Dinah Washington (August 29, 1924 - December 14, 1963) was a highly acclaimed, influential, and versatile jazz/R&B singer and pianist with crystal-clear, emotive vocals marked with impeccable phrasing and diction who became famous beginning in the mid 1940s. In addition to the luscious "What A Diff'rence A Day Makes" (1959), which brought her stardom among mainstream pop audiences, her best known songs include the imploring "Am I Asking Too Much" (1948), the chiding "Baby Get Lost" (1949), and the haunting and elegiac "This Bitter Earth" (1960), as well as two playful duets with Brook Benton, "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" (1960) and "A Rockin' Good Way (To Mess Around And Fall In Love)" (1960).
Born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and raised in Chicago, she sang and played the piano for her church choir as a child. After winning a talent contest at age 15, she became a member of the Sallie Martin Gospel Singers and also began performing in local nightclubs. In 1942, she won an audition to sing with the house band at the Garrick where she became known as Dinah Washington. She was discovered soon after by famed jazz vibraphonist and bandleader, Lionel Hampton, and toured with him across the country through 1946. She made her first recordings in late 1943 for Keynote Records that included the Leonard Fisher-penned "Evil Gal Blues" which was backed by Hampton and musicians from his band. She then moved on to Apollo Records before signing with Mercury where she became among that label's top selling artists.
Dinah Washington made her debut in 1944 on the R&B charts with "Salty Papa Blues," a Top 10 hit followed by a very long string of other top hits through the early 1960s spanning not only jazz, R&B, and blues but also traditional pop and, on occasion, country. She topped the charts with "Am I Asking Too Much" (1948) and "Baby Get Lost" (1949), and other hits included "It's Too Soon To Know" (1948), "Long John Blues" (1949), "I Only Know" (1950), "It Isn't Fair" (1950), "I Wanna Be Loved" (1950), "I'll Never Be Free" (1950), "Cold, Cold Heart" (1951), "Wheel Of Fortune" (1952), "Trouble In Mind" (1952), "New Blowtop Blues" (1952), "TV Is The Thing (This Year)" (1953), "I Don't Hurt Anymore" (1954), and "Teach Me Tonight" (1954). In 1950, "I Wanna Be Loved" became her first hit to cross over to the Pop charts followed by "Teach Me Tonight" (1954), both of which made the Top 40 during their respective years.
Washington had her greatest Pop/Rock crossover success in 1959 with "What A Diff'rence A Day Makes," which earned her a Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance. This jazz/pop classic was followed soon after by her rendition of the Nat "King" Cole classic, "Unforgettable" (1959), another Pop/Rock crossover smash. Her star continued to rise in 1960 with the Brook Benton duets, "A Rockin' Good Way (To Mess Around And Fall In Love)" and "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)," which both topped the R&B charts and made the Pop/Rock Top 10. Other top hits during the early 1960s included "Love Walked In" (1960), "September In The Rain" (1961), and her final R&B chart topper, "This Bitter Earth" (1960). Other songs for which Washington is well known include her cover of the Noel Coward-penned "Mad About The Boy," which resurfaced years later in a 1992 TV commercial for Levi's jeans.
Dinah Washington's numerous honors and accolades included being inducted posthumously into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1986. "What A Diff'rence A Day Makes," "Teach Me Tonight," and "Unforgettable" were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (in 1998, 1999, and 2001, respectively), and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame included "TV Is The Thing (This Year)" in its list of songs that shaped rock and roll. Over the years, she has had a lasting impact on popular music and was a major influence on such artists as Ruth Brown, Etta James, Esther Phillips, Diane Schuur, and Nancy Wilson. Washington's life and career were tragically cut short at age 39 after an accidental overdose of prescription drugs for insomnia.
- NPR remembers jazz/R&B icon Dinah Washington.
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Dinah Washington And Brook Benton
- September In The Rain 1961
- This Bitter Earth 1960
(This song later also became a hit for the Satisfactions (1970).)
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