Starting as a young girl who loved singing, Ruth Lee Jones evolved into Dinah Washington, a powerhouse of a woman who was a breakthrough blues and pop musician. Dinah had her troubles, as most talented people do, but her life was nothing short of a wonder. Let’s dive into her life, filled with talent, heartbreak, body image issues, and addiction, as well as her diva attitude and untimely overdose.
Darling Diva: Dinah Washington Facts & Dramatic Life StoryPublished 7 months ago
Dinah Washington was born in August 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. While her parents were steady and her father had a good job, things were still rocky when Washington was a child. While she was still young, her family moved to Chicago, to get away from the white supremacist hate group, the Ku Klux Klan's growing influence in the south.
But Chicago was a great choice for Washington, who was a stunner and had a fabulous gift—her voice. She got piano lessons and sang in the church choir, and by the time she was a teenager, there was already a small fan base growing around her.
When Washington was only 15, she joined the “Sallie Martin Singers”—an all-women gospel quartet. The young teen traveled with the group for performances, an experience that gave her a taste of what it was like to be a professional singer.
While the young singer was away from home and on her ‘own,’ she was also becoming quite promiscuous. She got lots of attention from boys and would often leave performances to embark on adventures with young fellows. When she returned home her rebellion continued, as she’d sneak out of the house to sing at nightclubs under a fake stage name.
As she was beginning to discover her love for performing and her freedom, Washington decided that high school was no longer where she needed to be. Rather than getting her diploma, Washington chose to focus her attention on becoming a professional singer.
Washington wasn’t afraid of making spontaneous decisions, and against her mother’s wishes, the 15-year-old completely gave up on any academic future. This clearly didn’t turn out too badly for the singer, as we’ll see soon enough, but it is a massive decision to make.
Another big, life-altering decision that young Dinah made was one involving her love life. When she was 17, she met a man named John Young who she said was able to “speak her language.” The couple got on really well and Young made several promises to Washington as they began their romance.
Young was 23 when he met Washington, who was not even 18 at the time. But the two wasted no time in becoming Mr and Mrs, as Washington again made a huge decision in a carefree manner. But when you’re young and in love, it’s easy to get carried away.
When they met, Young promised Washington that he could help her further her career, which was, of course, a big plus for the ambitious young singer. But once they were married, Washington realized that Young had promised more than he was able to deliver. He also hadn’t been completely truthful and seemed to want an at-home wife instead of a working one.
This did not sit well with Washington, who was a woman with a dream. So Dinah stuck to her goals and she took a job waiting tables during the day so that she could sing in clubs and restaurants at night. But at home, things were not going well, and after three months of marriage, Washington filed for her (first) divorce.
An early divorce did nothing to hold Washington back from what she wanted and after a while of making very little money singing, she got her big break from a controversial club owner, Joe Sherman. He offered Washington a spot singing at his club that came with a weekly wage of $50.
Sherman also told Washington that the name she was going by at the time - Ruth Jones - did not sound like the name of a star. This helped her find a name that would rather be “something that rolls off people's tongues like rich liquor.” This is how Ruth Jones became Dinah Washington.
After starting her job with Sherman and a dazzling name change, Washington worked hard to make her dreams a reality. This included entering singing contests, working in theater productions, and expanding her audience by singing at other lounges and clubs. She was also able to make some connections in the music industry.
One of these connections came about when Dinah appeared at the Apollo Theater. Dinah’s voice was noticed by an acclaimed jazz composer, who was deeply impressed. He approached her and set up a collaboration between Washington and the Lionel Hampton Band.
Washington’s first big hit was a song called “Evil Gal Blues.” This title turned out to fit her perfectly, as she became quite the ‘bad girl’ of her time. As she became more famous and found more success, Washington gained a reputation for having a not-so-ladylike behavior.
The singer would often be found out at night, drinking with the guys and swearing extensively. Dinah also went from a sweet gospel girl to a sexy and serious woman, wearing mature and revealing clothing and using her good looks to her advantage.
While Washington was working with the Lionel Hampton Band, she met another man who caught her eye. This man was drummer George Jenkins and the two fell into a casual on-again-off-again relationship. Then, in 1945, Jenkins joined the band as well and he and Washington began “going steady.”
But while working and making music with your boyfriend can be romantic and enjoyable, Dinah was an independent girl. Having her man with her at work and at home was clearly too much for Dinah and so the very next year she left the band to pursue her own path in music.
After leaving the Lionel Hampton Band, Dinah had a promising career, a boyfriend, and a free and fun life. But in a very short time, all of that seemed to change when Dinah found out that she was pregnant and carrying Jenkins’ child.
