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About Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan

Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1924, Sarah Vaughan was immediately surrounded by music: her carpenter father was an amateur guitarist and her laundress mother was a church vocalist. Young Sarah studied piano from the age of seven, and before entering her teens had become an organist and choir soloist at the Mount Zion Baptist Church. When she was eighteen, friends dared her to enter the famed Wednesday Night Amateur Contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She gave a sizzling rendition of "Body and Soul," and won first prize. In the audience that night was the singer Billy Eckstine. Six months later, she had joined Eckstine in Earl Hines’s big band along with jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

When Eckstine formed his own band, soon after, Sarah Vaughan went with him. Others including Miles Davis and Art Blakey, were eventually to join the band as well. Within a year, however, Vaughan wanted to give a solo career a try. By late 1947, she had topped the charts with "Tenderly," and as the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, Vaughan expanded her jazz repertoire to include pop music. As a result, she enlarged her audience, gained increased attention for her formidable talent, and compiled additional hits, including the Broadway show tunes "Whatever Lola Wants" and "Mr. Wonderful."  In the late 1960s, Vaughan returned to jazz music, performing and making regular recordings. Throughout the 1970s and '80s she recorded with such jazz notables as Oscar Peterson, Louie Bellson, Zoot Sims, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Don Cherry, and J.J. Johnson. Her recordings of the "Duke Ellington Song Book (1 and 2)" are considered some of the finest recordings of the time. While for many years her signature song had been "Misty," by the mid-1970’s, she was closing every show with Sondheim’s "Bring In The Clowns."

In December 1974, Vaughan played a private concert for the United States President Gerald Ford and French president Giscard d'Estaing during their summit on Martinique.  Also in 1974, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas asked Vaughan to participate in an all-Gershwin show he was planning for a guest appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. The arrangements were by Marty Paich and the orchestra would be augmented by established jazz artists Dave Grusin on piano, Ray Brown on double bass, drummer Shelly Manne and saxophonists Bill Perkins and Pete Christlieb. The concert was a success and Thomas and Vaughan repeated the performance with Thomas' home orchestra in Buffalo, New York, followed by appearances in 1975 and 1976 with symphony orchestras around the country. These performances fulfilled a long-held interest by Vaughan in working with symphonies and she was featured in orchestra performances for the remainder of the decade with Thomas and other conductors.

In 1982, while in her late fifties, Vaughan won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocalist for her album, "Gershwin Live"!   While she continued to work without the massive commercial success enjoyed by colleagues such as Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, and Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan consistently retained a special place in the hearts of fellow musicians and audiences alike.

She continually performed at top venues, playing to adoring sell-out crowds well into her sixties. Remarkably, unlike many singers, she lost none of her extraordinary talent as time went on. Her multi-octave range, with its swooping highs and sensual lows, and the youthful suppleness of her voice shaded by a luscious timbre and executed with fierce control, all remained intact. In 1990, at the age sixty-six, Sarah Vaughan passed away. Shortly after her death, Mel Torme summed up the feelings of all who had seen her, saying "She had the single best vocal instrument of any singer working in the popular field."

Jazz critic Leonard Feather called her "the most important singer to emerge from the bop era." Ella Fitzgerald called her the world’s "greatest singing talent." During the course of a career that spanned nearly fifty years, she was the singer’s singer, influencing everyone from Mel Torme to Anita Baker. She was among the musical elite identified by their first names. She was Sarah, Sassy -- the divine one, the incomparable Sarah Vaughan.

Early life

Sarah Vaughan's father, Asbury "Jake" Vaughan, was a carpenter and amateur guitarist. Her mother, Ada, was a laundress. Jake and Ada Vaughan migrated to Newark from Virginia during the First World War. Sarah was their only natural child, although in the 1960s they adopted Donna, the child of a woman who traveled on the road with Sarah Vaughan.  The Vaughans lived in a house on Newark's Brunswick Street for Sarah's entire childhood. Jake Vaughan was deeply religious and the family was very active in the New Mount Zion Baptist Church on 186 Thomas Street. Sarah began piano lessons at the age of seven, sang in the church choir and occasionally played piano for rehearsals and services.

