Dinah Washington was a popular singer from the 1950s who sang jazz, blues, R&B and pop. Her birth name was Ruth Lee Jones. She was born on August 29, 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and moved to Chicago at a very young age. Her first exposure to music stemmed from the church, where she learned to play the piano and sang gospel music. Her mother was a very religious person who was deeply involved in the church. By the time she was a teenager, she was already directing the church choir and became a member of the Gospel Singers Convention. At the age of 15, she won a talent competition at Regal Theater in Chicago, and by the early 1940s, she began performing at clubs in Chicago such as “Dave’s Rhumboogie” and “The Downbeat Room” at the Sherman Hotel.
Dinah was performing at a club called “The Three Deuces” when a friend of hers took her to the Garrick Stage Bar to watch Billie Holiday perform. Not only did she get to see her idol perform, the owner of the club was so impressed with Dinah’s skills that he hired her to sing for him. Dinah and Holiday would perform together at the same venue, with Dinah performing in the upstairs room and Holiday performing downstairs. It was during this time that she switched from her birth name to her stage name. She was soon signed with a label named “Keynote” and her first recording was called “Evil Gal Blues” followed by “Salty Papa Blues”. Both songs made it to the Billboard Hits charts.
The label Dinah Washington signed on with was shut down, so she moved to Mercury Records, where her first song was “Ain’t Misbehavin”. This was a huge hit and was followed by several others such as “Am I Asking Too Much”, “Baby Get Lost”, “I Wanna Be Loved” and “Cold, Cold Heart”. Several of her songs reached No. 1 on the R&B, pop and other contemporary charts. She sang blues, jazz, pop and covers. Her music was so popular that between 1948 and 1955, she had 27 top ten hits in the R&B charts alone. She also collaborated with several other artists such as Clifford Brown, Clark Terry, Cannonball Adderley and Ben Webster. Her first pop hit was a cover of the song “What a Diff’rence a Day Made”. She also sang duets with Brook Benton, two of which became big hits. One was “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” which reached No. 5 on the pop charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts. The second was “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love)” which reached No. 7 on the pop charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts.
Dinah Washington appeared in frequent gigs such as the Newport Jazz Festival from 1955–59, the Randalls Island Jazz Festival in New York City in 1959, and the International Jazz Festival in Washington D.C. in 1962. The downside of her fame and success, however, was her deep sense of insecurity and troubled personal life. She was married 7 times and would often spend tremendous amounts of money on shoes, furs and jewelry. She also battled with weight control problems and insomnia. Her sudden death in 1963 at the age of 39 was caused by an accidental overdose of prescription medicines mixed with alcohol. Her recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Parks, monuments and commemorative stamps have been issued to honor her short but remarkable career.