The self-proclaimed Queen of the Blues possessed one of the most instantly recognisable voices in popular music. Dinah Washington scored a series of rhythm ‘n’ blues hits from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, before crossing over to have mainstream pop chart success in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
At the same time as Washington was scaling the heights of the charts and recording with jazz greats like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, she was leading a turbulent personal life, notching up seven husbands before her death at the tragically young age of 39.
Dinah Washington was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on 29th August 1924. She moved to Chicago aged three and considered the city to be her home from that point on.
Washington was christened Ruth Lee Jones, changing her name to the more glamorous Dinah Washington early in her professional singing career. In her teens, she played piano and sang with her school gospel choir. After winning a singing contest Washington graduated to performing in clubs. She soon landed a slot upstairs at the Garrick Stage Bar, while Billie Holiday sang downstairs.
Evil Gal Blues: the first hit record
It was while singing at the Garrick that Lionel Hampton became aware of the singer, leading him to invite her to sing with his band. This led to Dinah Washington recording her first single, Evil Gal Blues, in 1943 with musicians from Hampton’s band. The record was a hit on the R&B charts, kicking off a remarkable string of success for the singer over the following decade.
What a Diff’rence a Day Makes: A top 10
Dinah Washington left Lionel Hampton’s band to go solo in 1946, signing a deal with Mercury in 1948 that resulted in a slew of high charting singles between then and 1955. The first of these was a charming cover of Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ that kicked off her Mercury career with another hit. The songs that she recorded in this period ranged from novelty records, to blues, jazz and mainstream pop. Washington tackled all of them with her trademark high-pitched, yet gritty, blues-inflected delivery.
While Dinah Washington’s recorded output during the late 1940s and early 1950s was extremely diverse, she continually returned to jazz, recording with both big bands and small groups. The most acclaimed of her jazz records during this period is Dinah Jams, which was recorded with Clifford Brown and Clark Terry.
Dinah Washington regularly made it into the top 10 of the R&B chart during the late 1940s and 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1959 that she finally had a top 10 hit on the US pop charts. This came with her recording of What a Diff’rence a Day Makes, a Mexican song that was originally popularised in English in the 1930s by the Dorsey Brothers.
Washington’s version of What a Difference a Day Makes makes use of lush strings, an approach that her subsequent releases would also follow. This resulted in several more pop hits including a cover of Unforgettable and Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes). While these later singles were commercially very successful and remain among her best known songs, some critics then and now have regarded much of her early 1960s output as being bland when compared with her earlier work.
By any standard, Dinah Washington’s career in the music industry was massively successful. She was not only one of the biggest selling female artists of her generation, but also an astonishingly gifted vocalist who influenced huge numbers of women to follow in her wake. However, her artistic and commercial success was matched by personal demons that ultimately drove her to an early grave.
The vices that took her life
Dinah Washington was a woman of enormous appetites in terms of material goods, food and the opposite sex. She spent large sums on clothes, shoes and cars to cheer herself up when she was feeling down. She managed to divorce six husbands in her short life and was on to her seventh by the time that she died. She also fought a constant battle with her weight that resulted in her using diet pills to help shed the pounds.
It was a combination of diet pills, prescription drugs to cure her insomnia and alcohol that resulted in Dinah Washington dying in her sleep on 14th December 1963. The death was ruled accidental. She was just 39 years old.
Since her death, Dinah Washington has been inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The latter of these was for her song TV is the Thing (This Year), which was named as one of the songs that helped to shape rock and roll.
She has also had three of her songs inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, including What a Difference a Day Makes. This song was originally awarded a Grammy after its release in 1959.