Welcome to Windy City Wednesday. This newest offering from American Blues Scene will share classic and sometimes forgotten blues albums from some of the most iconic Chicago blues men and women ever to grace wax. This edition focuses on the album Mellow Mama by the late, great Dinah Washington.
When Dinah Washington left Lionel Hampton’s Orchestra in 1945, she recorded 3 sessions yielding 12 songs for Apollo records. Dinah teamed up with Lucky Thompson who had just arrived in Los Angeles after a stint with the Basie band. Gene Porter, Charles Mingus and Lucky were playing in Happy Johnson’s band in Long Beach. Milt Jackson was passing through with Diz; Bird’s quintet. Lucky organized the sessions and the music is pure delight.
Mellow Mama, released on the Delmark imprint in 1992, is a collection of Dinah’s first solo recordings. She handled the vocals with Thompson on tenor sax, Porter on clarinet, baritone and alto sax, Karl George on trumpet, Jewel Grant on alto sax, Jackson on vibes, Mingus on bass, and Lee Young on drums.
Dinah Washington was born Ruth Lee Jones on August 29th, 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She moved to Chicago with her family as a child and by age 15, after having performed with the Sallie Martin Gospel Singers, won a talent contest and began performing in clubs. She had a gritty, salty, high-pitched voice that was at home in all kinds of music. Originally influenced by Bessie Smith, Dinah also credited Billie Holiday, who performed in the downstairs room at the Garrick Stage Bar in Chicago whilst Washington performed upstairs.
She got her first break with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in 1942 at the age of 18 and by the next year had made her first recordings for the Keynote label. After Keynote issued two 78s Dinah recorded 12 songs for the Apollo label in December of 1945. Apollo released five 78 rpm records in 1946 solidifying Dinah’s solo career.
When she returned to Chicago in ’47 she opened at the Ritz Lounge, located in the basement of the Ritz Hotel on Chicago’s south side for a salary of $250 a week. Within two weeks she was performing in front of packed crowds and on the weekends she had them lined up in the street. After a road trip Dinah returned but her salary was now $750 a week. Then in 1950 Dinah signed to the Mercury label and the rest is history. Dinah won a Grammy in 1959 for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance for the song “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes” which reached #4 on the US pop chart. That song, along with “Unforgettable” and “Teach Me Tonight,” has been inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame listed Dinah’s 1953 song “TV Is The Thing (This Year)” as one of the songs that shaped rock and roll.
Best known as a jazz vocalist Dinah performed and recorded in many styles including blues, R&B, gospel and pop music. She gave herself the title “Queen of The Blues” and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and The Blues Hall of Fame a decade later. Tragically she passed of an accidental prescription drug overdose on December 14th, 1963 at the age of 39.