",[13] which made Number 4 on the US pop chart. Her band at that time included arranger and conductor 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).[8]

Washington notably performed two numbers in the dirty blues genre. The songs were "Long John Blues" about her dentist, with lyrics like "He took out his trusty drill. Told me to open wide. He said he wouldn't hurt me, but he filled my whole inside."[14] She also recorded a song called "Big Long Slidin' Thing", supposedly about a trombonist.[15]

One source states that Washington "produced 45 R&B-charted hits between 1948 and 1961, including 16 Top 15 placements between 1948 and 1950".[16]

In the 1950s and early 1960s before her death, Washington occasionally performed on the Las Vegas Strip. Tony Bennett said of Washington during a recording session with Amy Winehouse:

She was a good friend of mine, you know. She was great. She used to just come in with two suitcases in Vegas without being booked. ... And she'd stay as long as she wanted. And all the kids in all the shows on the Strip would come that night. They'd hear that she's in town and it would be packed just for her performance.

According to Richard S. Ginell at AllMusic:[1]

[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 the time. Hers was a gritty, salty, high-pitched voice, marked by absolute clarity of diction and clipped, bluesy phrasing.

Washington was well known for singing torch songs.[17] In 1962, Dinah hired a male backing trio called the Allegros, consisting of Jimmy Thomas on drums, Earl Edwards on sax, and Jimmy Sigler on organ. Edwards was replaced on sax by John Payne. A Variety writer praised their vocals as "effective choruses".[6]

Washington's achievements included appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival (1955–1959), the Randalls Island Jazz Festival in New York City (1959), and the International Jazz Festival in Washington, D.C. (1962), frequent gigs at Birdland (1958, 1961–1962), and performances in 1963 with Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Personal life and death[edit]

Washington's grave at Burr Oak Cemetery

Washington was married seven times,[18][19][20][21] although according to other sources she had eight[22] or nine[23] husbands.

Early in the morning of December 14, 1963, Washington's sixth husband,[24] football great Dick "Night Train" Lane, went to sleep with Washington and awoke later to find her slumped over and not responsive. Dr. B. C. Ross pronounced her dead at the scene at age 39.[6] An autopsy later showed a lethal combination of secobarbital and amobarbital, prescriptions for her insomnia and diet, which contributed to her death.[18] She is buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.


Grammy Award
Year Category Title Genre
1959 Best Rhythm & Blues Performance "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" R&B
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."[25]

Year Title Genre Label Year Inducted
1959 "Unforgettable" pop (single) Mercury 2001
1954 "Teach Me Tonight" R&B (single) Mercury 1999
1959 "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" traditional pop (single) Mercury 1998
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed her "TV Is the Thing (This Year)" as one of the songs that shaped rock and roll.[26]

Year Title Genre
1953 "TV Is the Thing (This Year)" R&B
Honors and Inductions
  • Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington is a 1964 album recorded by Aretha Franklin as a tribute.
  • In 1993, the U.S. Post Office issued a Dinah Washington 29 cent commemorative postage stamp.
  • In 2005, the Board of Commissioners renamed a park, near where Washington had lived in Chicago in the 1950s, Dinah Washington Park in her honor.
  • In 2008, the city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Washington's birthplace, renamed the section of 30th Avenue between 15th Street and Kaulton Park "Dinah Washington Avenue."[27] The unveiling ceremony for the new name took place on March 12, 2009, with Washington's son Robert Grayson and three of her grandchildren in attendance.[28]
  • On August 29, 2013, the city of Tuscaloosa also dedicated the former Allen Jemison Hardware building, on the northwest corner of Greensboro Avenue and 7th Street (620 Greensboro Avenue), as the newly renovated Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center."[29]
The Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Year Title Result Notes
1993 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inducted Early Influences
1984 Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame Inducted

Album discography[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Dinah Washington". AllMusic. Retrieved June 27, 2014.
  2. ^ Carney Smith, Jessie (1992). Notable Black American Women. VNR AG. ISBN 9780810391772. Retrieved June 27, 2014 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ "Alice Jones, 87". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved December 20, 2016.
  4. ^ Joravsky, Ben (December 16, 1999). "Dinah Was...and Wasn't". Chicago Reader. Retrieved December 20, 2016.
  5. ^ Bogdanov, Vladimir; Woodstra, Chris; Erlewine, Stephen Thomas (2003). "Sallie Martin". All Music Guide to the Blues: The Definitive Guide to the Blues. Backbeat Books. p. 373. ISBN 0-87930-736-6.
  6. ^ a b c d Cohodas, Nadine (2004). Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington. Random House. ISBN 978-0375421488.
  7. ^ a b "Dinah Washington Biography". rockhall.com. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Retrieved June 27, 2014.
  8. ^ a b c Whitburn, Joel (2004). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942–2004. Record Research. p. 469.
  9. ^ Rotante, Anthony (February 1955). "Blues and Rhythm". Record Research. New York. p. 3.
  10. ^ "Dinah Washington Joins 'Hamp' in 'Cavalcade of Jazz'". Los Angeles Sentinel. June 15, 1950.
  11. ^ "'Cavalcade of Jazz Attended by 16,000' Review". Los Angeles Sentinel. June 29, 1950.
  12. ^ "12th Cavalcade of Jazz At Wrigley Field Sept. 2". Los Angeles Sentinel. July 26, 1956.
  13. ^ Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 17 – The Soul Reformation: More on the evolution of rhythm and blues. [Part 3]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries.
  14. ^ "Bette Midler – Long John Blues Lyrics". MetroLyrics.com. Archived from the original on December 14, 2016. Retrieved May 12, 2016.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  15. ^ "Big Long Slidin' Thing – Lyrics". Lyricsplayground.com. October 10, 2007. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
  16. ^ "1940s musicians laid the cornerstone for rock 'n' roll". Goldminemag.com. September 29, 2011. Retrieved June 10, 2021.
  17. ^ "Theatre Review". The New York Times. Retrieved June 27, 2014. (subscription required)
  18. ^ a b "Dinah Washington: A Queen in Turmoil". npr.org. National Public Radio. August 29, 2004. Retrieved February 9, 2020.
  19. ^ Washington, Dinah (1924–1963), Encyclopedia.com
  20. ^ Dinah Washington and Quincy Jones, New England Public Radio
  21. ^ Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington by Nadine Cohodas, JazzTimes
  22. ^ Washington, Dinah, Encyclopedia of Alabama
  23. ^ Washington, Dinah 1924–1963, Encyclopedia.com
  24. ^ "Night Train, Dinah Wed". Detroit Free Press. July 3, 1963. p. 2C – via Newspapers.com. open access
  25. ^ "GRAMMY Hall Of Fame". GRAMMY.org. Archived from the original on January 22, 2011. Retrieved June 27, 2014.
  26. ^ "Experience The Music: One Hit Wonders and The Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll | The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum". Rockhall.com. April 15, 2013. Retrieved June 27, 2014.
  27. ^ "Odetta should be memorialized". TuscaloosaNews.com. Retrieved June 27, 2014.
  28. ^ "Tuscaloosa unveils Dinah Washington Avenue". TuscaloosaNews.com. March 13, 2009. Retrieved June 27, 2014.
  29. ^ "Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center ready for its debut in downtown Tuscaloosa". TuscaloosaNews.com. Retrieved June 27, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]