The Divine One
Though never as popular as Ella Fitzgerald, nor as deeply beloved as Billy Holiday- whose careers preceded hers by ten years- Sarah Vaughan is revered in many quarters as the greatest jazz vocalist of all time. Blessed with an operatic contralto voice, a three-octave range, perfect intonation and a thespian’s flair for nuance of expression; as well as a musician’s sense of improvisation and an effortlessly graceful delivery, Sarah Vaughan became known to the world as “the Divine One.” Noted jazz critic Leonard Feather maintained that Sarah was “the most important singer to emerge from the bop era.”
But, throughout her career, Sarah also exhibited a stubbornly gritty side to her personality. She could hold her own among her fellow musicians. She was a smart-talking, hard-living individual, who could revel and carouse just as intently as any man. She was considered “one of the boys,” with the well-earned nickname of “Sassy.”
Sarah Vaughan gave a voice to the bebop jazz movement of the mid-’40s, then became an enormously successful singer of pop songs (with several million-sellers to her credit), all the while maintaining her connection to her jazz roots. As there were two sides to her personality, there were two sides to Sarah Vaughan’s career as well. It is to her lasting credit that she was able to so indelibly integrate those dual aspects of her life and career.
She was born Sarah Lois Vaughan on March 27, 1924 in Newark, New Jersey. Both of her parents displayed a propensity for music, fostering that inclination in their daughter. Her father, who worked as a carpenter, played the guitar and sang folk music in his spare time. Her mother took in laundry, playing the piano and singing in the Mount Zion Baptist Church Choir. Sarah first began to sing in the church choir at the age of seven.
It was at that time that she began taking piano lessons- which she continued throughout the ‘30s. She also learned to play the organ. By the age of twelve Sarah had become the church organist. In addition, she sang in the church choir as a soloist. Her musical talent was obvious. She was considered to be something of a musical prodigy, attending Arts High School in Newark. But she dropped out before she finished high school.
Sarah was a gawky seventeen year old girl when she began sitting in at a Newark club called the Alcazar, with legendary jazz trumpeter Jabbo Smith. Smith, who earlier had a profound influence on Dizzy Gillespie during his formative years, displayed a similar influence on the impressionable young Sarah. At Smith’s suggestion, she began to enter amateur competitions in the area, including the weekly “Amateur Night” talent contests at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem; the same contest Ella Fitzgerald had won eight years earlier; leading to her career in music.
As with Ella before her, Sarah won the Amateur Night contest at the Apollo, performing a great rendition of the standard, “Body And Soul.” Later, she offhandedly described the event. “What was the competition? Well I remember this Puerto Rican who came out in a short skirt and a gun.” However, even with that inauspicious beginning, Sarah Vaughan’s life was about to undergo a drastic change. For, she was not only awarded a ten dollar prize, she also won a week of engagements at the Apollo, as well.
In the Apollo audience for one of those performances, was Billy Eckstein, who, at the time, was working as the well-known vocalist in Earl “Fatha” Hine’s orchestra. Eckstein was immediately impressed with Sarah’s obvious talent. Her impeccable phrasing and voluptuous intonation were apparent, even then. “Judy Garland was the singer I most wanted to sound like then,” she later said, “not to copy, but to get some of her soul and purity.”
The young Miss Vaughan made such an impression on Eckstein that he recommended her to Hines as an additional vocalist in the orchestra. She was soon summoned for an audition with the orchestra leader. Hines was literally bowled over by her performance, asking an associate “is that girl singing, am I drunk, or what?” Hines hired her as a vocalist in his orchestra. Thrilled to find that she also had substantial musical training on the piano, he assigned her to the position of second pianist, as well. Because of the recording ban mandated by the American Federation of Musicians during World War II, no records by the Hines orchestra were made during Sarah’s tenure with the group.
The Hines band presented to Sarah easy access to a wide array of great musicians, with exciting new musical ideas- especially Eckstein (her guru), saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie: both of whom had played with the Hines band in the mid-’30s. In 1943, they were in the initial stages of formulating bebop, and the whole jazz movement it would soon spawn. Their new, inventive approach to melody and harmony, and their sense of exploration and rhythmic freedom, were inspiring to the girl, who was still a just a teenager, after all.
