Sarah Lois Vaughan (1924-1990) was one of jazz's greatest singers for almost half a century. Her rich voice and distinctive style, often applied to popular songs, brought her fame beyond the confines of the jazz world.
Sarah Lois Vaughan was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 27, 1924. Her father was a carpenter and an amateur guitarist; her mother was a laundress and a church vocalist. From the age of 7 Sarah studied piano, and at age 12 became organist and solo vocalist in Newark's Mount Zion Baptist Church choir.
In 1942 at the Apollo Theater's weekly Amateur Night Sarah won first prize for a rendition of "Body and Soul" that so impressed jazz singer Billy Eckstine that he persuaded his bandleader, Earl Hines, to hire her. In 1944 Eckstine left Hines's band to form his own and took Sarah (as well as jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker) with him. Vaughan stayed with the band for a year, and then in late 1945 she began her long solo career.
For the next 45 years she was to record virtually every jazz and pop standard against backgrounds that varied from small and big jazz ensembles to large studio bands and symphonic orchestras. Her earliest hits, "Lover Man" and "If You Could See Me Now" (1946), and a number of duets with Billy Eckstine, including "Dedicated to You" and "I Could Write a Book" (1949), established her as a new jazz star. She had a comfortable three-octave range, a heavy vibrato, and an uncanny ear. Possessing perfect (not relative) pitch, she executed with seeming effortlessness the most challenging and intricate harmonies.
Vaughan's early success was achieved with a mix of jazz originals ("Black Coffee" and "If You Could See Me Now") and the better Tin Pan Alley tunes such as "Body and Soul, " "I've Got a Crush on You, " and "Tenderly." In the 1950s she waded into more commercial waters, recording show tunes such as "Whatever Lola Wants" and "Mr. Wonderful, " which consequently widened her audience. Some of the songs were throwaways, unworthy of her great talent, and they seemed to encourage the showman and showoff in her. Occasionally her work in the 1950s smacks of vocal pyrotechnics rather than genuine explorations of the material. One exception was her big hit "Misty" (with some spare but brilliant backing by tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims).
By 1960 Vaughan had fully returned to her artistic strengths, and for the last 30 years of her career she sang in jazz clubs, concertized in auditoriums, and produced a remarkable body of recorded music for the Roulette, Mercury, Columbia, and Pablo labels. Her output over that period was almost uniformly excellent, but among her best albums are The Duke Ellington Songbook, volumes 1 and 2, which, making the most of Ellington's compositional genius, contains magnificent versions of "All Too Soon, " "Lush Life, " "Sophisticated Lady, " and "Day Dreams"; The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan, with arrangements by the great Benny Carter; How Long Has This Been Going On?; Sarah and Basie; and Gershwin Live!, for which Vaughan won the 1982 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance.
Beginning in 1957, when she first recorded it with Quincy Jones' band, "Misty" was the song most associated with Vaughan and most often requested by live audiences, but by the mid-1970s Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" had become her showpiece, the closing musical signature of her concerts.
Vaughan was married four times: to bandleader George Treadwell, to professional football player Clyde Atkins, to Las Vegas restaurateur Marshall Fisher, and to jazz trumpeter Waymon Reed; all ended in divorce. She had one daughter, Deborah "Paris" Vaughan. Vaughan died of lung cancer in her Los Angeles suburban home on April 3, 1990. A few months before her death, she had teamed up with producer Qunicy Jones to record some tracks for his Back on the Block album. On that album, Vaughan's recording of September would be her last.
Singer Mel Torme credited Vaughan with having "the best vocal instrument of any singer working in the popular field." New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson called hers "the finest voice ever applied to jazz." Billy Eckstine said that she was his favorite all-time singer. Alternatively and affectionately known as "Sassy" and "The Divine Sarah" (echoes of Sarah Bernhardt), she commanded respect both as musician and person.
There are countless articles on Sarah Vaughan but no full-length study as yet. The best short piece is in Gary Giddins' Riding on a Blue Note (1981). By far the most rounded portrayal is to be found in the excellent one-hour documentary film "Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One" (1991), a joint U.S.-Japanese-German production. Additional information is available at the Sarah Vaughan Site at http://www.geocities.com/vienna/8244.