There are all kinds of stars: Small ones that twinkle bright and long, and bigger ones that explode in a supernova of unimaginable intensity. Dinah Washington belonged to the latter category. She lived big, shone bright, and left us all too soon. Grab a pair of shades as we explore the turbulent, explosive life of this mega-watt star.
Dinah Washington was born Ruth Lee Jones, in August 1924, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Though her father had a steady job that paid the bills, the family faced hard times. The Ku Klux Klan was gaining influence in the south, and the Jones family weren't going to sit around and wait for a tragedy to happen. Instead, they packed up their things and moved north to Chicago, where young Dinah's career began...
Our girl Dinah had talent to spare from day one—and people were quick to notice. Washington's mother and father realized that their daughter had a unique voice and sense of melody, so they made sure she received piano lessons. She also sang in the local church's gospel choir, which gained her a tidy fan base. By the time she was a teenager, Washington was already a local celebrity.
The woman we now know as Dinah Washington was originally named Ruth after her grandfather, Rufus. Like her grandpa, young Dinah was dark-skinned and plump, with tight, curly hair and big, expressive eyes. In other words, our girl was undeniably beautiful, so trust me when I said that men couldn't resist her—for better or for worse.
By the time Washington turned 15, she became a part of an all-women gospel quartet named the “Sallie Martin Singers.” The group gave Dinah her first real experience of life as a singer. She traveled with the group to Atlanta and New Jersey for performances—but even amid her busy schedule, young Dinah found time to make trouble.
She would simply leave performances if she saw a young man who caught her eye. Yeah, "impulsive romance" will be a big thing in Dinah's life.
Chasing boys and singing with the quartet weren't the only things that kept Washington busy. While at home, she'd sneak out to secretly sing at various nightclubs, using different stage names to hide her real identity at each show. Washington sang the blues and of course, belted out her favorite songs by her idol, Billie Holiday. But soon, these night-time concerts wouldn't be enough to satisfy Washington's need for fame.
Washington knew what she wanted, and it wasn’t something she could learn in high school. She decided that she didn’t need to get her diploma and declared that instead, she'd devote herself to becoming a famous singer. Much to her mother’s dismay, Washington left her education behind when she was just 15 years old. Now, it was make or break time.
Washington believed in living big and taking risks. As her abrupt exit from high school shows, she did not hesitate to shake things up in her professional life—and unfortunately, Washington flew by the seat of her pants when it came to her personal life too. When she was just 17, she met a man who seemed to “speak her language.” It wasn't long before the way-too-young couple tied the knot.
Washington thought she had it all figured out. Unfortunately, she was VERY wrong.
Washington was one young bride. She said "I do" when she was 17 and her new hubby was just 23. At first, her man John Young promised to help Washington find work and pursue her dreams. Welp, that didn't happen. Dinah soon realized that despite all his talk, her hubby actually wanted a wife who’d stay at home and wait on him. Washington was having none of that.
Despite her hubby's reluctance to see his young wife work, Washington refused to give up on her dream. She waited tables during the day and sang at restaurants at nights, often only getting paid in tips. This time in Washington's career definitely wasn't easy, but it still managed to be better than her marriage which, shocker, was not going well.
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In her heart, Washington knew that her marriage would not last. Once it was clear that her dreams clashed with Young’s idea of a good wife, she decided that it was time to call it quits on marriage number one. Just three months after getting hitched, Young left to join the army and the young couple's divorce came through soon after.
Free from her unhappy relationship, Washington focused her energy on becoming a “showgirl”—but no matter how much Washington honed in on her career, romantic drama followed her every step.
Washington's fortune finally turned when the controversial club owner, Joe Sherman gave her a chance to sing at his lounge. After getting “knocked over" by Washington's powerhouse voice, Sherman ponied up and gave her a much-needed $50/week to sing for his patrons. Oh, and Sherman also gave our girl something else..
