Dinah was born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but was moved to Chicago by her family shortly after. As she was growing up in Chicago, she learned to play the piano and began directing her church choir. Later, she studied in Walter Dyett's renowned music program at DuSable High School. For a while, she split her time between performing in clubs as Dinah Washington while still singing and playing piano in Salle Martin's gospel choir as Ruth Lee Jones.
Dinah's penetrating voice, excellent timing, and crystal clear enunciation added her own distinctive style to every piece she undertook. While making extraordinary recordings in jazz, blues, R&B and light pop contexts, Dinah refused to record gospel music despite her obvious talent in singing it. She believed it wrong to mix the secular and spiritual, and once she had entered the non-religious music world professionally, she refused to include gospel in her repertoire. Dinah began performing in 1942 and soon joined Lionel Hampton's band. There is some dispute about the origin of her name. Some sources say the manager of the Garrick Stage Bar gave her the name Dinah Washington others say it was Hampton who selected it.
In 1943, Dinah began recording for Keynote Records and released "Evil Gal Blues", which became her first hit. By 1955, she had released numerous hit songs on the R&B charts, including "Baby, Get Lost", "Trouble in Mind", "You Don't Know What Love Is" , and a cover of "Cold, Cold Heart" by Hank Williams. In March of 1957, she married the tenor saxophonist, Eddie Chamblee, formerly on tour with Lionel Hampton, who led the band behind her.
In 1958 she made a well-received appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival. With "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" 1959, Washington won a much deserved Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Performance. The song was her biggest hit, reaching #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. The commercially driven album of the same name, with its heavily reliance on strings and wordless choruses, was slammed by jazz and blues critics as being far too commercial, not keeping with her blues roots. Despite this, the album was a huge success and Dinah continued to favor more commercial, pop-oriented songs rather than traditional blues and jazz songs. Along with a string of other hits, she followed this with "September In The Rain", which reached number 35 in the UK in November 1961 and #23 in the US. In 1960, she also had two top 10 hit duets with Brook Benton: "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" and "A Rockin' Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall In Love)". Dinah also dealt in torch songs. Her rendition of The Platters' "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" was well-regarded and received.
What set Dinah Washington apart from her contemporaries was her extraordinary diction and phrasing. To this day, we still haven’t found her musical equal, although many have tried to recreate the Dinah Washington experience. Her voice can still invoke a chill in many a modern listener.
During her marriage to football player Dick "Night Train" Lane, she died from an accidental overdose of diet pills and alcohol at the age of 39 in 1963, yet despite her early death Dinah managed to become one of the most influential vocalists of the twentieth century.