Sarah Vaughan, the singer with jazz, pop and operatic abilities who married four times

Michael Eli Dokosi May 08, 2020
Sarah Vaughan via BBC

Jazz singer Sarah Vaughan was rightfully hailed as a supremely gifted singer and performer earning invites to perform at the White House and the Carnegie Hall. So immense was her contribution to America that she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1989.

She was also honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Miss Vaughan was also known as ‘Sassy’ or the ‘Divine One’ reflecting her sense of humor and the mischievous sexiness that often inflected her singing and stage shows.

Possessing a phenomenally versatile voice, Vaughan was born in Newark, on March 27, 1924 to her carpenter and amateur guitarist father and laundress and church vocalist mother. She studied the piano from the age of seven, later adding the organ. She became so good that by age 12, she became the organist at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Newark, where she was also a soloist in the choir.

Already good at singing, playing the piano and organ, Vaughan was dared by friends to enter an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in New York. She took the dare and won first prize in October 1942, singing ”Body and Soul.”

The singer Billy Eckstine heard her perform, and six months after winning the contest was hired at his prompting as a second pianist and singer with Earl (Fatha) Hines’s big band made up of Eckstine as a vocalist and Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker as instrumentalists.

The following year, Eckstine had formed his own band featuring Mr. Parker, Mr. Gillespie, Art Blakey and Miles Davis. Vaughan joined the team but left after a year keen to make her name as a solo artist. Her early solo recordings on which she performed songs like ”Lover Man”, accompanied by Parker and Gillespie, helped establish her reputation as a jazz singer.

She had her first hit in late 1947 with ‘‘Tenderly,” for the small Musicraft label. The following year, her version of ”It’s Magic,” a song from the movie ”Romance on the High Seas,” established her as a full-fledged pop star. In 1949, she signed a five-year contract with Columbia Records, where she remained until 1954.

In 1954, the gifted singer moved to Mercury label and pursued a career as a jazz singer. For EmArcy, Mercury’s jazz subsidiary, she recorded with Clifford Brown, Cannonball Adderley and members of Count Basie’s Orchestra, among other jazz artists. On the parent label, she also scored a steady succession of hits for the rest of the decade.

Two of her biggest successes, ”Make Yourself Comfortable” (1954) and ”Whatever Lola Wants” (1955), from the Broadway musical ”Damn Yankees,” were songs of seduction. Her two other biggest hits were the title song of the Broadway show ”Mr. Wonderful” (1956) and ”Broken-Hearted Melody’‘ (1959).

After 1959, Miss Vaughan would never have any commercially significant pop hits. But over the next 30 years, her reputation as consummate vocal artist soared steadily, thanks to her appearances in nightclubs, at jazz festivals and increasingly with symphony orchestras in the United States and abroad.

In the early 80s she made albums for Pablo, run by the jazz producer Norman Granz, that she recorded the most critically acclaimed album of her career, ”How Long Has This Been Going On?”.

In 1982 she won a Grammy for best jazz vocal performance, for her ”Gershwin Live!” recording on CBS.

It was while performing her ‘Misty” song at jazz festivals including the JVC Jazz Festival in New York that Vaughan lived up to her Sassy sobriquet, without fail. She loved to perform ‘‘Misty” as a duet with herself, singing the first half in her regular voice, than dipping to the bottom of her contralto to do an amusing imitation of a seductive male lounge singer.

With ”Send In the Clowns,” the song that usually closed her shows, she displayed her ultimate vocal showpiece in which the jazz, pop and operatic sides of her musical personality came together and found complete expression earning standing ovations.

While on the music front, she was excelling, things were quite complicated on the love and marriage front. Miss Vaughan was married and divorced four times, and when she died she was survived by her mother and adopted daughter.

She met George Treadwell, a trumpet player, whom she married. He became her manager, and under his guidance made the transition from jazz cult figure to popular singing star. Vaughan’s marriage to Mr. Treadwell ended in divorce, as did her marriages to Clyde Atkins, a professional football player; Marshall Fisher, a Las Vegas restaurateur, and Waymon Reed, a trumpet player.

In a career that spanned nearly 50 years, Miss Vaughan influenced countless other singers – including Phoebe Snow, Anita Baker, Sade and Rickie Lee Jones.

To her great credit, her voice remained remarkably unravaged by time despite her smoking. In her mid-60s, a period when most singers’ vocal powers have sharply diminished, she was still close to her peak.

Vaughan’s final concert was given at New York’s Blue Note Club in 1989. She passed away from lung cancer on April 3, 1990, at age 66, in Hidden Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles, California.

Vaughan was selected to join the Jazz Hall of Fame in 1990.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: May 8, 2020


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