At the time, Washington was still going by her birth name of twee little “Ruth Jones.” Sherman wisely suggested that this wasn't the kind of moniker that would suit a world-famous singer. He told his protégée to change her name to something the audience would remember, “something that rolls of people’s tongues like rich liquor.” With that, little ol' Ruth Jones became the one and only “Dinah Washington.”
Over the next few years, Washington worked hard to establish herself as a singer. She entered singing contests, worked in the theater, and sang at lounges and clubs. Eventually, she made it onto the Apollo's hallowed stage, where she made a connection that would change her career forever. An acclaimed jazz composer was so bowled over by Washington's voice that he reached out to her and set up a collaboration with the Lionel Hampton Band.
The resulting song became Washington's first big hit, “Evil Gal Blues." And soon, her behavior lived up to her ditty's title.
"Evil Gal Blues" was a prophetic song title for Dinah Washington's breakthrough hit. As her star ascended, Washington's behavior became more and more outrageous. She was known for staying up all night, drinking with the boys, and cursing with the best of them. As a sign of her new persona, Washington also got a makeover.
Gone was the gospel choirgirl. With her plunging necklines and short skirts, Washington was now a sultry seductress. And she had a brand new target on her radar...
While working with the Lionel Hampton Band, Washington met a drummer named George Jenkins. The two had an on-again, off-again casual relationship, which became steady when Jenkins joined the Hampton band in 1945. Evidently, however, having her boyfriend around didn't suit Washington. The next year, she decided to leave the band and go her own way. Well, until an unexpected twist changed her plans.
Washington was in for the shock of her life. In her early twenties, this career gal realized that she was pregnant. She told Jenkins, who behaved coolly initially, but then returned to (seemingly) claim the baby. It looked like he was turning over a new leaf, especially when Jenkins proposed to Dinah. Overjoyed, Washington accepted.
Little did she know, our girl was walking into an absolute gong show of a marriage.
Dinah got married to Hubby Number Two in June of 1946. At first, everything seemed great. After all, the wedding helped solve one of Washington’s biggest problems: Her son was now a legitimate child. However, her new marriage wasn't rosy for long. It soured less than a month after Washington and Jenkins said their vows. And the reason was more shocking than you’d think.
Very soon after she married him, Washington discovered that her new husband had a dark side. Jenkins had a very nasty temper. He yelled at his new wife and pushed her around for trivial mistakes while calling her cruel names at the same time. And unfortunately for poor Washington, that wasn’t even the worst part.
At just 22 years old, Dinah Washington was already on her second marriage—and hoo boy, it did not have a happy ending. Washington discovered that ever since proposing, her husband had been cheating on her with multiple women. And as if that wasn't bad enough, get this: when Jenkins wed Washington, he was ALREADY married to another woman. Yeah, after learning about that, Washington left her second husband in the dust where he belonged.
She’d never really decided to give up her singing career when she married Jenkins, but after leaving him, Washington knew that she had to return to the stage. After all, she had to earn enough to support her baby son. Shocker, George Jenkins wasn't exactly reliable when it came to child support, so the pressure was on Washington. Ready to earn, she kicked her singing career into the next level.
At this point, Washington was going from "the next big thing" to a bonafide superstar. She started singing blues and pop-tinged ballads with Apollo Records, then moved onto a more prominent label, Mercury Records, when she felt she had outgrown the folks at Apollo. In the 1950s, hit songs like "Unforgettable" and "Teach Me Tonight" took over the airwaves.
But as Washington's star rose, her personal life hit a brand new low.
Everyone needs a companion, and Washington was no different. She wanted to find someone she could connect with, away from the world glitz and glamor. Perhaps this was why she married Robert Grayson, who had been a childhood friend. Though, knowing Dinah, it might also have had something to do with Grayson's incredibly handsome looks. Either way, Washington would soon learn that she chose the wrong guy...
Here's a sign that you have too many husbands. Guess who ordained Washington's first marriage? The father of her third husband. Oh, Dinah.