When she first told Jenkins that he was about to be a dad, his reaction was anything but admirable. He didn’t seem to be phased, and Dinah didn’t get much emotional support. But after a while, Jenkins came back to Dinah and proposed to her. It seemed that he now wanted to have his family together.
Dinah was elated at the proposal from Jenkins and immediately agreed to marry the drummer. And so in 1946, Washington walked down the aisle for the second time. This marriage solved a problem for Dinah because she could now give her son a legitimate family.
Now Dinah had a promising career, a beautiful baby boy, a successful husband, and she was well on her way to having her very own happily ever after. But unfortunately, Dinah never did have very good judgment in men, and the marriage started to sour very quickly.
After being married for only a month, the newlyweds began seeing holes in their relationship. Dinah was barely 22 years old, and a new mom, but she was also having to deal with the discovery of her husband's bad side.
Jenkins had a mean temper and could be very nasty to his new wife. He would call her names and even physically push her at times. If small mistakes were made in the home, Dinah was terribly mistreated by Jenkins. And to make matters worse, she also discovered that he had been cheating with multiple women.
Jenkins’ temper and physical abuse, along with the infidelity was more than enough to use as a reason to leave him. But there was yet another issue that Dinah had to deal with very early in her second marriage - she discovered that when she and Jenkins had tied the knot, he had already been married to someone else.
Dinah may have been young and learning how to be a mom, but she was no pushover and she had already proved to herself that she didn’t actually need a man in her life. After all that Jenkins had put her through, Dinah decided to file for divorce, a second time.
Although Dinah had a young son at home to look after, and she had gone through a lot of emotional turmoil, she still needed to support herself and her child. Jenkins was not a reliable source of child support income, and so Dinah was left to fend for her and the child.
This meant that she needed to make sure she could get back on stage and start earning money again with her voice. But Dinah knew she had a talent and that if she pushed hard enough, she’d be able to support her little family with her passions.
Young Dinah Washington was very quickly becoming a household name and a full-on superstar. The singer was releasing blues and pop-tinged ballad hits with Apollo Records and it was clear that this was the life she was born for. And it was only getting better from there.
But with all of this success came a feeling of superiority from Dinah. She soon felt like she had outgrown Apollo Records and went in search of a bigger label to represent her in her shining years. This led to the star signing up with Mercury Records and releasing songs like “Unforgettable” and “Teach Me Tonight.”
With rising success, Dinah again found herself seeking out a romantic partner to share her life with. But after two failed marriages with men who had been in similar industries as her, Dinah chose this time to find a man who was more distanced from the glitz and glamor of showbiz.
So she married her childhood friend, Robert Grayson who was grounded and good-looking. Interestingly, Grayson’s father had been the person who ordained Dinah’s first marriage so it must have been a bit of an awkward ceremony. But, would this third marriage be the one that lasted and stood the test of time?
Sadly for Dinah, even though she and Grayson had a son together while they were married, this marriage also lasted less than a year. Dinah had been out working hard for her family and singing her heart out to bring in enough money to support her kids.
But while she did this, Grayson was anything but a loyal and faithful husband. Instead, he spent his time away from his wife in the company of other women. This caused even more heartbreak for Dinah, being the second cheating husband that she had. A third divorce came quite soon after this discovery.
With three weddings and three divorces in her rearview mirror, Dinah went into her newfound single life with energy and purpose. She always loved to party, even from a young age when she had just started out in a gospel singing group. Being single for the third time seemed to only increase the vivaciousness that Dinah partied with because in 1958 she was arrested at a party.
She also really enjoyed spending lots of money, which truthfully was hers to spend anyway. Dinah’s yearly checks were averaging $150,000 which was a pretty penny for the ‘50s. She wouldn’t blink twice at the thought of buying extravagant dresses and booking into expensive hotel suites.
Along with her partying and shopping habits, Dinah was also becoming quite the diva. She was used to standing on stage and having all eyes on her - there was no denying the power of her voice. But if Dinah caught anyone not giving her the attention she believed she deserved, she was known to throw glasses at them from nearby tables.
You did not go to a Dinah Washington show to have a conversation or to get distracted. She also had a few incidents with shop assistants and dressmakers. One included a gun pointed at a dressmaker who suggested that Dinah needed one size bigger. And another was a tailor who dared ask Dinah to pay the money she owed.
Along with Dinah’s rich tastes and lavish lifestyle, she made very quick decisions when making larger purchases too. This was synonymous with her typical spontaneous personality. At one point she bought her own nightclub and named it “Dinahland.”
