“Dinah Washington was one of a kind,” says author Dan Morgenstern in his book Living with Jazz: A Reader. Stories of her flamboyance, her temper and her many marriages and affairs often obscure the fact that she was a consummate musician. In her biography Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington author Nadine Cohodas quotes trumpeter Clark Terry saying, “You don’t forget her--her tonality. She had pitch. Her intonation was fantastic. Her diction was impeccable.” Arranger Quincy Jones says, “She had a voice that was like the pipes of life. She could take the melody in her hand, hold it like an egg, crack it open, fry it, let it sizzle, reconstruct it, put the egg back in the box and back in the refrigerator, and you would’ve still understood every single syllable of every single word she sang.” “She was a natural--bottomless talent,” says arranger/producer Mitch Miller. “She was the boss in the studio. She told the band what to do.”
Born Ruth Lee Jones in Alabama on August 29, 1924, Dinah knew as child what she wanted from life. Although she began singing and playing piano in a gospel group, by 15 she had won a talent contest at Chicago’s Regal theater, and in December 1942, at the age of 18, she was singing with Lionel Hampton’s band where she remained for three years before going out on her own. She toured and recorded relentlessly, a pattern she maintained throughout her career, and earned the title of “Queen of the Blues” and “Juke Box Queen.” Although she began as a “race artist” singing the blues, she branched out into R&B and pop ballads and then began performing with jazz artists such as Dizzy Gillespie and Gene Ammons.
In 1954 her album After Hours with Miss D. was reviewed as a jazz album in Billboard Down Beat, and Metronome magazines and followed up by Dinah Jams which gave her solid footing in the jazz world as did her appearance with Max Roach at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Her hit singles defied categories, ranging from blues to pop ballads. “Between 1955 and 1962, no less than nineteen of her records made the charts,” says Morgenstern.
It is her recording of “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” that brought Dinah to new audiences. Stylistically the song didn’t fit any category. Says Cohodas, “It was a singular recipe: strings from the mainstream, a beat from rhythm and blues, leavened with Dinah’s soul.” Although the song appealed to listeners across the board, it won a Grammy in the rhythm and blues category as best recording of 1959.
Dinah had always been plump and self-conscious about her looks. As early as the late ‘40s she had tried crash diets which left her weak and nauseous. In the fifties she periodically took prescription medications to lose weight, leading to sleeping pills and uppers. It was a combination of prescription medications and alcohol that led to a heart attack on December 14, 1963, which caused her untimely death at the age of 39.