After what must have been an awkward wedding ceremony, it didn't take long for Washington and her third hubby to go their separate ways. Even though they had a son together, the couple threw in the towel before they even reached their first wedding anniversary. The reason was simple and brutal: Washington learned that while she was out working, Grayson was busy seeing other women on the sly.
Washington was quite the party girl. In 1958, she followed up one of her sets with such an uproarious after-hours party that the authorities were eventually called to pull her and her friends out of the club. At the time of their arrest, it was five in the morning. Dinah went HARD, guys.
Success changed Washington. She became fond of a lavish lifestyle and wouldn’t think twice before booking a suite in the Apollo or buying expensive dresses and jewelry. And hey, why should she? The girl was raking in about $150,000 a year—a huge amount for the 1950s. However, not all of Washington's diva moves worked out for her...
When Dinah Washington sang, audiences were expected to pay attention. But if they didn't give her the reverence she deserved, Washington knew exactly what to do. While performing at lounges, the singer would grab glasses from nearby tables and throw them at any audience members who dared to speak when she was performing. Iconic.
Washington was one extravagant lady. She bought a nightclub, renamed it “Dinahland,” but abandoned it in less than a year. She also bought an eight-passenger airline, but sold it after a few flights because it was “too slow.” The singer loved fur coats and owned over half a dozen mink jackets, often handing them out to her back-up singers as little, incredibly expensive gifts.
Washington had always been sensitive about her weight. When a magazine called her "plump," she nearly lost her mind. So when a dressmaker gently suggested that the singer get the next size up...well, that didn't go over well. Dinah was allegedly so livid that she actually took out a revolver and used it to threaten the shopgirl.
Apparently, this wasn't Washington's only run-in with a rogue dressmaker. Another tailor got threatened by Dinah's pistol when she dared to ask the singer to pay her an old debt of $7000. In an amazing detail, Washington acted out the role of femme fatale in this interaction, whipping out a revolver from under her negligee.
Yeah, yeah, Washington was a diva. But she was always generous. Even though her mother disagreed with her man-eating, heavy-drinking lifestyle, Washington made sure to provide for her family back home. She constantly bought them gifts and even bought a home for her mother. When interviewed, her sister often reminds writers that Dinah wasn't just showy—she was kind too.
More justice for Dinah! True, she partied hard, but she also hustled. She was constantly performing and recording songs because, lest we forget, she had two young sons to provide for. And despite her success, life for Dinah wasn't always easy. She would leave her children with her mother or a friend when she had to go on tour, which was most of the time.
Washington struggled with the working woman's paradox: She worked hard to provide for her children, but because she was so busy working, she barely had any time to actually see them.
While touring England, specifically London, Washington created quite a commotion when she declared to the audience that “there’s one heaven, one earth, and one queen—and your Elizabeth is an imposter.” In another anecdote, Washington supposedly gave herself the nickname "The Queen of the Blues." Gotta love the lady for her attitude!
We know that Washington had been unlucky in her first three marriages. Unfortunately, that didn't change with her fourth, fifth, and her sixth trips down the aisle either. After Hubby No. 3, none of Washington's marriages made it to the one year mark. Or, to use Washington's own words, "I change husbands before they change me."
Dinah had a thing for a workplace romance, which went about as well as you'd think. Her fourth husband, Eddie Chamblee, was her bassist. They split after a year of marriage in truly bombastic fashion: Washington got mad at him and fired him (apparently from both her band and her bed) on stage in front of a full audience.
Here's a sign of how dang charming Dinah Washington was: Even after publicly humiliating Chamblee, she somehow managed to patch things up with him. During one of her many other marriages to a younger actor from the Dominican Republic, Washington reunited with her ex at a show. He led the band, she sang, and her new hubby was the guest star.
Washington married yet another (!) man named Rusty Maillard for a characteristically short period of time. After a few months, Maillard moved out of the couple's shared home, leading a newspaper to contact Washington for comment. Instead of sounding at all sad, she laughed and told the paper about her new boyfriend. I bow down to Dinah Washington.
