Lost Ones — Dinah Washington

Whenever people think about all-time great jazz divas, the order typically goes: Billie, Ella, Sarah, Nina. Dinah Washington doesn’t necessarily get that first-name recognition, but she should. Because she was one bad bella.

Even if you’ve never heard of Dinah Washington, you might know one of her songs without realizing it– that Doubletree commercial that uses her song “Relax, Max” from her Swingin’ Miss D album is on the television all the time. Dinah Washington was among the sassiest of the great ladies of jazz. You can hear and see some of that spunky personality in this documentary clip, many of her best songs were as high spirited and tempestuous as she was off stage. Evil Gal Blues, Cold, Cold Heart, and It’s a Mean Old Man’s World, which was recorded just a year before her death, rank among her most feisty classics.

Her most famous song was probably What a Difference a Day Made (that’s an audio only version, enjoy).

She oozed sultry siren on Mad About The Boy, a song that reveals her complete range, from her crisp, clear, Eartha Kitt-esque diction to the kind of bold belting that inspired a young Aretha Franklin (and now Deborah Cox) to release a tribute album of Dinah Washington covers. Mad About the Boy is the kind of song on which careers are based. She makes you feel that song inside you when you hear it.

I love this live clip of her singing All of Me at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Man, that festival was one hot ticket back in the day.

Dinah’s in amazing voice, rockin’ awesome gold grape earrings, a short and sassy do (ala Sarah Vaughn), and wearing a dress that makes her look like a gift ready to be unwrapped. She looks happy in that clip, playing xylophone and singing. But although she smiled and sang so beautifully of true love, love and happiness continually eluded her.

She was married seven times and enjoyed a legion of lovers, including then-arranger (and then-hottie) Quincy Jones. In between marriages, Dinah filled her inner voids with extravagant purchases, buying cars and shoes and furs in the desperate pursuit of happiness.

The chronology of Dinah Washington’s life is reminiscent of Judy Garland’s, a grim and ceaseless downward spiral into the valley of the dolls. To keep up her performance schedule, she took pills. To keep her weight down, she took pills. To get to sleep at night, she took pills. Dinah Washington died of an accidental overdose in 1963. She was only 39 years old.

Her musical legacy lives on, and the city of Chicago has remembered her with the Dinah Washington Park.

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Comments

  1. Daphne says:

    wow this site is really wick’d. Keep up the superb work.

  2. Hey girl,

    Maybe it’s just a generational thing (or a New York thing) but I have to say, I have never heard anyone speak of the great jazz divas and leave Dinah Washington out. In fact, I happen to have a CD featuring the women that I typically hear being the standard bearers – Billie, Ella, (my fellow Newark, NJ born) Sarah and Dinah. Dinah Washington was also a huge influence on Nancy Wilson – listen to both and note how similar they sound. Nancy has said that she tailored herself after Dinah.

    Believe it or not, I happen to listen to Dinah everyday (yes, everyday!) I have a “Dinah” playlist on my iPod chile – I am not playing. :) Ironically, “What a Difference a Day Makes” is my least favorite of her songs. I wasn’t surprised to find out that it was recorded with white audiences in mind. However, I will say one thing for Dinah – she would always say, “I’m a singer. I can sing anything.” In other words, she didn’t care about black or white in music. The fervor, passion, rage, vulnerability and sweetness in her voice is far more apparent to me in in the rest of her songs. I love her singing with Fats Waller (The Fats Waller Songbook) and songs like “I Want To Be Loved” (“I want to be loved, with inspiration! I want to be loved! Starting tonight, Instead of merely holding conversation, hold me tight…”) “Make Me A Present Out of You” (“What good is a gal with a million? What good if the world calls you queen? If you don’t have a man to love you, you really don’t have a doggone thing”) “Easy Living” (“Living for you, is Easy Living, it’s easy to live, when you’re in love, I’m happy to do, whatever I do for you.”)

    Maybe the young’uns don’t know who she is (okay – they definitely don’t, hahaha…) but people like me that are 35 and up absolutely know and love us some Miss Dinah. :)

  3. DaNeophyte says:

    Afrobella this is why i love your site, i learn about so many forgotten bellas. Nichelle i never heard of Dinah Washington until now! I want to hear the songs you mentioned. Off to i tunes…

  4. Sue Le Vent says:

    I love her voice. It has a girlish quality that is a pleasure to listen to :)

  5. BlackHoney says:

    Hey Bella,
    You did it again. I absolutely love Dinah Washington.

    I’m telling you Bella, you have to write a book about all the little known Bellas. Young women whose reference point is Ciara and Beyonce really don’t how glamtastic we can be.

  6. berrybrowne says:

    my grandfather is ms. washington’s number 1 fan. it is always great to read your articles and i am continually impressed at how you crank all of this stuff out and it’s not even your job. keep up the great work, bella.

  7. I want to live in the Newport Jazz Festival and play the vibes.
    A bit suggestive the way they zeroed in on her sparkling jewels, eh?
    Someone’s out on the stage with Dinah.
    Cheers

  8. LBellatrix says:

    Jim Crow aside…can you imagine what it must have been like to come of age in the late 50s/early 60s? To this day my parents argue as to who introduced who to jazz. :) Mom (the Northerner) swears she introduced Dad (the Southerner) to it and Dad swears that Mom would have never hit the jazz clubs if it weren’t for him.

    Thanks once again for a lovely and inspiring post!

  9. I’ve been a Dinah fan since childhood. I know all of her songs and could play Dinah Trivia all night long. This was a great post bella! Also when i think of great jazz singers the first to come to mind is Dinah. I’m surprised more people don’t know about her.

  10. Thanks Bella for the Dinah W, write up.
    I was looking another AFro Diva to add to my tribute on http://www.myspace.com/1modestlady. Just little appreciation to the Afro Diva’s out there that use their voices as a gift to us.

  11. Dinah was a class act- one of the greats.For someone so young, it is really good to know that you appreciate good music, regardless of the era. I know that you also love the calypso classics, and reggae and …..
    You too are a class act. Take good care,
    DAD

  12. E-Fresh says:

    I know she was White, but when you talk about the all-time great jazz divas, you gotta throw in Anita O’ Day on the list : )

  13. E-Fresh says:

    I love your music posts.

  14. E-Fresh says:

    One last comment, the crowds seem so much better back in the day. Everyone is thoroughly enjoying themselves, dancing and actively listening to the music, having a good time. It’s just not the same today.

  15. I always thought Dinah was held just as high as the others? That is too bad. I actually favor her over Billie? I will checkout the video when I get home.

    I love your site!

  16. Thank you for this post. I once tried to read a biography about the life of Miss Washington but it was toooo dry. The author wrote more about music(notes etc.)than she did the life about Miss Washington.

  17. By the way, am I the only one who is shocked to see how FINE Q. Jones was back in his day.

  18. Blisse says:

    My parents were big Dinah Washington fans so I grew up listening to her and listening to the stories my mom would tell us about her. To say she was a colorful character is putting it mildly! I would love to find a book that accurately tells the story of her life. Thanks again for another fabulous “lost” Bella.

  19. Hi there, Germany here. Great Site this is, just posting only to inform you that we named our daughter Nina Simone and you mentioned her

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