Today’s Classic is Sarah Vaughan.
Sarah Lois Vaughan (March 27, 1924 – April 3, 1990) was an American jazz singer,described by Scott Yanow as having “one of the most wondrous voices of the 20th century.”
Nicknamed “Sailor” (for her salty speech), “Sassy” and “The Divine One”, Sarah Vaughan was a Grammy Award winner. The National Endowment for the Arts bestowed upon her its “highest honor in jazz”, the NEA Jazz Masters Award, in 1989.
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 Bennie 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 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. 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.
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 40s. 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. One of her early television appearances was on DuMont’s variety show Stars on Parade (1953–54), in which she sang “My Funny Valentine” and “Linger Awhile”.
With improving finances, in 1949 Vaughan and Treadwell purchased a three-story house on 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 led 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 Bennie Green are among the best of her career, but they were atypical of her Columbia output.
Rebirth in the 1970s
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.
Unfortunately, Vaughan’s relationship with Mainstream soured in 1974, allegedly in a conflict precipitated by Fisher 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 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.
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.
1977 also saw the release of the Godley & Creme album “Consequences”, on which Vaughan sang one of the few tracks to achieve popularity outside of the album: “Lost Weekend”.
The Pablo contract resulted in a total of seven albums: a second and equally wondrous Brazilian record, “Copacabana”, again recorded in Rio (1979), 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.