Dinah Washington Singer and pianist Dinah Washington (1924-1963) was one of the most popular African American recording artists of the 1950s and was often called the “Queen of the Blues.” Primarily a jazz vocalist, she performed in a variety of styles, including pop, rhythm and blues (R&B), and country. Between 1949 and 1955, she had 27 Top Ten hits on the R&B and Pop charts. Her signature interpretations of the songs “Unforgettable” and “What a Difference a Day Makes” are in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Dinah Washington was born Ruth Lee Jones on August 29, 1924, in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County. Her mother, Asalea Williams, who would later change her name to Alice, sang and played piano at Tuscaloosa’s historic Elizabeth Baptist Church near their home on 24th Street. Her father, Ollie Jones, a laborer, worked for the Kaul Lumber Company, one of Tuscaloosa’s most prominent employers.
When Ruth Lee was four years old, her father moved the family to Chicago to escape Tuscaloosa’s increasing Ku Klux Klan activity. He took a job as a roofer, and Asalea joined the music ministry at St. Luke’s Baptist Church. She also taught her daughter to play piano and sing. Young Ruth proved a quick study and joined her mother in the choir. By the age of 11, she was performing as a gospel vocalist at church recitals across the country. At the age of 15, she won an amateur talent contest at Chicago’s Regal Theatre and began performing in nightclubs as a jazz pianist and vocalist.
Ruth married the first of her eight husbands in 1942, wedding the 23-year-old John Young when she was 17 and divorcing him three months later. She continued to sing in local nightclubs and studied with renowned gospel singer Sallie Martin, becoming her piano accompanist. In 1943, Ruth stopped singing gospel, choosing to perform at such Chicago nightclubs as the Rhumboogie Club and the Downbeat Room. She also joined the house band at the Garrick, a more prestigious downtown lounge, where she also worked as a washroom attendant.
Dinah Washington In 1943, talent agent Joe Glaser told renowned bandleader Lionel Hampton about Ruth and her remarkable voice. Impressed, Hampton asked her to sing with his orchestra at Chicago’s Regal Theater. Following that guest performance, Hampton hired the young vocalist and may have given her the stage name Dinah Washington, although other sources claim that either Glaser or the Garrick’s owner, Joe Sherman, was responsible for her name change. From 1943 to 1946, Washington toured with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and had her first hit, “Evil Gal Blues,” for Keynote Records. Both the song and its follow-up, “Salty Papa Blues,” appeared on Billboard magazine’s Harlem Hit Parade. During her three years with Hampton’s band, Washington earned acclaim for her live performances, and in his memoir Hampton wrote that he always had her perform last, because her performances eclipsed anyone who followed her. Dinah met her second husband, musician George Jenkins, in 1944. They were married shortly before the birth of their son George Jenkins Jr. in June 1946 and divorced by the end of that same year.
In 1946, Washington left the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and signed as a solo artist with Mercury Records. That year, she recorded her anthem “Slick Chick on the Mellow Side” for Verve Records. She began to be billed as “The Queen of the Blues,” although she protested to the press that this title belonged to Bessie Smith. Like Smith, she was known for her bawdy and suggestive songs, also known as “dirty blues.”
In August 1947, she married her third husband, Robert Grayson, whose father was the minister who officiated her first marriage to John Young. The couple stayed together for just over two years, producing one son, Bobby Jr. In 1949, she scored number one on the Billboard Charts with “Baby Get Lost.” In October 1950, she married her fourth husband, Walter Buchanan, a bassist who backed her on four tracks for Mercury Records. The marriage lasted for three months. In 1952, she scored a number four hit with the blues classic “Trouble in Mind.” Washington married her fifth husband, Larry Wrice, who had been the drummer in her backup trio during a night club engagement in Miami, in December 1953. She would later pay tribute to Wrice in her song “My Man’s an Undertaker.” They would divorce in less than a year.
Dinah Washington and Dick Lane During the mid- to late-1950s, Washington recorded with many of the most acclaimed jazz musicians of the period, including drummer Jimmy Cobb and saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderly. Washington’s 1954 album, Dinah Jams, recorded her Los Angeles-based sessions with the newly formed Clifford-Brown Max Roach Quintet and guest trumpeters Clark Terry and Maynard Ferguson for EmArcy Records. In March 1955, she recorded the album Dinah Washington: For Those in Love, also for EmArcy. Arranged by Quincy Jones, the jazz-based collection of standards included “This Can’t Be Love,” “I Could Write a Book,” and “You Don’t Know What Love ls.” In the liner notes, jazz scholar Dan Morgenstern compared her to Billie Holiday.
In 1957, she married her frequent accompanist, singer and saxophonist Eddie Chamblee. They divorced in 1958, after she fired him onstage during a performance in Miami. In 1959, she crossed over into the pop music market with her Mercury single “What a Difference a Day Makes,” which made the top ten, appeared on Billboard‘s 1959 honor roll of hits, and won a Grammy award for best R&B record. She was listed as one of the “Giants of Jazz” in Leonard Feather’s 1960 work, The Encyclopedia of Jazz. In January 1961, she married the Dominican-born actor Rafael Campos and divorced him several months later. Her eighth and final confirmed marriage was to Detroit Lions star Dick “Night Train” Lane, whom she met in July 1963. Washington died of an accidental overdose on December 14, 1963. An autopsy revealed that a combination of secobarbital and amobarbital contributed to her death at the age of 39. She was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
In 1986, Washington was posthumously inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. Three of her recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, a special award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years and have qualitative or historical significance. These are “What a Difference a Day Makes” (recorded 1959, inducted 1998), “Teach Me Tonight” (recorded 1954, inducted 1999) and “Unforgettable” (recorded 1959, inducted 2001).
In 2008, her birth city of Tuscaloosa renamed the section of 30th Avenue between 15th Street and Kaulton Park “Dinah Washington Avenue.” On August 29, 2013, Tuscaloosa dedicated the former Allen Jemison Hardware building at 620 Greensboro Avenue as the newly renovated Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center.
Cohodas, Nadine. Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.
Haskins, James. Queen of the Blues: A Biography of Dinah Washington. New York: William Morrow, 1987.
Larkin, Collin. The Virgin Encyclopedia of Jazz. London: Virgin Books, 2004.
Washington, Dinah. The Best of Dinah Washington. 20th Century Masters: Millennium Collection. Audio CD. Santa Monica: Universal Music Group, 2002.