The more time I spend looking into the history of music and musicians, the more I realize the magnitude of my ignorance. I’ve always enjoyed music, but for most of my life it was pretty much just an aural experience for me, and I seldom delved too deeply into the backgrounds of the musicians themselves. In fact, it was common for me to not even know what artist was performing the music I was enjoying, never mind knowing much about their life story.
In recent years though, I’ve tried to spend more time learning about the background of the musicians and their music, and it’s been well worth my time. Not only do most of them have fascinating life stories, but I think it’s also enhanced my listening experience, since I’m now occasionally using my feeble brain along with my ears.
A good example is a singer that I do remember from the 1950’s and 1960’s, and I also recall her signature tune, but I didn’t know much about her at that time. It turns out that she not only had a fascinating (but tragically short) life, but her biggest hit song even has a story of its own — and at least two names, just like her.
Dinah Washington (born Ruth Lee Jones in 1924) had a relatively short career, dying in 1963 from an accidental drug overdose, but she managed to cram a lot of living into her time on Earth. Her musical career was one that encompassed in equal parts triumph and controversy. Many critics felt that she sold out by embracing a lot of different – and commercial – types of music, and others had a problem with her refusal to do gospel music. (Although she was deeply spiritual, she felt that gospel music had no place in the professional arena.)
In spite of the criticisms, nobody disputed her talent or the quality of her voice. It was clear as a bell, strong and distinctive, and her phrasing became the model for many later singers, including Nancy Wilson and Diane Schuur. She was fiercely independent, intelligent and proud, and boldly called herself the queen of the blues — or just the queen. Nobody disputed it.
Her personal life too was filled with turmoil, as she was married at least seven – possibly eight – times and had some high-profile affairs along the way, but her music was always outstanding. She began attracting attention as a songbird for the Lionel Hampton band during the war years, and moved on to working with a lot of good jazz groups, eventually building a solid solo career with hits such as “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)”, “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall In Love)”, and “September In the Rain”.
Her biggest hit started life as a Dorsey Brothers Latin tune, and its title translated as “What A Difference A Day Made”. You still see it titled that way sometimes, but it’s more commonly known as “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes”. Her version made its debut in 1959 and became her biggest crossover hit and the song she’s most remembered for — but modern listeners should give some of her other songs a chance too.