Vaughan developed an early love for popular music on records and the radio. In the 1930s, Newark had a very active live music scene and Vaughan frequently saw local and touring bands that played in the city at venues like the Montgomery Street Skating Rink, Adams Theatre and Proctor's Theatre. By her mid-teens, Vaughan began venturing (illegally) into Newark's night clubs and performing as a pianist and, occasionally, singer, most notably at the Piccadilly Club and the Newark Airport USO.

Vaughan initially attended Newark's East Side High School, later transferring to Arts High School, which had opened in 1931 as the United States first arts "magnet" high school. However, her nocturnal adventures as a performer began to overwhelm her academic pursuits and Vaughan dropped out of high school during her junior year to concentrate more fully on music. Around this time, Vaughan and her friends also began venturing across the Hudson River into New York City to hear big bands at Harlem's Ballroom and the Apollo Theatre.

Biographies of Vaughan frequently state that she was immediately thrust into stardom after winning the Amateur Night Contest at Harlem's Apollo Theatre. In fact, the story that biographer Leslie Gourse relates seems to be a bit more complex. Vaughan was frequently accompanied by a friend, Doris Robinson, on her trips into New York City. Sometime in the fall of 1942 (when Sarah was 18 years old), Vaughan suggested that Robinson enter the Apollo Amateur Night Contest. Vaughan played piano accompaniment for Robinson, who won second prize. Vaughan later decided to go back and compete herself as a singer. Vaughan sang "Body and Soul" and won; although the exact date of her victorious Apollo performance is uncertain. The prize, as Vaughan recalled later to Marian McPartland, was $10 and the promise of a week's engagement at the Apollo. After a considerable delay, Vaughan was contacted by the Apollo in the spring of 1943 to open for Ella Fitzgerald.

Sometime during her week of performances at the Apollo, Vaughan was introduced to bandleader and pianist Earl Hines, although the exact details of that introduction are disputed. Singer Billy Eckstine, who was with Hines at the time, has been credited by Vaughan and others with hearing her at the Apollo and recommending her to Hines. Hines also claimed to have discovered her himself and offered her a job on the spot. Regardless, after a brief tryout at the Apollo, Hines officially replaced his existing female singer with Vaughan on April 4, 1943.

With Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine: 1943 – 1944

Vaughan spent the remainder of 1943 and part of 1944 touring the country with the Earl Hines big band that also featured baritone Billy Eckstine. Vaughan was hired as a pianist, reputedly so Hines could hire her under the jurisdiction of the musicians' union (American Federation of Musicians) rather than the singers union (American Guild of Variety Artists), but after Cliff Smalls joined the band as a trombonist and pianist, Sarah's duties became limited exclusively to singing.

This Earl Hines band is best remembered today as an incubator of bebop, as it included trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker (playing tenor saxophone rather than the alto saxophone that he would become famous with later) and trombonist Benny Green. Gillespie also arranged for the band, although a recording ban by the musicians union prevented the band from recording and preserving its sound and style for posterity.

Eckstine left the Hines band in late 1943 and formed his own big band with Gillespie leaving Hines to become the musical director of the new band.  Parker came along too, and the Eckstine band over the next few years would host a startling cast of jazz talent: Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Art Blakey, Lucky Thompson, Gene Ammons, and Dexter Gordon, among others.

Vaughan accepted Eckstine's invitation to join his new band in 1944, giving her an opportunity to develop her musicianship with the seminal figures in this era of jazz. Eckstine's band also afforded her first recording opportunity, a December 5, 1944 date that yielded the song "I'll Wait and Pray" for the Deluxe label. That date led to critic and producer Leonard Feather to ask her to cut four sides under her own name later that month for the Continental label, backed by a septet that included Dizzy Gillespie and Georgie Auld.

