Dinah Washington (born Ruth Lee Jones; August 29, 1924 – December 14, 1963) was an American singer and pianist, who has been cited as “the most popular black female recording artist of the ’50s” Primarily a jazz vocalist, she performed and recorded in a wide variety of styles including blues, R&B, and traditional pop music, and gave herself the title of “Queen of the Blues”.] She was a 1986 inductee of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
Washington was well known for singing torch songs. In 1962, Dinah hired a male backing trio called the Allegros, consisting of Jimmy Thomas on drums, Earl Edwards on sax, and Jimmy Sigler on organ. Edwards was replaced on sax by John Payne. A Variety writer praised their vocals as “effective choruses”.
Washington’s achievements included appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival (1955–59), the Randalls Island Jazz Festival in New York City (1959), and the International Jazz Festival in Washington D.C. (1962), frequent gigs at Birdland (1958, 1961–62), and performances in 1963 with Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
One of the more notorious albums in the history of vocal music, What a Diff’rence a Day Makes! is the lush session that bumped up Dinah Washington from the “Queen of the Blues” to a middle-of-the-road vocal wondress — and subsequently disenfranchised quite a few jazz purists. Washington had been praised in the same breath as Holiday and Fitzgerald for more than a decade, but Mercury nevertheless decided to back her with mainstream arrangements (by Belford Hendricks), heavy strings, and wordless vocal choruses similar to the radio hits of the day. Apparently, the mainstream backings didn’t faze Washington at all; she proves herself with a voice as individual and evocative as ever. To be honest, the arrangements are quite solid for what they’re worth; though it’s a bit jarring to hear Washington’s voice wrapped in sweet strings, the effect works well more frequently than not. Most of the songs here are familiar standards (“I Remember You,” “I Thought About You,” “Cry Me a River,” “Manhattan,” “Time After Time”), but they’ve been transformed by Washington as though they’d never been sung before. The Top Ten title track is by no means the best song on the album, but its title proved prophetic for Washington’s career. Though her vocal style hadn’t changed at all, one day she was a respected blues singer; the next, according to most of the jazz cognoscenti, she had become a lowbrow pop singer. Thankfully, the evidence against Washington’s “transformation” is provided right here.
Video: Dinah Washington: What a Diff’rence a Day Makes 1959