Dinah Washington: What a Difference the Blues Make

Dinah Washington: What a Difference the Blues Make

Written by Anne E. Johnson

St. Luke’s Baptist Church has served Chicago’s Black community on the South Side since 1918. One of its parishioners in the 1930s was a girl named Ruth Lee Jones, who loved to sing in the gospel choir. The Alabama native, born in 1924, would grow up to be the Grammy-winning blues and jazz artist Dinah Washington.

Having dropped out of high school to take a job in the Sallie Martin Gospel Singers, teen-aged Washington began gigging in Chicago’s jazz clubs. Fats Waller accompanied her at the Sherman Hotel. A big break came when she sat in with the voice-and-ukulele group The Cat and the Fiddle at a club called the Garrick; that led to a regular gig in the upstairs room, while Billie Holiday played the larger, first-floor club. When Lionel Hampton stopped by and heard Washington sing, her career swung into the big time.

She sang with Hampton’s band until transitioning to a solo career in 1946. Over a seven-year period, an astonishing 27 of her singles were top-ten hits on the R&B charts (a designation that at the time referred to blues records). The biggest of these was “Baby Get Lost.” Despite that mainstream success, she continued to perform at jazz festivals with greats like tenor sax player Ben Webster and trumpeter Clifford Brown.

Washington died in 1963 at the age of 39 from an accidental overdose of barbiturates and alcohol. Fortunately, she was prolific in the studio, so there are plenty of records to memorialize her great talent forever.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Dinah Washington.

  1. Track: “Pennies from Heaven”
    Album: After Hours with Miss D
    Label: EmArcy
    Year: 1954

One of many albums Washington made on Mercury Records’ jazz line, EmArcy, After Hours with Miss D features a track list of swinging American popular standards. Washington is joined by a 12-man jazz band that includes the likes of trumpeter Clark Terry, saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and drummer Ed Thigpen.

The song “Pennies from Heaven” was written by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke and premiered by Bing Crosby in the 1936 movie of the same name. Washington’s version has none of Der Bingle’s laissez-faire; her delivery is intense and focused, and the tempo spritely. The organ is played by Jackie Davis, with Candido Camero on congas.


  1. Track: “You Don’t Know What Love Is”
    Album: For Those in Love
    Label: EmArcy
    Year: 1955

One of many elements that make For Those in Love so great are its arrangements by the 21-year-old Quincy Jones. Most of the tracks on this interesting list of songs originated in movie soundtracks. This was almost true for “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” composed for an Abbott and Costello picture; it was cut from the film, yet still made its way into the standard jazz repertoire.

Washington’s dark, aching version of the song starts out as a duet with guitarist Barry Galbraith. When the horns come in (Paul Quinichette, Cecil Payne, and others), young Jones really shows his brilliance: the ensemble intensifies Washington’s voice, never overwhelming it.


  1. Track: “Say It Isn’t So”
    Album: In the Land of Hi-Fi
    Label: EmArcy
    Year: 1955

Hal Mooney, known for his work with Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and others, created the arrangements for this knock-out album of jazz and blues standards. Beyond the string-heavy studio orchestra, the sidemen include Cannonball Adderley on alto sax and Junior Mance at the piano.

There’s a breathtaking subtlety to Washington’s singing of this well-known lyric. It’s like listening to a great actor who knows how to develop a speech through layers of detail rather than become louder or more bombastic. This version demonstrates the truth that heartbreak can be a quiet thing.


  1. Track: “Ain’t Cha Glad”
    Album: Dinah Washington Sings Fats Waller
    Label: EmArcy
    Year: 1957

By 1957, Fats Waller and Dinah Washington had known each other for nearly 20 years. Although the archetypal pianist does not appear on this album, Washington captures his unique gusto and humor on this track list of songs Waller either wrote or was famous for playing. The record was produced by Bob Shad, who would go on to work in the rock realm with Big Brother and the Holding Company, among others.

The personnel list is lengthy, with each type of horn several stands deep. The trumpets alone number eight! It’s a huge sound, bigger than many big bands. Washington’s voice, which by this point was developing an intense, husky vibrato, has no trouble being the boss over all that brass.


  1. Track: “Backwater Blues”
    Album: Newport ’58
    Label: EmArcy
    Year: 1958

It’s always a joy to hear one world-class female musician interpret the work of another.

“Backwater Blues” was written by Bessie Smith. As the album title implies, the tracks were recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival, where another important female of the jazz world contributed the arrangements: Melba Liston, who started her career as a trombonist in the late 1930s and became a respected composer and arranger. The impressive trio supporting Washington is Wynton Kelly on piano, Max Roach on drums, and Paul West on bass. Washington leaves it all out on the field.


  1. Track: “This Bitter Earth”
    Album: Unforgettable
    Label: Mercury
    Year: 1961

Unforgettable is arguably more of a pop album than jazz, but since that genre was an essential part of Washington’s success, it’s worth including. Plus, she never left jazz far behind, which is what made her pop records so good.

That said, neither jazz nor pop enter into the first track. Composed by Clyde Otis, better known to history as one of the music industry’s first Black A&R men than as a songwriter, “This Bitter Earth” opens Side A with somber, meditative beauty. Against a string quartet arrangement, Washington sounds almost like she’s reciting poetry, or perhaps praying.


  1. Track: “Drinking Again”
    Album: Drinking Again
    Label: Roulette
    Year: 1962

If you like American popular standards, it’s hard to beat the song list on Drinking Again. Maybe that’s because wistful romanticism is the vibe that makes that genre glow brightest. From longing (“Baby Won’t You Please Come Home”) to mourning (“The Man That Got Away”), Washington covers every angle of love gone wrong with equal conviction. It’s not irrelevant here to mention that she married six times in her short life.

And then there’s some humor to lessen the sting. The title song is by Johnny Mercer with droll lyrics by Doris Tauber.


  1. Track: “It’s a Mean Old Man’s World”
    Album: Back to the Blues
    Label: Roulette
    Year: 1963

This album, not long before Washington died, shows her taking a greater part in her own arrangements. She is given co-composing credit on several of the songs here, including “It’s a Mean Old Man’s World.” Fred Norman arranged and conducted the orchestra, enhanced by a few jazz masters like Illinois Jacquet and her longtime sideman Eddie Chamblee, a singer and trombonist who was also briefly her husband. Producer Henry Glover deserves a nod for the rich sonics, shimmering with a slight reverb.

Washington is at the top of her game, selling that blues like it’s all she ever wanted to sing. Somehow hearing this makes her untimely death all the more tragic.

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