WASHINGTON, DINAH (Ruth Lee Jones) (1924–1962) Singer, Musician
Known as the “Queen of the Blues,” Dinah Washington was the dominant female singer of rhythm and blues during the 1950s. She was born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in August 1924 (her exact birth date is debated). When she was three, her family moved to Chicago. Ruth received her first musical instruction at home, learning to sing and play the piano from her mother. By her teens, she was a well-known gospel singer at the St. Luke’s Baptist Church.
After winning a talent contest, Jones started performing in local clubs. In 1940, she returned to religious music when gospel singer Sallie Martin hired her as her pianist. Two years later, Jones went back to the nightclub circuit, playing piano at the Three Deuces, a Chicago jazz club where her idol BILLIE HOLIDAY was performing. Soon, Jones herself was singing in the back room. There, she was spotted by bandleader Lionel Hampton, who hired her as his vocalist. Hampton later claimed that he gave Jones the stage name Dinah Washington.
While singing with Hampton’s band, Washington began recording blues songs. In 1943, her “Evil Gal Blues” and “Salty Papa Blues” were hits with African-American audiences. Two years later, “Blowtop Blues”—the only song she recorded with Hampton—made her a star of rhythm and blues. After going solo in 1945, Washington was signed by Mercury Records, which would remain her label for 15 years. While a Mercury artist, she recorded more than 400 songs for the burgeoning urban blues market. With records such as “Long John Blues” (1947) and “Trouble in Mind” (1952), she was considered by many to be the successor of blues great BESSIE SMITH. Washington, however, prided herself on being able to sing in any genre. She had great success with covers of Broadway show tunes and even had a country hit with a cover of Hank Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart” (1952).
Washington also developed a reputation as a jazz artist. On songs such as “Lover, Come Back to Me,” she had a fruitful collaboration with pianist Wynton Kelly, which some compared to the working relationship between Holiday and Lester Young. Washington frequently performed at jazz clubs and festivals. Her triumphant appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 was recorded in the concert film Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959). Washington also played the Palladium in London. With Elizabeth II in the audience, the Queen of the Blues announced, “There is but one heaven, one hell, and one queen, and your Elizabeth is an impostor.”
For most of her recording career, Washington’s music was sold nearly exclusively to African Americans. In 1959, however, she broke into the larger mainstream market with “What a Diff ’rence a Day Makes.” In addition to hitting the top 10 on the R&B charts, the record won a Grammy Award. The next year, Washington had three crossover hits. With fellow Mercury artist Brook Benton, she sang the duets “Baby, You’ve Got What it Takes” and “A Rockin’ Good Way,” while on her own she had a number-one hit with the mournful love song, “This Bitter Earth.” On- and offstage, she had a flair for the flamboyant. She loved tight dresses and mink coats and enjoyed shocking people with her rough language. Washington had at least eight husbands and two sons. Late in her career, Washington became sensitive about her weight. Newly married to Detroit Lions football player Dick “Night Train” Lane, she went on a crash diet with fatal results. On December 14, 1963, Lane found Washington’s body in their Detroit home. Only 39, Washington had died from an accidental overdose of alcohol, sedatives, and diet pills.
Barbera, André. “Washington, Dinah.” In American National Biography, edited by John Arthur Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, vol. 22, pp. 757–758. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Haskins, James. Queen of the Blues: A Biography of Dinah Washington. New York: William Morrow, 1987.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Essential Dinah Washington: The Great Songs. Mercury, CD, 1992.
First Issue: The Dinah Washington Story. Polygram, CD set, 1993.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1958). New Yorker Films, DVD/VHS, 2000.