One time, Washington famously lost her temper with one husband, whose name is lost to history and only known as a saxophonist. During a fight, Washington got so angry that she bashed his beloved saxophone against a brick wall. This husband didn’t stick around for long after that, which honestly makes sense. Cheers to you, Anonymous Saxophonist Husband.
You know you run through men when gossip magazines can't even keep track of them. All we know about Washington's next husband is that he was a cabdriver. Washington met him when she hailed a taxi to take her to a ship terminal and, apparently, she liked the look of the man behind the wheel. The pair quickly wed, only to divorce even faster.
Washington wasn't just a maneater. She was also a bit of a cougar. Her sixth husband was the good-looking actor Rafael Campos, who also happened to be a whopping twelve years younger than his new bride. The happy couple walked down the aisle in the beginning of 1961, only for (say it with me now) Washington to file divorce papers a year later.
Apart from her many marriages, Washington also had several affairs with men that she didn't accompany down the aisle. Most scholars agree that these boyfriends didn't have Washington's best interests at heart and were instead looking for a good time with a wealthy lady. While the relationships didn’t leave Washington heartbroken for long (if anyone could rebound, it was this girl), they certainly had an impact on her self-esteem.
Washington lived life in the fast lane. She was constantly on the go. People who knew her knew that she could be up the whole night “until 8 am and then record at 10 am.” She took sleeping pills to quiet her restless mind and get some sleep, and she was fond of drinking brandy when she wasn’t recording. But that wasn’t the worst part.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just sleeping issues that Washington battled. There was also the fact that Dinah was deeply unhappy with her appearance. The singer took huge amounts of diet pills and even used dangerous mercury injections, which she believed “drew water from the body.” While all these were prescription drugs at the time, looking back, we now know that they were anything but healthy.
Sleeping trouble and insecurity led Washington to yet another vice: Booze. Always a party girl, Washington's drinking slowly trespassed into dangerous territory. Over time, Washington became so dependent on alcohol that she would drink champagne during her recording sessions. So much so that she sometimes had to be led outside to save her from stumbling over.
Washington’s final husband was Dick “Night Train” Lane, a professional football player for the Detroit Lions. They had met when Lane was in his rookie NFL season. Cupid struck when he joined the Chicago Cardinals. After his divorce from his first wife, they started going out with one another and of course, because this is Dinah we're talking about, they got married soon after.
Friends claimed they had never seen Washington as happy as she seemed to be since her marriage to Lane. Perhaps the difference here was that he was as big a star as she was, just in a different field. Sadly, Washington's newfound happiness would not last for long. Just five months after they wed, Washington and Lane parted—and for once, a divorce wasn't at fault.
In December of 1963, Washington went to Detroit to spend Christmas with Lane and his kids. The couple had watched television together on the night of the 15th, and Lane dozed off for a few hours only to wake up and make a heartbreaking discovery. His beloved wife Dinah was lying unconscious on the floor. The Queen of the Blues had passed due to an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. She was just 39 years old.
Washington paved the way for many singers to follow. She was an inspiration for singers like Ray Charles, Little Esther Phillips, and most famously, for Aretha Franklin. Franklin even recorded a tribute album for Washington, covering her most famous songs in it. Among the newer singers, Amy Winehouse admitted that Washington was her “goddess” and that she had a major influence on her singing.
Want a crash course on Dinah's music? Just listen to these two songs. “What Diff’rence A Day Makes” won Dinah over to the white audience and helped her crossover from R&B listings to the pop charts. Oh, and she won a Grammy for it as well. No big deal. But my favorite is, and always will be, "This Bitter Earth." Just thinking about it gives me chills!
Washington became inducted in the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, as well as the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame after her passing. Three of her recordings also made it to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Her hometown, Tuscaloosa, renamed a section as the Dinah Washington Avenue, and renovated and renamed a building as the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center.
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