Dinah Washington (1924-1963)
Born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on August 29, 1924, she moved to Chicago with her family in 1928 and began singing in her church choir with her mother as a young girl. By the time she was 15, young Ruth Jones had won a talent contest at Chicago’s Regal Theater and began performing with the Sallie Martin Gospel Singers.
Jones idolized Billie Holiday, though, and began sneaking off to sing at night clubs though just 17 years old. Her mother disapproved and Jones dropped out of school and married John Young two months before her 18th birthday. The marriage lasted just three months. Besides singing at Chicago nightclubs like Joe Louis’ Rhumboogie Cafe, Jones worked as a washroom attendant at the Garrick Lounge, where she also sang in the Downbeat Room.
Music manager Joe Glaser caught her singing at the Garrick and tipped off bandleader Lionel Hampton, who hired her and gave her the stage name of Dinah Washington. Her first recordings were made under the direction of songwriter and jazz critic Leonard Feather in 1943.
Washington met husband No. 2, Hampton drummer George Jenkins, in 1944. The couple had a son born in June 1946, a few months before they divorced and about the same time she left the Hampton band to pursue a solo career with the new label, Mercury Records, which promoted her as “Queen of the Blues.”
Between 1946 and 1961, Washington would record more than 400 songs for Mercury. She also married – and divorced – four more husbands in that same time span while adding a second son.
Washington broke out as a crossover star in 1959 when her recording of “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” broke into the Top Ten popular charts and won a Grammy as top rhythm and Blues record. The next year she scored two more pop hits, teaming up with Brook Benton for “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” and “A Rockin’ Good Day.”
But Washington’s pop sales slipped in the early 1960s and she jumped to Morris Levy’s Roulette label, which was totally immersed into the twist craze after establishing itself with such diversely popular artists as rockers Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen, folk singer Jimmie Rodgers and the novelty act, the Playmates.
Washington recorded nearly 100 sides in her three years with Roulette and kept busy with night club performances, even taking a stab at running her own club. In February 1961 she took over the Roberts Show Club on Chicago’s South Side and renamed it Dinahland. She underwrote the club’s operations for months before abandoning the project.
Washington enjoyed the trappings of her success. Some associates even called her a spendthrift.
She once bought an eight-passenger airplane but sold it at a loss after just three flights because it was too slow. On an extended tour of Europe she spent $100 a day on phone calls back home just to chat. She owned at least six mink coats and bought several more for her background singers.
After six weeks out west, singing for adoring audiences in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, she was finally settled in her Detroit home where she would spend her first Christmas with her husband of five months, Dick “Night Train” Lane. Around 3:45 a.m., Lane was awakened by the buzzing of the television set, which remained on long after the station they were watching had signed off. After seeing Washington lying on the floor, unconscious and unresponsive, he called for help, but at 4:50 a.m. Washington was pronounced dead. She was 39 years old.