27 March 1924
Newark, Essex County, New Jersey, United States
3 April 1990 (aged 66)
Sarah Lois Vaughan (nicknamed "Sassy" and "The Divine One") (March 27, 1924, Newark, New Jersey – April 3, 1990, Los Angeles, California) was an American jazz singer, described as "possessor of one of the most wondrous voices of the 20th century". 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." When introduced in her two-part interview of 1980 on The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett quipped (in a takeoff on a well known Sarah Lee product advertising slogan of the time), "Everybody doesn't like something, but nobody doesn't like Sarah Vaughn." 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 incomparable Sarah Vaughan.
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 service. 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. Vaughan initially attended Newark's East Side High School, later transferring to Newark 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 Apollo Theater. 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. Vaughan spent the remainder of 1943 and part of 1944 touring the country with the Earl Hines big band. 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 Bennie Green. Eckstine left the Hines band in late 1943 and formed his own big band with Gillespie leaving Hines to become the new band's musical director. 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, 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. 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.
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. Vaughan's recording success for Musicraft continued through 1947 and 1948.
In 1948, a 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. 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.
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. 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. In 1953, her manager-husband, George 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. Her debut Mercury recording session took place in February 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.
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, Erroll 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.
Although the professional relationship between Vaughan and Treadwell was quite successful through the 1950s, their personal relationship finally reached a breaking point and she filed for a divorce in 1958. Vaughan had entirely delegated financial matters to Treadwell, and despite stunning income figures reported through the 1950s, at the settlement Treadwell said that only $16,000 remained. The couple evenly divided that amount and their personal assets, terminating their business relationship.
The exit of Treadwell from Sarah Vaughan's life was also precipitated by the entry of Clyde "C.B." Atkins, a man of uncertain background whom she had met in Chicago and married on September 4, 1959. Although Atkins had no experience in artist management or music, Vaughan wished to have a mixed professional/personal relationship like the one she had with Treadwell. She made Atkins her personal manager, although, she was still feeling the sting of the problems she had with Treadwell and initially kept a slightly closer eye on Atkins. Vaughan and Atkins moved into a house in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
When Vaughan's contract with Mercury Records ended in late 1959, she immediately signed on with Roulette Records. Vaughan began recording for Roulette in April 1960, making a string of strong large ensemble albums.
Vaughan was incapable of having biological children, so, in 1961, she and Atkins adopted a daughter, Debra Lois. However, the relationship with Atkins proved difficult and violent so, following a series of strange incidents, she filed for divorce in November 1963. She turned to two friends to help sort out the financial wreckage of the marriage: club owner John "Preacher" Wells, a childhood acquaintance, and Clyde "Pumpkin" Golden, Jr. Wells and Golden found that Atkins' gambling and profligate spending had put Vaughan around $150,000 in debt. The Englewood Cliffs house was ultimately seized by the IRS for nonpayment of taxes. Vaughan retained custody of the adopted child and Golden essentially took Atkins place as Vaughan's manager and lover for the remainder of the decade.
Around the time of her second divorce, she also 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. 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. Vaughan met Marshall Fisher after a 1970 performance at a casino in Las Vegas and Fisher soon fell into the familiar dual role as Vaughan's lover and manager. Fisher was another man of uncertain background with no musical or entertainment business experience, but - unlike some of her earlier associates - he was a genuine fan devoted to furthering her career.
The seventies also 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 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 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. 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 without Thomas for the remainder of the decade. In 1977, Vaughan terminated her personal and professional relationship with Marshall Fisher. Although Fisher is occasionally referenced as Vaughan's third husband, they were never legally married. Vaughan began a relationship with Waymond Reed, a trumpet player 16 years her junior who was playing with the Count Basie band. Reed joined her working trio as a musical director and trumpet player and became her third husband in 1978. Also, in 1977 Norman Granz, who was also Ella Fitzgerald's manager, signed Vaughan to his Pablo Records label. Meanwhile, Vaughan and Waymond Reed divorced in 1981.
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. 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. 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 studio recording. 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.
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 held at the First Mount Zion Baptist Church in Newark, which was the same congregation she grew up in, although 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.
Sarah Vaughan was a three-time Grammy Award winner. The National Endowment for the Arts honored Sarah Vaughan with its highest honor in jazz, the NEA Jazz Masters Award in 1989.
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