Ruth Jones, widely known as Dinah Washington, started out as a choir singer and leader. She had immense talent from the beginning, and began to realize this at age fifteen upon winning an amateur contest at Chicago’s Regal Theater.
She began performing in clubs alongside Fats Waller. One day a friend took her to hear Billie Holiday at the Garrick Stage Bar. The owner was so impressed with her singing of “I Understand”, backed by The Cats & The Fiddle, that he immediately hired her. Joe Sherman (hotel/club owner), Joe Glaser (a booker-manager), and Lionel Hampton have each been credited with suggesting the change from Ruth Jones to Dinah Washington.
[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.” – Quincy Jones in his bio ‘Q’
Washington was topping the R&B charts in 1948, and began topping the pop charts in 1959. She also recorded with many well known jazz musicians of the time.
Performing at the London Palladium, with Queen Elizabeth sitting in a box, Washington told the audience: “There is but one Heaven, one Hell, one queen, and your Elizabeth is an imposter.”
Well known for her sentimental love songs, Ruth had anything but a stable love life. Married eight times, divorced seven, and with many lovers in between; perhaps this was fuel for her impassioned voice. Washington spent her profits on an extravagant lifestyle in an effort to lift her spirits. She had been struggling with weight problems and began taking prescription medication for dieting and insomnia. It was in 1963 that she passed away from mixing alcohol and these medications.
She has been called ‘The Queen of the Blues‘, and deserves our recognition as jazz musician of the day.