In early 1944, Eckstein left the Hines fold to create his own bop-oriented big band, with Parker in the reed section and Gillespie as the band’s musical director. He also took Sarah with him. And she blossomed under the inspiration provided by so many talented and creative musicians.
“I thought Bird and Diz were the end. At the time, I was singing more off-key than on,” she said in an interview. “I think their playing influenced my singing. Horns always influenced me more than voices.” Because of the recording ban, most of the group’s early experiments with that new musical form went undocumented, as well.
Even though she was only twenty years old, Sarah Vaughan’s name was quickly becoming legend among her musical colleagues. Her immense talents as a vocalist rapidly came to the fore, as did her conviviality with her band mates; who considered Sarah to be a real musician, rather than just a vocalist. She used her voice more as an instrument than as a tool to convey lyrics and other musicians respected her for that.
What’s more, she could smoke, drink and swear with the best of them. They called her “Sassy,” in reference both to her smart singing style and her earthy lifestyle. And her reputation was growing fast. Frank Sinatra was reputed to have said, “Sassy is so good, that when I listen to her, I want to cut my wrists with a dull razor.” Music promoter Charlie Bourgeois said of Sarah that she “made the rest of the singers sound like they were in rehearsal.”
At the end of 1944, she left Ecktein’s big band to go solo. On New Year’s Eve 1944, in a session for which she was paid the lofty sum of twenty dollars, Sarah recorded with the Parker and Gillespie for the Continental label, a song called “Interlude;” which is recalled today as being the first incarnation of the jazz classic, “A Night In Tunisia.” In May of 1945, she recorded several tracks with the pair, including “Mean To Me,” and the early hit, “Lover Man,” which validated her reputation as a top jazz singer. She won the Esquire New Star poll for 1945.
And, other than a brief stint with bassist John Kirby‘s band, in the early part of 1946, Sarah Vaughan was to remain a solo performer for the rest of her life. It was at the New York club Café Society where she was to launch her career; stunning audiences with her stupendous voice, incredible technique and strong sense of melodic improvisation.
Between 1946 and 1948, she turned out several sessions for the independent Musicraft label, including the 1947 hits “Tenderly” and “It’s Magic;” and the first-ever recording of pianist Todd Dameron’s standard-to-be, “If You Could See Me Now,” accompanied by former Eckstein bandmates, trumpeter Freddie Webster and pianist Bud Powell. She also recorded “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” for Musicraft, as well as a lesser-known version of the traditional blues number, “Motherless Child.”
In 1947 Sarah married trumpeter George Treadwell, whom she had met while singing at Café Society. Appreciative of his wife’s enormous talent and boundless potential, Treadwell abandoned his own musical career to become Sarah’s manager and musical director. At Treadwell’s behest, she took voice and stagecraft instruction, enhanced her attire and improved her general appearance. A new, refined Sarah Vaughan emerged. Treadwell often boasted that he had made her marketable to the major record labels, by completely remaking her image. To some extent that was true, but the voice still belonged entirely to Sarah.
Under Treadwell’s guidance and tutelage, she landed a five-year contract with Columbia Records. Sarah recorded in the more commercial, pop medium during her time with Columbia, often with “easy listening” studio orchestras. She sang popular standards in a phenomenal style, unique in all of music, which she made all her own; a style imbued with bop vocal sensibilities. In addition, she could effortlessly make swooping transitions in vocal timbre- from soft, satin smoothness to a guttural growl; from deep in her lower register to birdlike upper tones.
Of the nearly sixty tracks she recorded for Columbia, only eight, recorded in May of 1950 with pianist Jimmy Jones’ band (an eight-piece group, of which Miles Davis was a member), were in the jazz idiom. But those eight cuts were considered classics of the era.
Though she was voted “Best Female Jazz Vocalist” in the Downbeat magazine polls from 1947 through 1952 and in the Metronome magazine polls from 1948 through 1952, Sarah grew increasingly frustrated at Columbia, where she was expected to concentrate on her pop career, singing tracks such as “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Black Coffee“ (both of which were hits for her), leaving to languish the jazz facet of her musical identity.
