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Born Ruth Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in August 1924, Dinah Washington moved to Chicago’s South Side when she was three or four. Her mother played piano at St. Luke’s Baptist Church, passing along her keyboard prowess to her young offspring. Spirituals comprised much of her initial focus; she hooked up with gospel pioneer Sallie Martin in 1940, hitting the road for a time as her accompanist. Yet secular pursuits had long intrigued her. Before joining Martin, the young singer had copped first prize at a Regal Theater amateur contest.
Whether it was bandleader Lionel Hampton, booking agent Joe Glaser, or Garrick Stage Bar boss Joe Sherman who gave Ruth the memorable stage handle of Dinah Washington, there’s no disputing her steady rise to stardom. A featured billing the Garrick led Hampton to hire her to sing with his big band in 1943.
Jazz critic Leonard Feather caught her with the Hampton band that December at Harlem’s Apollo and convinced Keynote Records to sponsor her debut session, but recording opportunities proved scarce while she was in Hampton’s employ. Before year’s end, Washington bid Hampton adieu, recording three Los Angeles sessions for the Apollo label under her own name before signing with the then-fledgling Mercury. She cut her first date for Mercury in January 1946, and by the summer of ’48 her solo star was in rapid ascension.
At the same time, Washington was interacting with some serious jazz royalty. She recorded with trumpeters Clifford Brown and Clark Terry, drummer Max Roach, and saxophonists Lockjaw Davis and Cannonball Adderley in the mid-Fifties, utilized Quincy Jones’s budding talents as an arranger, and employed pianist Wynton Kelly, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and tenor saxophonist Eddie Chamblee in her combo for extended stretches. (Chamblee was also one of her many husbands.)
Finally, in 1959, Dinah Washington made the full-fledged leap to pop stardom, thanks to the lovely Belford Hendricks-arranged ballad "What a Diff’rence a Day Makes". Under a&r man Clyde Otis’s market-savvy direction, she mined more pop gold with the stately "Unforgettable" and "This Bitter Earth". It was Otis’s brainstorm to pair Washington with her deep-voiced label mate Brook Benton; their seemingly playful duet "Baby, You Got What It Takes" masked serious tension between the two, but the end result was a giant pop and r&b hit in 1960.
An unintentional but lethal combination of alcohol and pills forever stilled Dinah Washington’s magnificent voice in Detroit on December 14, 1963. She was only thirty-nine.
Excerpted from Dinah Washington’s Finest Hour