Band pianist John Malachi is credited with giving Vaughan the moniker "Sassy", a nickname that matched her personality. Vaughan liked it and the name (and its shortened variant "Sass") stuck with colleagues and, eventually, the press. In written communications, Vaughan often spelled it "Sassie".  Vaughan officially left the Eckstine band in late 1944 to pursue a solo career, although she remained very close to Eckstine personally and recorded with him frequently throughout her life.

Early solo career: 1945 – 1948

Vaughan began her solo career in 1945 by freelancing in clubs on New York's 52nd Street like the Three Deuces, the Famous Door, the Downbeat and the Onyx Club. Vaughan also hung around the Braddock Grill, next door to the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. On May 11, 1945, Vaughan recorded "Lover Man" for the Guild label with a quintet featuring Gillespie and Parker with Al Haig on piano, Curly Russell on double bass and Sid Catlett on drums. Later that month she went into the studio with a slightly different and larger Gillespie/Parker aggregation and recorded three more sides.

After being invited by violinist Stuff Smith to record the song "Time and Again" in October, Vaughan was offered a contract to record for the Musicraft label by owner Albert Marx, although she would not begin recording as a leader for Musicraft until May 7, 1946. In the intervening time, Vaughan made a handful of recordings for the Crown and Gotham labels and began performing regularly at Cafe Society Downtown, an integrated club in New York's Sheridan Square.

While at Cafe Society, Vaughan became friends with trumpeter George Treadwell. Treadwell became Vaughan's manager and she ultimately delegated to him most of the musical director responsibilities for her recording sessions, leaving her free to focus almost entirely on singing. Over the next few years, Treadwell also made significant positive changes in Vaughan's stage appearance. Aside from an improved wardrobe and hair style, Vaughan had her teeth capped eliminating a noticeable gap between her two front teeth.

Many of Vaughan's 1946 Musicraft recordings became quite well-known among jazz aficionados and critics, including "If You Could See Me Now" (written and arranged by Tadd Dameron), "Don't Blame Me", "I've Got a Crush on You", "Everything I Have is Yours" and "Body and Soul." With Vaughan and Treadwell's professional relationship on solid footing, the couple married on September 16, 1946.

Vaughan's recording success for Musicraft continued through 1947 and 1948. Her recording of "Tenderly" became an unexpected pop hit in late 1947. Her December 27, 1947 recording of "It's Magic" (from the Doris Day film Romance on the High Seas) found chart success in early 1948. Her recording of "Nature Boy" from April 8, 1948 became a hit around the same time as the release of the famous Nat King Cole recording of the same song. Because of yet another recording ban by the musicians union, "Nature Boy" was recorded with an A Capella choir as the only accompaniment, adding an ethereal air to a song with a vaguely mystical lyric and melody.

Stardom and the Columbia years: 1948 – 1953

The musicians union ban pushed Musicraft to the brink of bankruptcy and Vaughan used the missed royalty payments as an opportunity to sign with the larger Columbia record label. Following the settling of the legal issues, her chart successes continued with the charting of "Black Coffee" in the Summer of 1949. During her tenure at Columbia through 1953, Vaughan was steered almost exclusively to commercial pop ballads, a number of which had chart success: "That Lucky Old Sun", "Make Believe (You Are Glad When You're Sorry)", "I'm Crazy to Love You", "Our Very Own", "I Love the Guy", "Thinking of You" (with pianist Bud Powell), "I Cried for You", "These Things I Offer You", "Vanity", "I Ran All the Way Home", "Saint or Sinner", "My Tormented Heart", and "Time", among others.

Vaughan also achieved substantial critical acclaim. She won Esquire magazine's New Star Award for 1947 as well as awards from Down Beat magazine continuously from 1947 through 1952, and from Metronome magazine from 1948 through 1953. A handful of critics disliked her singing as being "over-stylized," reflecting the heated controversies of the time over the new musical trends of the late 40's. However, the critical reception to the young singer was generally positive.

