Celebrating Black History: Dinah Washington
This week, we’re talking about Dinah Washington, known as the Queen of the Blues. KVCR’s Shareen Awad shares more about Dinah’s Washington soulful career.
Dinah Washington was a singer and pianist, and has been cited as “the most popular black female recording artist of the '50s”. She performed in a wide variety of music styles, including jazz, R&B, pop, country, and blues. In fact, she was called the Queen of the Blues and embraced the title, even commenting to the Queen of England herself at the London Palladium that there is “but one queen”.
Dinah Washington was born Ruth Lee Jones in 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. When she was four years old, her family moved to Southside Chicago to escape Tuscaloosa's increasing KKK activity. In Chicago as a young girl, Dinah sang gospel and played piano for her church choir, learning from her mother who taught music in the neighborhood. By the age of 11, she was performing across the country at church recitals. A few years later, she won an amateur talent contest at Chicago's Regal Theatre, which she secretly entered as she wanted to hide from her mother the fact that was performing secular music. It was all great experience and exposure for her, as Dinah soon went from the church to the nightclub scene.
A friend took her to see Billie Holiday who was booked at the Garrick Stage Bar. Dinah eventually got hired to perform there, as the club owner was impressed by a performance of hers he’d seen. For a year, Dinah Washington performed upstairs at the Garrik, while Billie Holiday played downstairs. Many notable musicians witnessed her talent on that stage over the next year and jazz musician Lionel Hampton invited her to join the Lionel Hampton Band.
Some of their hits included “Evil Gal Blues" and "Salty Papa Blues”, and in each you can hear the influence of Billie Holiday.
Eventually, Dinah went solo in 1946. She had an incredibly successful career- over the next decade, she had 27 Top Ten hits on the R&B and Pop charts.
Among her greatest hits was “What a Difference a Day Makes", "Teach Me Tonight", and "Unforgettable”, and “Manhattan”.
Dinah Washington’s life was brief- she died at the young age of 39, but along the way, her talents left quite the impact.
In 1993, Dinah Washington was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2008, her birth city of Tuscaloosa renamed a street to "Dinah Washington Avenue". In 2013, Tuscaloosa opened the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center.
Music icon Quincy Jones paid tribute to Dinah Washington in his autobiography, writing: “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. Every single melody she sang she made hers. Once she put her soulful trademark on a song, she owned it and it was never the same.”