Born in Alabama, on August 29, 1924, and raised in Chicago, Ruth Lee Jones was 19 years old on the December day she walked into a New York City recording studio to record four songs with an All-Star sextet that included jazz icon Lionel Hampton and the fabulous Texan tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb. Prior to joining the band as a singer, she had won a talent competition, and it may have been Hampton that suggested she change her name to Dinah Washington; then again, it may have been Joe Glaser; he was Hampton, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday’s manager.
She recorded four songs on her first visit to the recording studio, including “Evil Gal Blues” and “Salty Papa Blues.” The latter became her second single, but the first to make the Harlem Hit Parade as the R&B chart was called in 1944. “Evil Gal Blues” followed it into the charts, and Dinah looked set for a successful career. In both these recordings, you can hear the influence of Billie Holiday, who Dinah had been taken to see at the Garrick Stage Lounge in Chicago.
Following these two recordings, Dinah was affected, like every other performer in America, by the recording ban enforced by the American Musician’s Union, and she spent her time fronting Hampton’s band on live dates. She went back to recording under her own name in 1946, but it wasn’t until March 1948 and a switch to Mercury Records that her version of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbevain” made the “race records chart,” as the R&B charts were then called in Billboard magazine.
Following this, the hits just kept on coming, and Dinah was to have the most successful recording career of any black female singer in the 1940s and 1950s. She topped the charts twice in the early 1950s and, throughout the decade, just about every record she released went Top 10. In 1960, she made No.1 on the R&B chart twice with duets with Brook Benton, including the fabulous, “A Rockin’ Good Way To Mess Around (And Fall In Love).”
Dinah Washington was just 39 when she died in 1963, following an overdose of prescription drugs. Despite being so young, she had been married eight times, the first time when she was just 16. Today, Dinah Washington is sadly overlooked but should not be; she sang the blues, jazz, torch songs, and just about every other kind of ballad with style and panache. Seek out “Teach Me Tonight” to hear why she really was the Fabulous Miss D.