A new contract with Mercury, in 1954 afforded Sarah the opportunity to explore both aspects of her musical personality, ushering in one of the most prolific periods in her career. With Mercury, Sarah was allowed more freedom as to the material she would perform. Previously, it was Columbia who dictated which songs she would record.
The new contract allowed her to pursue dual careers, one as a commercial “hit maker” on the Mercury Label, and the other as a jazz singer on the sister label, EmArcy. She described the arrangement as: “I’m not allowed to do whatever I want on one side, and they let me pick the hot tune on the other side.”
Throughout the ‘50s, Sarah recorded covers of the latest pop hits, while occasionally releasing hits of her own. Songs such as “Misty,” “Make Yourself Comfortable” and her biggest hit, 1958‘s “Broken Hearted Melody,” put Sarah’s name on the pop singles charts. For Mercury, she alternated the pop songs with show tunes such as “Whatever Lola Wants” and “Mr. Wonderful.” She recorded albums of show tunes and a tribute to the Gershwin songbook (in a reunion with Eckstein) in 1958.
Though television host Dave Garroway, of the “Today Show,” was the first to refer to her as the “Divine One,” her commercial music explorations were not always embraced by jazz purists, who claimed she had betrayed her jazz heritage. As if in answer to her critics, Sarah recorded some of her finest jazz work with EmArcy, the Mercury subsidiary imprint.
On EmArcy, she made albums with Clifford Brown, Cannonball Adderley and members of the Count Basie band. Those recordings remain among her most highly regarded. The album she recorded with Clifford Brown, containing the classics “Lullaby of Birdland,” “Swingin’ Easy” and “All Of Me,” is considered her all-time best jazz recording.
After divorcing Treadwell, Sarah left Mercury in the Fall of 1959, signing with Roulette Records, owned by her friend Morris Levy, which was the home to other jazz greats Count Basie, Joe Williams and Dinah Washington. She remarried, to C.B. Atkins, whom she appointed as her manager. But they divorced in 1962, $150,000 in debt- amidst a legal battle for their adopted daughter Paris. Sarah began to suspect that perhaps she sang best when her life was in upheaval. “When I sing,” she said, “trouble can sit right on my shoulder and I don’t even notice.”
A highlight of the Roulette years was a 1960 session with the Count Basie band, Without The Count, in which she tore through several standard numbers; “You Go To My Head,” “Lover Man”, “I Cried For You”, and a stratoshperic version of “Perdido” which is considered classic Sarah Vaughan. The 1960 Roulette album Divine One, featured an intimate band setting, arranged and conducted by old friend Jimmy Jones, with songs such as “You Stepped Out Of A Dream” and “Have You Met Miss Jones”. Those recordings represent yet another peak in Sarah‘s illustrious career.
In 1963 she left Roulette, briefly returning to Mercury for a few years, until 1966. After a five year hiatus, she returned to recording in 1971, this time with Norman Granz’s Pablo label. Granz recorded many sessions with Sarah throughout the 70s. She recorded two “Duke Ellington Songbooks,” worked with Count Basie and Oscar Peterson, and even recorded an album of Afro-Latin and Brazilian material in 1987. There was a marvelous two-record live set recorded in Japan.
Her health began to decline in the ’80s, but in 1982, she recorded an album of Gershwin songs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. She received a Grammy Award for that album. Sarah also received the Grammy “Lifetime Achievement Award” in 1989 and was inducted into the Jazz Hall of fame the following year.
But years of smoking and drinking finally took their toll. Sarah died of cancer at her home in Hidden Hills, California, on April 3rd, 1990. Still, she will always be remembered for her enormous contributions to jazz music. Her voice was an instrument her fellow musicians greatly admired and venerated. Even Ella Fitzgerald conceded that she was the “world’s greatest singing talent.” Sarah Vaughan was the “Divine One,” renowned as a legendary vocalist of the very highest order; imitated by every jazz singer who followed after her. Her music will never be forgotten.