But this nightclub was abandoned less than a year after it was bought. There was also a very quick purchase of an eight-passenger airline that did only a few flights for Dinah before she sold it because it was “too slow.” At times she was generous with her fortune, though, like when she handed out mink coats to her backup singers.
Even though Dinah was definitely a diva who enjoyed the finer things in life, and worked hard to make sure she could have them, she wasn’t a completely cold person. Despite her “man-eating, heavy-drinking lifestyle” that made her mother very disappointed, Dinah was always willing to share her riches.
This was especially true when it came to her family, to who she would often send money. The family back home would also be spoiled with gifts, and at one point Dinah bought her mother a house. Dinah’s sister spoke in an interview once about how Dinah was just as kind as she was showy.
Dinah truly did have all the right to have a life as extravagant as she wanted. She worked hard for her money and did it all while being a single mom to two boys as well. With no support from her ex-husbands and the fathers of her two sons, it was up to her to raise them and provide for them financially.
There were many times that Dinah had to leave her sons with her mother or a family friend while she went off on tour. This meant quite a bit of time away from her children, which led to feelings of guilt in the mother. But it was all for her boys that she worked this hard.
Dinah was very confident in her own stardom and was not known as being modest. In fact, while she was touring England, she caused a bit of an uproar when she announced to the audience: “there’s one heaven, one earth, and one queen—and your Elizabeth is an imposter.”
The singer also didn’t wait around for anyone to acknowledge her accomplishments, and rather chose to take it upon herself to name her “The Queen of the Blues.” This may have come across as arrogance if it had been anyone else, but Dinah also oozed charm, which helped her.
After three failed marriages before she was 25, one might think that Dinah would avoid the altar after that. But she must have really enjoyed getting dressed up and having a wedding because she said vows to not one, not two, but three more men. Yes, that makes six in total.
None of these husbands were in Dinah’s life for longer than a year after saying “I do.” And the singer was not blind to her reputation when it came to her love life. In fact, she said it best in her own words when she declared: “I change husbands before they change me.”
Dinah had been very hurt by the men she chose to love, and this could leave any woman feeling a bit bitter. So it’s not really a surprise that she might become harder after her third husband, and it seemed she really did take less nonsense with her fourth husband.
His name was Eddie Chamblee and he was Dinah’s bassist in her band. So when their marriage fell apart, Dinah took their break up to a whole new level of humiliation. Rather than keep things private, Dinah broke up with Chamblee on stage in front of a large (and probably shocked) audience.
As we’ve mentioned, Dinah could be just as charming as she could be cruel or spoiled (aka diva-ish). This allowed her to generally get whatever she wanted from people, which apparently included ex-husbands who had been humiliated by her. This is shown best when we speak of Eddie Chamblee.
Even after Dinah broke up with Eddie in front of a room of strangers who had come to see him play his bass, it didn’t take too long for him to be friendly with Dinah again. Once Dinah had remarried again, she managed to convince Chamblee to lead the band for a show where Dinah’s new hubby was the guest star.
Another one of Dinah’s many husbands was Rusty Maillard, who was lucky number six. The two were together for a characteristically short time before cracks started showing in the relationship. And eventually, Rusty was told by Dinah to remove his belongings from her home.
A big celebrity by then, Dinah was contacted by a newspaper for comments on this split. But she barely spoke about Maillard during this interview, and rather spoke about Mickey Cohen, her “number one fan and admirer.”
One of Dinah’s husbands was a saxophonist - but no one remembers this man’s name, sadly. He, like the others, was not around for very long, but his departure was not as scandalous as some of the other men that Dinah had been with.
Rather, this husband left Dinah after she got so mad with him that she smashed his saxophone. It’s unclear what put her in such a mood, but it’s obvious she could flare up when provoked. After losing his instrument in this relationship, the Anonymous Saxophonist Husband left, understandably.
By the time Washington had reached her next wedding, she was basically a serial maneater, meeting men and falling for them fast and hard. Then heading down the aisle, saying “I do” and moving in together. But it would always end in divorce.
Another of these casualty husbands was a (also unnamed) cab driver that Dinah met when she jumped in his taxi on her way to a shipping terminal. Dinah Washington could find a husband anywhere. She seemingly liked the look of this driver, and the two wed and divorced just as quickly as Dinah did the rest of her husbands.
Washington married at a very early age (the first time) and since none of her marriages really lasted more than a year, she had gone through many of her husbands before she had turned 40. But by the time she reached her sixth hubby, she had developed a thing for the younger men.
