Dinah Washington, the Queen of the Jukebox, was revolutionary in many ways. For one, despite her skin color, she consistently topped the charts during a time of great prejudice. She also used seemingly endless ability to craft hit songs to spread jazz to the masses.
She was born named Ruth Lee Jones in 1924. Though originally from Alabama, her family quickly moved to Chicago, which she always considered her true hometown. Washington grew up in the church, and began singing with her church choir from an early age. In her teens, she started showing potential for a singing career. She joined the touring group the Sallie Martin Gospel Singers and won a singing contest at the Regal Theater.
Soon after, in 1941, Washington began singing in clubs around the city. Eventually she was hired by Joe Sherman, owner of the Garrick Stage Bar, to sing in the upstairs part of the club while Billie Holiday held a residency in the main downstairs room. It was Sherman who also suggested the name change to Dinah Washington. In 1943, famed bandleader Lionel Hampton came to hear her, and he was so impressed that he offered her a position as his band vocalist.
That same year, she made her recording debut with “Evil Gal Blues,” recorded under the Keynote label. This song, as well as her next, were instant hits and made Billboard's "Harlem Hit Parade," a weekly chart for blues, R&B, and jazz songs.
After leaving Hampton’s band in 1946, Washington went solo and signed with Mercury Records. Her relationship with Mercury would lead to an unbelievable string of hits. It started with a cover of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” From then on, she’d have 27 hits on the Harlem Hit Parade chart, with one song, 1950’s “I Wanna Be Loved” crossing over to the mainstream pop charts.
In 1959, she’d have her biggest hit yet, "What a Diff'rence a Day Made." It reached number 4 on the Billboard pop chart, and earned her a Grammy. Throughout the early ‘60s, she’d continue to have a number of crossover hits.
Washington never toured much. She made annual appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival between 1955 and 1959, and was also a common resident at New York’s Birdland nightclub. Some of her last performances would be with Duke Ellington and Count Basie in 1963.
On December 14, 1963, at just 39 years old, Washington died suddenly, likely due to mixing medications. Battling weight issues and likely depression, she had a wild personal life throughout her career. She was married seven times, and often lived well beyond her means. Her presence in the media was always hotly debated, in no small part due to her race. Some found her to be a sell-out, either because she never branched out from pop or because she squandered her distinctive voice on what were deemed sappy love songs.
Either way, there’s no denying Washington put her own spin on the pop and R&B standards of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Her voice was at once deeply soulful and pointedly clipped, almost like what you would hear in a bebop tune. Either way, her voice was unlike that of any other pop starlet of the time. She used her experience growing up in the church and in Chicago jazz clubs to put a jazzy twist on all of her chart-topping hits.