Recording Date: Feb 27, 1950-1953
All Music Guide
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Dinah Washington was born as Ruth Lee Jones on August 29th 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and was later to be called "one of the greatest and beloved singers of the mid 20th century. Her life could have been the subject of one of the blues songs she sang," a quote from the book, "Queen of the Blues", A Biography of Dinah Washington (New York: William Morrow - Jim Haskins) " she could never be mistaken for anyone else" and "The unique singer Dinah Washington had a vocal range that was as wide as her versatility as an artist ", are just two of the hundreds of journalistic hymns of praise that have been written about her. In spite of being loved by her fans, fellow singers and musicians, and some journalists, others were cruel in their harsh critics, accusing her of "selling out her art to commerce and bad taste" (a view that has since become extinct in today's material, commercial world).
The young Ruth Lee Jones moved with her family to Chicago at the age of three, and grew up in a world of gospel music where she very soon learned to play the piano and later started to direct the church choir. At the age of 15 she won an amateur contest at the Regal Theatre and by the time she was 16 she was on the road travelling with the gospel singer Sallie Martin, who together with Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, played a major role in the roots and influences of the famous singer later in her career. She soon began singing in various small south side Chicago nightclubs, and in 1942 while singing at the Garrick Bar was spotted by the talent scout Joe Glaser who promptly recommended her to Lionel Hampton. The big band leader was so impressed with her singing that he immediately asked her to join his band and from then on, the star was born! Lionel Hampton claims that he was the one who gave Ruth Jones the name Dinah Washington, but the same claim was later made by others as well, including Joe Glaser and the manager of the Garrick Bar.
She stayed with Hampton for about 3 years between 1943-1946 gaining experience with steady work, then made her recording debut in 1943 with a song wrote by Leonard Feather, "Evil Gal Blues" which turned into her first success. She wasn't always happy with the choice of songs that Hampton gave her to sing and after some differences of opinion she left the band to go solo at the age of 22 in 1946.
After leaving Hampton she toured constantly doing mostly one night stands and married twice in the next few years, (her first marriage was at the age 16 and didn't last for long), producing two sons to the world, George Jenkins and Robert Grayson. In July 1949 her recording of "Baby Get Lost" reached the number one slot in the Billboard R'n'B charts and in the years until 1955 there were many more hits in the R'n B top ten that followed the same path.
During this time in her life Dinah was singing and recording in quite a few different styles simultaneously, she was singing blues, standards, novelties, pop covers, even country (the Hank Williams song "Cold, Cold Heart"), and at the same time she was recording many straight jazz sessions with big bands and small combos. The most memorable of these sessions were her recordings with Cannonball Adderley, Clark Terry, Ben Webster, Wynton Kelly, and not to forget of course, "Dinah Jams" with Clifford Brown.
By 1959, when she was 35, Dinah felt as though she was locked in an R'n'B cage (singing versions of songs that were hits in the white market for black audiences) and decided to record the song "What a Difference a Day Makes", which was a revival of a Dorsey Brothers hit. With this song she suddenly had a hit in the mainstream pop market reaching number nine in the Billboard national pop charts, and after repeating this success with the song, "Baby, You've Got What it Takes", (a duet recorded with Brook Benson). She was now more determined than even to stay a mainstream artist.
In 1961 she left Mercury Records and signed up with the Roulette label and the next big hit with "Where are You" promptly followed. Some of the songs that followed reached the top hundred but until her last big hit in early 1962, when her song "Tears and Laughter" reached the number ten slot, she was never able to get back into the best ten in the national charts,. Between 1961 and 1963 Dinah's health began to determinate gradually, she was drinking heavily and taking too much medication (pills and tonics) and in early 1963 while singing in Detroit, she was struck down with a serious case of pneumonia.
After her recovery a few weeks later Dinah moved to Detroit to live and married for the seventh time in her life. Unfortunately as Dinah hinted to friends a short time later, the marriage wasn't the way it should be, but she was still hopeful to work it out and was preparing to go on holiday towards the end of the year.
Although opinions differ vastly, over the exact cause of her death (years of over consumption of pills and alcohol, together with a weak and overstrained heart), officially Dinah Washington died of an accidental overdose of diet pills mixed with alcohol. On December the 14th 1963 at the age of 39, only two weeks after singing the blues in a Los Angeles club, the great lady of song, Dinah Washington died in Detroit. She will be remembered as one of the most beloved and controversial singers of the 20th century.