Dinah Washington - Biography

By J Poet


Dinah Washington was Grammy winning vocalist known for her warm, sexy vocals and innate musicianship. She sang gospel, blues, jazz and pop standards and made some of the best jazz and pop albums of the late 50s. Although she was one of the first African-American entertainers to crossover to the white pop market, her emotional instability and chaotic personal life led to many ups and downs in her career and he died early, only 39-years-old at the time of her accidental OD on brandy and diet pills.


Washington was born Ruth Jones Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but the family moved to Chicago when Washington was three. Her mother was a well known gospel singer and she was part of her mother’s act by the time she was 11, impressing people with the power of her vocals even at that early age. She won first prize at an amateur contest at Chicago’s Regal Theatre when she was 15 and married for the first time at 17. She sang in blues and jazz nightclubs while studying piano and voice with Sallie Martin, known as The Mother of Gospel Music for her work popularizing the songs of gospel great Thomas A. Dorsey. Washington became a vocalist and piano player with the Sallie Martin Singers in the late 30s and stayed with the popular group until 1943. She went back to singing in nightclubs and working part time to make ends meet.


While singing with Walter Fuller’s band she was spotted by Lionel Hampton who invited her to sit in with his band at Chicago’s Regal Theatre. After her first night with the band, he hired her as lead vocalist and suggested the stage name Dinah Washington. She stayed with Hampton for three years, but due to a musician’s union strike against the record companies, she only recorded one tune with the band. Her live gigs, however, became legendary. Washington only brought her out at the end of his show, because nobody could follow her. Hr gospel training had given her voice a power and clarity that was truly amazing.


While she was with Hampton’s band she cut several blues 78s for Keynote and Apollo, including “Blow Top Blues,” a 1947 hit on the blues charts. In 1946 she had a hit with one of her signature tunes, “Slick Chick on the Mellow Side,” for Verve, but she didn’t hit her stride until signing with the then new Mercury label in 1948. Her early 10” albums included blues and jazz tunes recorded with greats like Clifford Brown, Clark Terry, Max Roach, Lockjaw Davis, Cannonball Adderly, Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, and Eddie Chamblee. In 1949 she went #1 with “Baby Get Lost” and #4 with “Trouble in Mind.” Some of these early sides are collected on the 46 track, two CD set First Issue: The Dinah Washington Story (The Original Recordings) (1993 PolyGram). Her Apollo sides are collected on Dinah Washington, Mellow Mama: The 1945 Apollo Recordings (1992 Delmark).


Her jazz albums from this period include Dinah Jams (1954 Mercury) caught live in the studio after a recording session with the Clifford-Brown Max Roach Quintet, with trumpeters Clark Terry and Maynard Ferguson sitting in. After Hours with Miss D (1954 Mercury) another collection of standards given a jazzy touch, Jazz Sides (1954 Mercury), Dinah Washington: For Those in Love (1955 Mercury) arranged by the young Quincy Jones, which showed her moving in a more pop direction, In the Land of Hi-Fi (1956 EmArcy) standards that backed Washington’s bluesy phrasing with lush strings and a swinging rhythm section, Dinah! (1956 EmArcy), and The Swingin’ Miss D (1956 EmArcy) with more pop flavored arrangements by Quincy Jones.


Washington continued playing clubs, but was an erratic performer known to cuss out patrons who spoke while she was singing. She also married and divorced several times and released Newport (1958) (1958 Mercury) a live recording of her Newport Jazz Festival appearance. In 1959, she cut What a Difference a Day Makes! (Mercury), an album of standards with mainstream pop arrangements by Belford Hendricks. The title track was a top 10 hit and won a Best R&B Recording Grammy. The album was knocked by jazz purists, but it stands today as one of the best pop albums of the 50s. Washington’s mournful vocals infuse every track with soul and an almost overwhelming melancholy. The album made her a pop sensation.


She followed up with Two of Us (1960 Mercury, 1995 PolyGram) a duet album with pop/R&B crooner Brook Benton that included “Baby (You've Got What it Takes)” and “A Rockin’ Good Day,” both Top 10 pop hits. Her next blockbuster was Unforgettable (1962 Mercury, 1991 PolyGram) another collection of pop ballads colored by her anguished delivery. Washington left Mercury for Roulette in 1962 and made a series of fine pop albums, although the lacked the bite of her earlier stuff. They include In Love (1962 Roulette), Dinah '62 (1962 Roulette), and Dinah '63 (1963 Roulette). On Back to the Blues (1963 Roulette, 1997 Blue Note) she returned to her roots and made another stunning album that blended jazz charts, traditional blues tunes and her moaning, down home vocals.


In 1962 she opened a restaurant in Chicago and did some dates with Count Basie in Chicago and Duke Ellington in Detroit. In 1963 she went on a crash diet to be in shape for a series of upcoming gigs and accidentally overdosed. In 1993 the US Postal Service dedicated a stamp to Washington in its series of rhythm and blues artists.


PolyGram released The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury on seven boxed sets: The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury Vol. 1 (1946-49) 1987 PolyGram), The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury Vol. 2 (1950-52) (1987 PolyGram), The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury Vol. 3 (1952-54) (1988 PolyGram), The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury Vol. 4 (1954-56) (1988 PolyGram), The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury Vol. 5 (1956-59) (1991 PolyGram), The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury Vol. 6 (1958-60) (1991 PolyGram), The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury Vol. 7 (1962-65) (1997 PolyGram). For a less comprehensive compilation try The Essential Dinah Washington (1992 PolyGram).


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