Dinah Washington Biography

Ruth Lee Jones, 29 August 1924, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA, d. 14 December 1963, Detroit, Michigan, USA. Raised in Chicago, Dinah Washington first sang in church choirs for which she also played piano. She then worked in local clubs, where she was heard by Lionel Hampton, who promptly hired her. She was with Hampton from 1943-46, recording hits with ‘Evil Gal Blues’, written by Leonard Feather, and ‘Salty Papa Blues’. After leaving Hampton she sang R&B, again achieving record success, this time with ‘Blow Top Blues’ and ‘I Told You Yes I Do’. In the following years Washington continued with R&B, but also sang jazz, blues, popular songs of the day, standards, and was a major voice of the burgeoning, but as yet untitled, soul movement. However, her erratic lifestyle caught up with her and she died suddenly at the age of 39.

Almost from the start of her career, Washington successfully blended the sacred music of her childhood with the sometimes earthly salacious secularity of the blues. This combination was a potent brew and audiences idolized her, thus helping her towards riches rarely achieved by black artists of her generation. She thoroughly enjoyed her success, spending money indiscriminately on jewellery, cars, furs, drink, drugs and men. She married many times and had countless liaisons. Physically, she appeared to thrive on her excesses, as can be seen from her performance in the film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Jazz On A Summer’s Day. She was settling down happily with her seventh husband when she took a lethal combination of pills, probably by accident, after having too much to drink.

Washington’s voice was rich and she filled everything she sang with heartfelt emotion. Even when the material was not of the highest quality, she could make the most trite of lyrics appear deeply moving. Amongst her popular successes were ‘What A Diff’rence A Day Makes’, her biggest solo hit, which reached number 8 in the USA in May 1959, and ‘September In The Rain’, which made number 35 in the UK in November 1961. Washington usually sang alone but in the late 50s she recorded some duets with her then husband, Eddie Chamblee. These records enjoyed a measure of success and were followed in 1960 with wonderfully warm hit songs with Brook Benton, notably ‘Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)’ and ‘A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around And Fall In Love)’, both of which proved to be enormously popular, reaching numbers 5 and 7, respectively, in the US charts. Washington left a wealth of recorded material, ranging from The Jazz Sides, which feature Clark Terry, Jimmy Cleveland, Blue Mitchell and others, to albums of songs by or associated with Fats Waller and Bessie Smith. On these albums, as on almost everything she recorded, Washington lays claim to being one of the major jazz voices, and probably the most versatile of all the singers to have worked in jazz.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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