Singer Dinah Washington was born Ruth Lee Jones on August 29, 1924, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Known as the “Queen of Blues”, she was one of the best-known and most popular female rhythm & blues singers during the 1950’s.
Washington’s family moved to Chicago when she was young and she joined the church choir, playing piano for them when she was still in elementary school. By the time she was a teenager she was directing the choir and joined the Sallie martin Gospel Singers. Washington dropped out of school to sing full time and helped found the Gospel Singers Convention.
When she was 15, Washington won a talent contest and began singing in clubs. She impressed the owner of the Garrick Stage Bar and was hired to sing upstairs while Billie Holiday sang downstairs. It was here that Lionel Hampton heard Washington sing and invited her to perform with his band. Her first recording soon followed – “Evil Gal Blues.” That record and the next one, “Salty Papa Blues,” appeared on the Billboard Harlem Hit Parade in 1944.
Washington remained with the band until 1946, after which she signed with Mercury Records as a solo act. Her first song for Mercury, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was the first of several hits she’d have over the next few years. Between 1948 and 1955, she had 27 top-10 R&B hits, making her one of the most popular rhythm & blues singers of the day. Her songs “Am I Asking Too Much” and “Baby Get Lost” reached number one and “I Wanna Be Loved” reached number 22 on the US pop chart. In addition to R&B, Washington sang blues, jazz, standards, pop, and country songs. From jazz and blues to R&B and pop, Washington’s high, gritty vocals just seemed to find a place in all kinds of music.
Washington scored her first top ten pop hit with the Dorsey Brothers’ “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes.” She followed that with “Unforgettable” and “This Bitter Earth.” In 1960, she teamed up with Brook Benton to form one of the best duos of the era. Their single “Baby (You Got What It Takes)” was a smash hit in both the US and Europe, making Washington an international star as well. They also recorded “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love).”
Washington performed at the Cavalcade of Jazz concert twice, as well as Jazz festivals in Newport, Rhode Island, New York City, and Washington, DC. She also performed with Count Basie and Duke Ellington in 1963.
While resting at home between tours, Washington died suddenly of a heart seizure on December 14, 1963, at just 39 years old. During her career, she won one Grammy Award and later had three songs admitted to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Her song “TV is the Thing (This Year)” was considered a song that shaped Rock and Roll, and she was inducted into that Hall of Fame in 1993.