Recording and critical success led to numerous performing opportunities, packing clubs around the country almost continuously throughout the years of the late 1940s and early 1950s. In the Summer of 1949, Vaughan made her first appearance with a symphony orchestra in a benefit for the Philadelphia Orchestra entitled "100 Men and a Girl." Around this time, Chicago disk jockey Dave Garroway coined a second nickname for her, "The Divine One", that would follow her throughout her career. In 1951, she made her first tour of Europe. With improving finances, in 1949 Vaughan and Treadwell purchased a three-story house at 21 Avon Avenue in Newark, occupying the top floor during their increasingly rare off-hours at home and relocating Vaughan's parents to the lower two floors. However, the business pressures and personality conflicts lead to a cooling in the personal relationship between Treadwell and Vaughan. Treadwell hired a road manager to handle Vaughan's touring needs and opened a management office in Manhattan so he could work with clients in addition to Vaughan.

Vaughan's relationship with Columbia Records also soured as she became dissatisfied with the commercial material she was required to record and lackluster financial success of her records. A set of small group sides recorded in 1950 with Miles Davis and Benny Green are among the best of her career, but they were atypical of her Columbia output.

The Mercury years: 1954 – 1958

In 1953, Treadwell negotiated a unique contract for Vaughan with Mercury Records. She would record commercial material for the Mercury label and more jazz-oriented material for its subsidiary EmArcy. Vaughan was paired with producer Bob Shad and their excellent working relationship yielded strong commercial and artistic success. Her debut Mercury recording session took place in February of 1954 and she stayed with the label through 1959. After a stint at Roulette Records (1960 to 1963), Vaughan returned to Mercury from 1964 to 1967.

Vaughan's commercial success at Mercury began with the 1954 hit, "Make Yourself Comfortable", recorded in the Fall of 1954, and continued with a succession of hits, including: "How Important Can It Be" (with Count Basie), "Whatever Lola Wants", "The Banana Boat Song", "You Ought to Have A Wife" and "Misty". Her commercial success peaked in 1959 with "Broken Hearted Melody", a song she considered to be "corny", but, nonetheless, became her first gold record and a regular part of her concert repertoire for years to come. Vaughan was reunited with Billy Eckstine for a series of duet recordings in 1957 that yielded the hit "Passing Strangers". Vaughan's commercial recordings were handled by a number of different arrangers and conductors, primarily Hugo Peretti and Hal Mooney.

The jazz "track" of her recording career also proceeded apace, backed either by her working trio or various combinations of stellar jazz players. One of her most favorite albums was a 1954 sextet date that included Clifford Brown.

The latter half of the 1950s often found Vaughan in the company of a veritable who's who of jazz as she followed a schedule of almost non-stop touring. She was featured at the first Newport Jazz Festival in the Summer of 1954 and would star in subsequent editions of that festival at Newport and in New York City for the remainder of her life. In the Fall of 1954, she performed at Carnegie Hall with the Count Basie Orchestra on a bill that also included Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young and the Modern Jazz Quartet. That fall, she again toured Europe successfully before embarking on a "Big Show" U. S. tour, a grueling succession of start-studded one-nighters that included Count Basie, George Shearing, Errol Garner and Jimmy Rushing. At the 1955 New York Jazz Festival on Randalls Island, Vaughan shared the bill with the Dave Brubeck quartet, Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, and the Johnny Richards Orchestra.

The 1960s

When Vaughan's contract with Mercury Records ended in late 1959, she immediately signed on with Roulette Records, a small label owned by Morris Levy, one of the backers of New York's Birdland, where she frequently appeared. Roulette's roster also included Count Basie, Joe Williams, Dinah Washington, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and Maynard Ferguson.

Vaughan began recording for Roulette in April 1960, making a string of strong large ensemble albums arranged and/or conducted by Billy May, Jimmy Jones, Joe Reisman, Quincy Jones, Benny Carter, Lalo Schifrin and Gerald Wilson. Surprisingly, she also had some pop chart success in 1960 with "Serenata" on Roulette and a couple of residual tracks from her Mercury contract, "Eternally" and "You're My Baby". She also made a pair of intimate vocal/guitar/double bass albums of jazz standards: After Hours (1961) with guitarist Mundell Lowe and double bassist George Duvivier and Sarah Plus Two (1962) with guitarist Barney Kessell and double bassist Joe Comfort.

