Tuesday, 18 September 2012

JAZZ ICONS #5: Sarah Vaughan


It's singing with soul that countsWhen I sing a tune, the lyrics are important to me.  Most of the standard lyrics I know well.  And as soon as I hear an arrangement, I get ideas, kind of like blowing a horn.  I guess I never sing a tune the same way twice.
May 1957

Her fellow musicians called her 'Sassy' or 'Sass' or sometimes 'Sailor' because they claimed she drank and swore like one when they rode the tour buses with her back in the 1940s.  To her fans, particularly in her later years, she was reverentially known as 'The Divine One' – a title bestowed on her early in her career by Chicago DJ Dave Garroway which proved, in the end, to be more prescient than anyone could have imagined at the time.  She was blessed with a voice which could do things that the voices of less-gifted singers simply couldn't do, moving from a tender 'little girl lost' wispiness to dramatic, almost operatic grandeur with grace, subtlety and a seemingly effortless sense of swing.  She was, despite the many statements she made to the contrary throughout her long career, a jazz musician whose instrument of choice happened to be her extraordinarily soulful voice.

Sarah Lois Vaughan was born in Newark, New Jersey on 27 March 1924.  Her parents were amateur musicians – her father Asbury played guitar and piano while her mother Ada sang in the local Mount Zion Baptist church choir –– who quickly recognized their daughter's burgeoning talent and arranged for her to take piano lessons.  The Vaughans were a deeply religious family and Sarah first sang with her mother in church where, as she grew older, she was occasionally asked to fill in on piano when the congregation's regular pianist was unavailable.  (For many years she thought of herself as being primarily a pianist and later regretted that she'd lacked 'the guts' to make an all-piano LP as other piano playing vocalists such as Nat Cole and Blossom Dearie had done.)  It was this early grounding in gospel music, combined with her love for and deep understanding of the pop, jazz and blues tunes she heard on the radio and in the local clubs she secretly began sneaking in to as a teenager, that gave her voice its suppleness, range and unmatched emotive power.  Newark proved to be the ideal city for a would-be singer to grow up in during the 1930s and 1940s, being only a stone's throw away from New York and its many nightclubs, cabarets and dance halls.

When she was eighteen, Vaughan persuaded her friend Doris Robinson to enter the famous 'Amateur Night' contest held each week at Harlem's Apollo Theatre, sweetening the deal by agreeing to accompany her on piano.  (The contest had already launched the careers of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and would, in time, also launch those of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey and Lauryn Hill among others.)  Robinson won second prize and, encouraged by her success, Vaughan herself entered the contest the following week –– not as a pianist, but as a singer.  She performed Body and Soul and won first prize – the right to open for Ella Fitzgerald, who was booked to appear at the same venue the following weekend.  Her unusual vocal style also caught the ear of Billy Eckstine, the male vocalist in the band of pianist Earl 'Fatha' Hines who happened to be in the Apollo audience that night.  

Thanks to Eckstine, she received an offer from Hines in April 1943 to join his band as its featured female vocalist.  Eckstine himself soon left the Earl Hines Orchestra to form what would go on to become his own groundbreaking big band and in 1944 he offered the twenty year old Vaughan a job as its female vocalist.  Vaughan accepted the offer and never looked back, gaining the opportunity to play with many of the musicians –– Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Kenny Dorham, Dexter Gordon and Art Blakey –– who were creating an exciting new sound some were already identifying as 'be-bop.' 

Vaughan made her first recording with the Eckstine band – a pretty ballad titled I'll Wait and Pray that was well-suited to the wistful mood of wartime America –– and the song did well enough to encourage critic/producer Leonard Feather to offer her a contract to record four more tunes under her own name for the Continental label.  The success of her Continental recordings encouraged her to leave the Eckstine band and pursue a solo career, which officially began in May 1945 with the release of Lover Man and three more tunes recorded –– with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker backing her on trumpet and saxophone respectively –– for the Guild label.  Her relationship with Eckstine, whom she considered her mentor as well as one of her closest friends, was unaffected by her decision to pursue a solo career.  They had already recorded several popular duets together and would sporadically continue to do so right into the 1970s.

Remember (c. 1957)
with orchestra
One of their loveliest 1950s duets

The late 1940s saw Vaughan really begin to hit her stride as a performer, not only in the commercial sense with hits like It's Magic and Nature Boy which she recorded for the Musicraft label, but also as a musician whose sense of swing, timing and melody easily matched that of any of the up-and-coming be-bop musicians who served as her accompanists.  Although she suffered terribly from stage-fright (a condition which plagued her all her life), her voice became much stronger during these years, allowing her to do more with it than most other singers were capable of doing even had they wanted to explore the uncharted vocal territory she was now beginning to claim as her own.  Her fan base also expanded during these years to incorporate the so-called 'jazz purists' who would, in time, come to be her most fervent admirers.  While all this was happening, her new husband George Treadwell –– a trumpet playing producer who was quick to spot her thus far untapped potential as a hot commercial property –– set about reinventing her as a pop singer for a recording market still dominated by white artists, albeit a sophisticated and increasingly elegant pop singer who continued to enjoy hit after hit up until the time she left Musicraft in 1949 to sign a new contract with Columbia Records.  

