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, when she was 15, she entered a talent contest at the Regal Theater. 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 15 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 18 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. And in 1993, the U.S. Postal Service honored Washington with a commemorative postage stamp.