It was around 1962, that Vaughan became disenchanted with Roulette Records. Roulette' finances were even more deceptive and opaque than usual in the record business and its recording artists often had little to show for their efforts other than some excellent records. When her contract with Roulette ended in 1963, Vaughan returned to the more familiar confines of Mercury Records. In the Summer of 1963, Vaughan went to Denmark with producer Quincy Jones to record four days of live performances with her trio, Sassy Swings the Tivoli, an excellent example of her live show from this period. The following year, she made her first appearance at the White House, for President Johnson.  Unfortunately, the Tivoli recording would be the brightest moment of her second stint with Mercury. Changing demographics and tastes in the 1960s left jazz artists with shrinking audiences and inappropriate material. While Vaughan retained a following large and loyal enough to maintain her performing career, the quality and quantity of her recorded output dwindled even as her voice darkened and her skill remained undiminished. At the conclusion of her Mercury deal in 1967 she was left without a recording contract for the remainder of the decade.

In 1969 Vaughan relocated to the West Coast, settling first into a house near Benedict Canyon in Los Angeles and then into what would end up being her final home in Hidden Hills.

Rebirth in the 1970s

The seventies heralded a rebirth in Vaughan's recording activity. In 1971, Bob Shad, who had worked with her as producer at Mercury Records, asked her to record for his new record label, Mainstream Records. Basie veteran Ernie Wilkins arranged and conducted her first Mainstream album, A Time In My Life in November 1971. In April of 1972, Vaughan recorded a collection of ballads written, arranged and conducted by Michel Legrand. Arrangers Legrand, Peter Matz, Jack Elliott and Allyn Ferguson teamed up for Vaughan's third Mainstream album, Feelin' Good. Vaughan also recorded Live in Japan, a live album in Tokyo with her trio in September of 1973.

During her sessions with Legrand, Bob Shad presented "Send In The Clowns", a Stephen Sondheim song from the Broadway musical A Little Night Music, to Vaughan for consideration. The song would become her signature, replacing the chestnut "Tenderly" that had been with her from the beginning of her solo career.  Unfortunately, Vaughan's relationship with Mainstream soured in 1974, allegedly in a conflict over an album cover photograph and/or unpaid royalties. This left Vaughan again without a recording contract for three years.

In December 1974, Vaughan played a private concert for the United States President Gerald Ford and French president Giscard d'Estaing during their summit on Martinique.

Also in 1974, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas asked Vaughan to participate in an all-Gershwin show he was planning for a guest appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. The arrangements were by Marty Paich and the orchestra would be augmented by established jazz artists Dave Grusin on piano, Ray Brown on double bass, drummer Shelly Manne and saxophonists Bill Perkins and Pete Christlieb. The concert was a success and Thomas and Vaughan repeated the performance with Thomas' home orchestra in Buffalo, New York, followed by appearances in 1975 and 1976 with symphony orchestras around the country. These performances fulfilled a long-held interest by Vaughan in working with symphonies and she made orchestra performances with Thomas and other orchestra conductors for the remainder of the decade.

In 1977, Tom Guy, a young filmmaker and public TV producer, followed Vaughan around on tour, interviewing numerous artists speaking about her and capturing both concert and behind-the-scenes footage. The resulting sixteen hours of footage was pared down into an hour-and-a-half documentary, Listen To The Sun, that aired on September 21, 1978 on New Jersey Public Television, but was never commercially released.

In 1977 Norman Granz, who was also Ella Fitzgerald's manager, signed Vaughan to his Pablo Records label. Vaughan had not had a recording contract for three years, although she had recorded a 1977 album of Beatles songs with contemporary pop arrangements for Atlantic Records that was eventually released in 1981. Vaughan's first Pablo release was I Love Brazil, recorded with an all-star cast of Brazilian musicians in Rio de Janeiro in the fall of 1977. It garnered a Grammy nomination.

