Dinah Washington (1924 - 1963) was one of the most beloved, versatile, and popular singers of her generation and, indeed, in all of American popular music history. An artistic descendant of classic Blues Age divas such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, she built on her early gospel roots to master a wide range of genres. These included jazz, blues, R&B, and lushly orchestrated ballads, which earned her critical acclaim, hit record sales, and the billing “Queen of the Blues.”
Washington was born Ruth Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1924. Relocating to the south side of Chicago at the age of three or four, she mastered the piano under the influence of her mother, who played at St. Luke’s Baptist Church. During this early stage, Washington’s focus was on gospel music and spirituals. She began to perform with the acclaimed gospel pioneer Sallie Martin in 1940, with whose choir she toured the gospel circuit as accompanist for a period of time.
But secular music had already had an effect on the young artist. Washington had won first prize at an amateur contest at Chicago’s renowned Regal Theater even before joining Martin. She earned the attention of booking agent Joe Glaser, and that of Joe Sherman who ran the Garrick Stage Bar. She appeared at the Garrick in a featured billing. This brought her to the notice of prominent bandleader Lionel Hampton, who immediately recognized Washington’s talent and signed her to perform with his band in 1943. Hampton claimed to have given her the stage name of Dinah Washington, although other accounts credit either Glaser or Sherman with the inspired choice.
Washington would not mix sacred and secular styles in her performances. Having embarked on a popular music career, she subsequently refused to include gospel music in her repertoire; but her gospel roots could still be heard in her soulful delivery and melismatic touches, imparting emotional depth to any kind of material.
Her rise to stardom proceeded quickly. Leonard Feather, a noted jazz critic and composer, heard Washington in Hampton’s band at New York’s famous Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1943. At his urging, Keynote Records produced a debut recording session for her; but so long as she remained part of Hampton’s band, solo recording opportunities would remain scarce. By the end of the year, she resigned from the band, and promptly went on to record three sessions in Los Angeles for the Apollo label. She then moved to the fledgling Mercury label. Her first recording date for Mercury was in January of 1946, and by the summer of 1948, she was gaining fame as a solo singer and recording artist. In just a single year, 1950, she produced five hit recordings including “I Wanna Be Loved” and “It Isn’t Fair.”
Throughout the mid-1950s, Washington recorded with a series of jazz instrumentalists representing some of the reigning talent of the time: drummer Max Roach; saxophonists Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Cannonball Adderly; trumpeters Clifford Brown and Clark Terry; and arranger Quincy Jones. Tenor sax player Eddie Chamblee also performed in her combo, and became one of her many husbands (variously numbered at seven or nine, she also had two children).
Singing the Hits
She ascended to pop superstardom in 1959 with her recording of the ballad “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,” a Dorsey Brothers hit re-arranged by Belford Hendricks. Several more pop hits followed, including “Unforgettable,” “This Bitter Earth,” “September in the Rain,” and “Where Are You?” assisted by the market-savvy Artists & Repertoire executive Clyde Otis. At Otis’ suggestion, Washington also recorded duets with Brook Benton (featuring “Baby, You Got What It Takes,” a major pop and R&B hit in 1960, and “Rockin’ Good Way”) whose deep voice complemented her high register in an emotionally resonant style. Her other top-ten hits of this period included pop covers, novelty songs, and even a version of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” but she increasingly focused on orchestrated ballads as time went on.
By some accounts, she became known as the best jazz and blues singer of the age. Washington’s exceptionally varied talent and range would make her a “cross-over superstar” in today’s marketplace, and her insistence on singing and recording what she liked, regardless of genre conventions, would make her an icon of personal vision and artistic integrity. Washington’s personal life, however, was turbulent. It showed in her music, and her uncanny ability to convey the subject of lost love and sadness. And it inevitably took its toll. In addition to her multiple marriages, she had struggled for many years with both a weight problem (for which she had taken diet pills) and an alcohol problem. An accidental combination of the two substances caused her untimely death in Detroit, Michigan, on December 14, 1963, at the too-young age of 39. She had sung the blues in a Los Angeles club just two weeks prior to her passing.
She was inducted into the Alabama Hall of Fame in 1991, which cites the fact that her “…penetrating, high-pitched voice, incredible sense of drama and timing, crystal clear enunciation and equal facility with sad, bawdy, celebratory or rousing material enabled her to sing any and everything with distinction…. Dinah Washington remains the biggest influence on most black female singers who have come to prominence since the mid-‘50s.” A comprehensive set of recordings, “The Complete Dinah Washington,” is available today.
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