Born: August 29, 1924 | Died: December 14, 1963 Primary Instrument: Vocalist
The versatile vocalist Dinah Washington was born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa Alabama on August 29th 1924. She grew up in Chicago where her family moved in 1928.
Her mother was heavily involved in church community centered around St Luke’s Baptist and Dinah was surrounded by gospel and church music since her early childhood. She exhibited musical talents at an early age and was part of the church choir playing the piano and singing gospel in her early teens. At age 15, enamored by Billie Holiday, she started playing and singing the blues in local clubs and made quite a name for herself. In 1942 Lionel Hampton heard her and hired her for to front his band. Hampton claims that it was he who gave her the name Dinah Washington but other sources disagree.
Some suggest the talent agent Joe Glaser suggested the new name and others cite the manager of the bar where she was performing at the time as the person who recommended it. This was also the year when she married her firs husband; John Young (she would marry 6 more times). She remained with Lionel Hampton from 1943-1946 and during this tenure made her recording debut, a blues session produced by Leonard Feather for Keynote records. She became quite popular both as the band singer for Hampton and as a solo artist. She used her new found financial success to buy a home for her mother and sister. She left Hampton’s orchestra early 1946 while she was living in LA and shortly afterwards recorded blues sides for the small Apollo label. Her big break came very shortly afterwards when she signed with Mercury label on January 14 1946. During her stay with Mercury she recorded a number of top ten hits in a multitude of genres including blues, R&B, pop, standards, novelties, even country. She never was strictly a jazz singer but did record number of jazz sessions with some of the most influential musicians of the day including Cannonball Adderley, Clark Terry, and Ben Webster. Her most memorable jazz recording is with Clifford Brown; the classic Dinah Jams from 1955.
After the unexpected commercial success of What a Diff'rence a Day Makes, in 1959, which marked Washington’s breakthrough into the mainstream pop and won her a Grammy; she stopped recording blues and jazz songs and concentrated on more easy listening tunes characterized by lush orchestrations. The critics decried this shift in her career but it did bring her music more widespread exposure and commercial success. She started having problems with her weight so she became dependant on diet pills and on Dec. 14, 1963 she died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and diet pills in a hotel room in Detroit. She was buried at Burr Oak Cemetery in Chicago.