Twelve years younger, to be exact. Dinah, 37, married Rafael Campos, who was only 25 at the time. This made the blues singer and pianist look like quite the cougar - but this marriage still couldn’t make it past the one-year mark.
Dinah had never been short on attention from the opposite sex. Her looks, voice, and fun nature ensured that she had at least one guy interested in her at all times. And there were a number of men who she did not marry, but still had some sort of relationship with.
Although Dinah was known as a maneater, she also came into contact with many men who were not after her heart, but rather her riches and stardom. These relationships never kept Dinah down for very long after they ended, but that’s not to say they didn’t leave an impact on her.
Besides her rocky and, at times, scandalous love life, Dinah was an unstoppable force. Especially when it came to her career, which is one place where no one could dent her confidence. Dinah enjoyed partying hard, but that never got in the way of her work.
She was known to be able to be out drinking all night, and then show up early in the morning to record her songs. Her mind was a busy place to be, and Dinah often needed sleeping pills to be able to rest, but none of her problems ever affected her singing.
Being in the spotlight all of the time meant that Dinah would come under scrutiny by the media, as famous people are often subjected to. She had once been called “plump” by a magazine and she often struggled with her body and her size, even when she was in great shape.
This led the singer to experiment with diet pills and mercury injections which were dangerous and not proven to help with weight anyway. Dinah battled for a long time with her weight, and her lifestyle was not always healthy because of this.
So Dinah was a party girl who was unhappy with her body, struggled to sleep, and battled in romantic relationships. This eventually morphed into very dangerous territory when it came to how much and how often the blues singer used alcohol as a distraction or coping mechanism.
In time, it became clear to those around her that Dinah had become dependent on alcohol. She would often need to drink champagne or brandy while she was recording her songs, and afterward she would need to be helped out of the recording booth because she’d be too intoxicated to walk properly.
After more husbands than we can count on one hand, Dinah finally met her final husband, Dick “Night Train” Lane. Dick was a professional football player for the Detroit Lions who was in his rookie NFL season when he met Dinah. He had already been married and divorced once.
In true Dinah Washinton fashion, this relationship moved fast and the couple was married after being together for just a short time. And even though Dinah was battling with alcohol and prescription pills, she was incredibly content with Lane.
Washington’s marriage to Lane was different from her other relationships in that there were no big scandals, no angry flare-ups, and no other women or men in the picture. Her closest friends and family said that she finally seemed like she was happy.
Sadly, even though this seemed to be her best marriage, and Lane appeared to be the husband that Dinah had been looking for all along, this marriage was also destined to last less than a year. In fact, it was only five months after the wedding that the couple were forced to part - but they did not divorce.
In December 1963, 39-year-old Washington was planning a big family Christmas with her new husband and his children. But sadly, she would never make it to celebrate Christmas that year, because, on the night of 14ht December, Dinah was found unconscious on the floor.
The singer had taken a lethal dose of sleeping pills mixed with other tablets, and it’s possible that alcohol was also involved. Her death was ruled an accidental overdose, and her husband, Lane, claimed that he believed Washington had simply forgotten how many pills she had taken.
Dinah Washington’s life story is nothing short of inspiring. From humble beginnings to becoming a world-famous blues singer and pianist, Washington used her talent and determination to become a superstar. And she paved the way for artists who came after her.
Some singers who followed in Washington’s famous footsteps were Ray Charles, Little Esther Phillips, and Aretha Franklin who recorded a tribute album for Washington. Another famous artist who looked up to Dinah was Amy Winehouse, who said Washington was a major influence in her singing.
Dinah had many famous songs that audiences loved, but the song “What Diff’rence A Day Makes” was one of the most significant songs as it’s the one that helped her cross over from R&B listings to the pop charts. It’s also the song that helped Dinah win over the white audiences of the 50s.
“What Diff’rence A Day Makes” was also the song that Dinah won a Grammy for. So if you’re looking to discover the sounds of Dinah Washington, it’s a good song to start with. Another is “This Bitter Earth.” And then you may as well just listen to the rest of her hits like "Teach Me Tonight" and "Unforgettable."
Washington was inducted posthumously into two Halls of Fame. In 1986 she appeared in the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and in 1993, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her recordings were also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and three of her songs were given awards.
Then in 2008, her home city Tuscaloosa honored the singer with her very own piece of road - a section that they renamed "Dinah Washington Avenue." And then in 2013, the town opened the newly renovated (and renamed) Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center. We think Dinah would be happy with the attention.