Her career was brief but dazzling.
Music icon Quincy Jones said, “She could take the melody in her hand, hold it like an egg, crack it open, fry it, let it sizzle, reconstruct it, put the egg back in the box and back in the refrigerator and you would've still understood every single syllable."
Dinah Washington skirted the boundaries of blues, jazz and popular music, becoming the most popular black female recording artist of the Fifties.
Dinah Washington was born Ruth Lee Jones on August 29, 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She grew up on Chicago’s Southside, raised by a devoutly religious mother who sang in church and taught piano. Washington learned how to play piano at an early age and became a powerful gospel singer. She and her mother became popular attractions at local churches. Eventually, Washington was drawn to more secular music, and she entered a talent contest at the Regal Theater at age 15. She won the contest and began splitting her time between church performances and club appearances.
In 1943 Washington learned that Billie Holiday would be performing at the Garrick Stage Lounge in Chicago. She landed a gig as a singer in Garrick’s house band and soon found herself working in the same club as her idol. Lionel Hampton caught one of her shows and offered to take her on the road with his big band. By this time she had changed her name from Ruth Jones to Dinah Washington. She received her first national exposure while performing with Hampton’s band.
In 1946 Washington left Hampton’s band and began her own recording career. Washington’s first recordings were released by the independent Keynote label. She moved on to Apollo Records and then signed with Mercury Records, where she reigned for fifteen years as R&B royalty. She scored a string of Top 10 R&B hits, including “Baby Get Lost” (1949), “Trouble in Mind” (1952), “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” (1959) and “This Bitter Earth” (1960).
In 1960 Washington also sang two Number One R&B duets with Brook Benton, “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” and “A Rockin’ Good Way.” Both songs also reached the Top 10 on the pop charts. After eighteen years with Mercury, Washington signed with Roulette Records in 1961.
Washington’s career ended abruptly on December 14, 1963, when she died after mixing alcohol and weight-reduction pills.
Three of Washington’s songs—“Unforgettable,” “Teach Me Tonight” and “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes”—have been entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1993 the U.S. Postal Service honored Washington with a commemorative postage stamp.
Inductee: Ruth Jones a.k.a. Dinah Washington (born August 29, 1924, died December 14, 1963)