Vaughan would stay with Columbia until 1953, notching up more pop-oriented hits for the label like That Lucky Old Sun and I Cried For You, combining chart success with a steady schedule of live club dates and appearances on early TV variety programs like Stars on Parade.  Nevertheless, she recorded very little actual 'jazz' for Columbia a 1950 small group session with Miles Davis and Bennie Green being a notable exception despite her consistent topping of the polls as 'Best Female Jazz Vocalist' in magazines like DownBeat, Metronome and Esquire.

EmArcy Records, 1956
In 1953 she left Columbia, Treadwell gaining her an unprecedented contract with Mercury Records that would allow her to record pop material for it while simultaneously allowing her to record exclusively jazz-oriented material for its subsidiary label, EmArcy.  The LPs she made for EmArcy –– which included ultra-tight trio albums like Swingin' Easy as well as acknowledged masterpieces like Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown and Sarah Vaughan in the Land of Hi-Fi – are now considered by critics and fans alike to be among the pinnacles not only of her career but of 1950s vocal jazz.  (This was no mean feat, given the competition she faced during this period from artists like Anita O'Day, June Christy, Chris Clark, Nina Simone and her own label mate Helen Merrill.)  She stayed with Mercury until 1959, when she signed to Roulette Records, her marriage to Treadwell having ended in the meantime with no more to show for all her years of success than a house in Newark and $16,000 which they agreed to split evenly between them. 

Polka Dots and Moonbeams (1954)
From the 1954 EmArcy LP Swingin' Easy

Vaughan's finances (and more) were to take another beating when, in 1959, she married Clyde 'CB' Atkins and decided to make him her new manager despite his almost total ignorance of how the music industry functioned.  The marriage was not a happy one –– Atkins was a drinker and gambler who mentally and physically abused her – and when it ended in 1963 Vaughan discovered that she was $150,000 in debt as well as owing the IRS a significant amount of money in unpaid taxes.  Her financial situation wasn't improved by the fact that she now had an adopted daughter to raise or by Roulette's somewhat less-than-honest version of creative accountancy.  She re-signed with Mercury that same year, hoping to repeat the earlier success she'd enjoyed with the label, but sadly this was not to be the case.  Although her second stay with Mercury yielded the excellent 1963 live album, Sassy Swings The Tivoli, it was not, on the whole, a productive or financially rewarding reunion.  The company dropped her in 1967 and for the next four years, as rock music continued to tighten its stranglehold on the public imagination, the singer found herself in the unusual position of being unable to find herself a record deal.

The Shadow of Your Smile (1964)
with orchestra 
A stunning live television performance

The 1970s and 1980s were difficult years for Vaughan in the professional sense.  She signed to Mainstream Records in 1971, but a contractual dispute saw her once again without a record deal by 1974.  It would take her three years to secure a new recording contract with Norman Granz's Pablo label, during which time she continued to tour the world and began to branch out, performing with white pop acts like Godley and Creme (on their 1977 Consequences album) and later Barry Manilow (on his 1984 jazz pastiche album 2 AM Paradise Cafe).  Her personal life also continued to have its ups and downs, including another romantic entanglement with an inexperienced manager and a relationship with a trumpet player sixteen years her junior whom she married in 1978 and divorced three years later.  Thankfully, none of this seemed to affect the generally high standard of her work or her ability to find gigs, which now began to include concerts backed by full symphony orchestras –– something she had been eager to do since the beginning of her career.

The late 1980s saw an overdue resurgence of interest in Vaughan, with her coming to be viewed as one of the last surviving 'elders' of modern jazz –– one, more importantly, who could still sell out nightclubs and concert halls wherever she performed.  In 1989, while appearing at the Blue Note in New York, she was diagnosed with lung cancer.  She returned to California, her home for the past twenty years, to be treated for the disease and died there on 3 April 1990 at the age of sixty-six.  Fittingly, her final recording was a scat duet with Ella Fitzgerald which appeared on Quincy Jones' 1989 album Back On The Block.  It had been Fitzgerald she'd won the right to open for at the Apollo Theatre after winning its amateur night contest back in 1942.   

Unlike so many of the jazz musicians of her generation, Sarah Vaughan's legacy did not die with her.  She continues to be a significant influence on many of today's top female jazz and non-jazz artists, including Dianne Reeves, Teena Marie, Chaka Khan, Dee Dee Bridgewater and the late Amy Winehouse.  She would have been proud of that.  As she once said of herself:
there's a category for me.  I like to be referred to as a good singer of good songs in good taste.
She was certainly that and much, much more.  

Click HERE to listen to more great music by SARAH VAUGHAN.   

Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere. 

You might also enjoy:
JAZZ ICONS #3: Andrew Hill
JAZZ ICONS #1: Lester Young
JAZZ ICONS #6: Charles Mingus 

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