The best of Dinah Washington: Five essential albums by the Queen of the Blues
By Danny Marks2023/07/07
Dinah Washington was the self-proclaimed Queen of the Blues.
Born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Ala., her family soon moved to Chicago, a hub of the blues. Like many of the great singers, her early beginnings came in the church choir. After establishing herself in gospel music while still in her teens, she dropped out of school and embraced a new name and identity. Seeing Billie Holiday was a catalyst for taking on the name Dinah Washington. Her hit “Evil Gal Blues” established the personality she embraced. Dinah Washington’s life was the stuff of supermarket tabloids, while her eight marriages became fodder for the rumour mill.
Over the years, Washington’s range of music included gospel, blues, jazz and pop. These five albums are among the best showcases of that talent and diversity.
The Queen Sings (2002)
This compilation shows Dinah Washington’s first forays into recorded music via the blues and features her earliest hits, including “Evil Gal Blues,” originally released on 78 rpm in 1944, and the followup, “Salty Papa Blues.” As we will see, Dinah Washington’s recorded works are a wealth of music across genres and include participation with and tributes to many great names.
After Hours with Miss “D” (1954)
Here, the Lady fronts an all-star band as she embraces a sophisticated set of jazz standards. Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” resides alongside Gershwin classics and Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” By 1954, Washington had become a jazz star. It was a step up the ladder toward success in every sense of the word and acceptance by a broader, uptown audience. With her sophistication on full display, her star was on the rise.
What a Diff’rence a Day Makes! (1959)
In an era when jazz was crossing over into pop, we have Dinah Washington’s highest-charted song as the title track. All of her musical background comes into play with her interpretation of this thoughtful lyric about the passage of time, while a full orchestration cushions her vocal twang. Have a listen to “Cry Me a River,” a song often associated with both Joe Cocker and Julie London’s widely contrasting versions. Dinah Washington found her sweet spot as the new decade was about to celebrate the one-time Queen of the Blues and give her a Grammy for best R&B song.
Over the years, Washington recorded tribute albums to Fats Waller and Bessie Smith, and here we have her ode to Nat King Cole, an artist who broke through many barriers to be universally loved. Nat was a role model for the kind of success Dinah craved. Listen to her take on “Unforgettable” and the Dean Martin smash “Everybody Loves Somebody.” There are still blues and jazz tracks on this LP, but by the ’60s, Dinah Washingon was taking aim at a bigger and broader market.
The Two of Us (1960)
In her final stage of chart success, Dinah Washington was paired up with hitmaker Brook Benton, whose mellifluous baritone and country-soul style proved a perfect foil for Dinah’s jazzy twang as the two sparred with humour. “Baby, You’ve Got What it Takes” and “A Rockin’ Good Way” illustrate the chemistry they had on record. Sadly, this repartee was not as true in real life, as Dinah appeared to think little of her co-star, while Benton turned the other cheek. In the end, though, he dutifully served as a pallbearer for the Queen of the Blues upon her death in 1963. Dinah Washington made great music. May she rest in peace.