Was was born in Detroit, Michigan. He graduated from Oak Park High School in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park, then attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor but dropped out after the first year. A journeyman musician, he grew up listening to the Detroit blues sound and the jazz music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
Using the stage name Don Was, he formed the group Was (Not Was) with school friend David Weiss (David Was). The group found commercial success in the 1980s—releasing four albums and logging several hit records. A jazz/R&B album of Hank Williams covers, Forever's A Long, Long Time was released in 1997, under the name Orquestra Was. In 2008, Was (Not Was) reunited for an acclaimed new album and tour.
Don Was has earned his recognition as a record producer and has recorded with an array of artists from The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, John Mayer, Ziggy Marley, Bob Seger, Al Green, Lucinda Williams, Garth Brooks, Ringo Starr, Iggy Pop, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Cocker, Hootie and The Blowfish, Amos Lee and Willie Nelson to Elton John, Stevie Nicks, George Clinton, Randy Newman, The Black Crowes, Carly Simon, Travis Tritt, Brian Wilson, Jackson Browne, The Barenaked Ladies, Old Crow Medicine Show, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Richie Sambora, The Presidents of the United States of America, B.B. King, Paul Westerberg, Kurt Elling, Poison, Cheb Khaled, The B-52's, Zucchero, Todd Snider, Elizabeth Cook, Jill Sobule and Solomon Burke. He has received multiple Grammy Awards including Producer of the Year in 1995. He produced several albums for Bonnie Raitt including her Nick of Time album that won the 1990 Grammy Award for Album of the Year.