Born Ruth Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, she had a background in gospel music; but she chose the blues route instead and was given a break by Lionel Hampton and acquired her new name, Dinah Washington, in Chicago. Before she was nineteen she was traveling with Hampton’s orchestra but discovered she would have to go on her own to make her career. Washington cut her first record when she was twenty-one and soon became known as the “Queen of the Jukebox.” Despite her popularity, she was concerned about her appearance, especially her weight; and she resorted to the diet pills that eventually exhausted her and led to her early death. She was also insecure, and her problems with men (seven marriages) were legendary. Content initially with her reputation as a blues singer, she realized that in order to gain white audiences, her future was in jazz, but the transition was difficult, in part because of the popularity of established jazz singers like Billie Holiday. By the time she hit her peak in 1960, (her duet with Brook Benton, “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,” won a Grammy Award, her pill problem worsened. She died just three years later.
Nadine Cohodas’s biography provides details about Washington’s personal life, her legal battles with club owners and police, and her participation in the civil rights movement. Washington’s engagements, her contracts, her squabbles with her mother, her penchant for fine clothes, and her generosity, all provide the context in which she operated.
Exhaustively researched, the book uses black newspapers and trade magazines, countless interviews, and books by critics and contemporaries to provide a definitive portrait of an extraordinary woman. Cohodas also provides an extensive discography of her records.