The Pablo contract resulted in five albums: How Long Has This Been Going On? (1978) with a quartet that included pianist Oscar Peterson, guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Louis Bellson; two Duke Ellington Songbook albums (1979); Send In The Clowns (1981) with the Count Basie orchestra playing arrangements primarily by Sammy Nestico; and Crazy and Mixed Up (1982), another quartet album featuring Sir Roland Hanna, piano, Joe Pass, guitar, Andy Simpkins, bass, and Harold Jones drums.

Late Career

Vaughan remained quite active as a performer during the 1980s and began receiving awards recognizing her contribution to American music and status as an important elder stateswoman of Jazz. In the Summer of 1980, Vaughan received a plaque on 52nd Street outside the CBS Building (Black Rock) commemorating the jazz clubs she had once frequented on "Swing Street" and which had long since been demolished and replaced with office buildings.

A performance of her symphonic Gershwin program with the New Jersey Symphony in 1980 was broadcast on PBS and won her an Emmy Award in 1981 for "Individual Achievement - Special Class". She was reunited with Michael Tilson Thomas for a slightly modified version of the Gershwin program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the CBS Records recording, Gershwin Live! won Vaughan the Grammy award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female. In 1985 Vaughan received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1988 Vaughan was inducted into American Jazz Hall of Fame.

After the conclusion of her Pablo contract in 1982, Vaughan did only a limited amount of studio recording. Vaughan made a guest appearance in 1984 on Barry Manilow's 2:00 AM Paradise Cafe, an odd album of original pastiche compositions that featured a number of established jazz artists. In 1984 Vaughan participated in one of the more unusual projects of her career, The Planet is Alive, Let It Live a symphonic piece composed by Tito Fontana and Sante Palumbo on Italian translations of Polish poems by Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II. The recording was made in Germany with an English translation by writer Gene Lees and was released by Lees on his own private label after the recording was turned down by the major labels. In 1986, Vaughn sang two songs, "Happy Talk" and "Bali Ha'i", in the role of Bloody Mary on an otherwise stiff studio recording by opera stars Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras of the score of the Broadway musical South Pacific, while sitting on the studio floor.

Vaughan's final complete album was Brazilian Romance, produced and composed by Sergio Mendes and recorded primarily in the early part of 1987 in New York and Detroit. In 1988, Vaughan contributed vocals to an album of Christmas carols recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with the Utah Symphony Orchestra and sold in Hallmark Cards stores. In 1989, Quincy Jones' album Back on the Block featured Vaughan in a brief scatting duet with Ella Fitzgerald. This was Vaughan's final studio recording and, fittingly, it was Vaughan's only formal studio recording with Fitzgerald in a career that had begun 46 years earlier opening for Fitzgerald at the Apollo.

Vaughan is featured in a number of video recordings from the 1980s. Sarah Vaughan Live from Monterrey was taped in 1983 or 1984 and featured her working trio with guest soloists. Sass and Brass was taped in 1986 in New Orleans and also features her working trio with guest soloists, including Dizzy Gillespie and Maynard Ferguson. Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One was featured in the American Masters series on PBS.

In 1989, Vaughan's health began to decline, although she rarely betrayed any hints in her performances.  Vaughan canceled a series of engagements in Europe in 1989 citing the need to seek treatment for arthritis in the hand, although she was able to complete a later series of performances in Japan. During a run at New York's Blue Note jazz club in 1989, Vaughan received a diagnosis of lung cancer and was too ill to finish the final day of what would turn out to be her final series of public performances.

Vaughan returned to her home in California to begin chemotherapy and spent her final months alternating stays in the hospital and at home. Toward the end, Vaughan tired of the struggle and demanded to be taken home, where she passed away on the evening of April 3, 1990 while watching a television movie featuring her daughter.

Vaughan's funeral was at the First Mount Zion Baptist Church in Newark, which was the same congregation she grew up in but which had relocated to a new building. Following the ceremony, a horse-drawn carriage transported her body to its final resting place in Glendale Cemetery in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

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