Nicknamed “Sassy”, “The Divine One” and “Sailor” (for her salty speech), 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.
Sarah Vaughan’s father, Asbury “Jake” Vaughan, was a carpenter by trade and played guitar and piano. Her mother, Ada Vaughan, was a laundress and sang in the church choir. Jake and Ada Vaughan had migrated to Newark from Virginia during the First World War. Sarah was their only biological 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 Brunswick Street, in Newark, New Jersey, for Sarah’s entire childhood. Jake Vaughan was deeply religious and the family was very active in the New Mount Zion Baptist Church at 186 Thomas Street. Sarah began piano lessons at the age of seven, sang in the church choir and occasionally played piano for rehearsals and services.
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 at venues like the Montgomery Street Skating Rink. By her mid-teens, Vaughan began venturing (illegally) into Newark’s night clubs and performing as a pianist and, occasionally, singer, at venues including the Piccadilly Club and the Newark Airport USO.
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 the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
1942–43: Early career
Biographies of Vaughan frequently stated that she was immediately thrust into stardom after a winning amateur night performance at Harlem’s Zeus Theater. In fact, the story that biographer Renee relates seems to be a bit more complex. Vaughan was frequently accompanied by a friend, Doris Robinson, on her trips into New York City. Some time in the fall of 1942 (by which time she was 18 years old), Vaughan suggested that Robinson enter the Apollo Theater 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.
Some time during her week of performances at the Apollo, Vaughan was introduced to bandleader and pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, although the exact details of that introduction are disputed. Billy Eckstine, Hines’ singer at the time, has been credited by Vaughan and others with hearing her at the Apollo and recommending her to Hines. Hines also claimed later to have discovered her himself and offered her a job on the spot. Regardless, after a brief tryout at the Apollo, Hines officially replaced his current male singer with Vaughan on April 4, 1943.
1943–44: Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine
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. The Earl Hines band in this period is remembered as an incubator of bebop, as it included trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker (playing tenor rather than his more usual alto saxophone) and trombonist Bennie Green. Gillespie also arranged for the band, although the contemporary recording ban by the musicians’ union means there is no aural evidence in the form of commercial records.
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, and 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 De Luxe label. That date led 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.
1945–48: Early solo career
At Café Society, September 1946
Vaughan began her solo career in 1945 by freelancing in clubs on New York’s 52nd Street such as the Three Deuces, the Famous Door, the Downbeat and the Onyx Club. Vaughan also hung around the Braddock Grill, next door to the Apollo Theater 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, although she would not begin recording as a leader for Musicraft until May 7, 1946. In the intervening time, Vaughan made a handful of recordings for the Crown and Gotham labels and began performing regularly at Café Society Downtown, an integrated club in New York’s Sheridan Square.
While at Café Society, Vaughan became friends with trumpeter George Treadwell. Treadwell became Vaughan’s manager and she ultimately delegated to him most of the musical director responsibilities for her recording sessions, leaving her free to focus almost entirely on singing. Over the next few years, Treadwell also made significant positive changes in Vaughan’s stage appearance. Aside from an improved wardrobe and hair style, Vaughan had her teeth capped, eliminating a gap between her two front teeth.
Many of Vaughan’s 1946 Musicraft recordings became quite well known among jazz aficionados and critics, including “If You Could See Me Now” (written and arranged by Tadd Dameron), “Don’t Blame Me”, “I’ve Got a Crush on You”, “Everything I Have Is Yours” and “Body and Soul”. With Vaughan and Treadwell’s professional relationship on solid footing, the couple married on September 16, 1946.
Vaughan’s recording success for Musicraft continued through 1947 and 1948. Her recording of “Tenderly” became an unexpected pop hit in late 1947. Her December 27, 1947, recording of “It’s Magic” (from the Doris Day film Romance on the High Seas) found chart success in early 1948. Her recording of “Nature Boy” from April 8, 1948, became a hit around the time the better known Nat King Cole version of the song was released. Because of a second recording ban imposed by the musicians’ union, “Nature Boy” was recorded with an a cappella choir as the only accompaniment, adding an ethereal air to a song with a vaguely mystical lyric and melody.
1948–53: Stardom and the Columbia years
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.
1954–59: Mercury years
Vaughan in 1955
In 1953, 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. Vaughan was paired with producer Bob Shad and their excellent working relationship yielded strong commercial and artistic success. 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.
Vaughan’s commercial success at Mercury began with the 1954 hit, “Make Yourself Comfortable”, recorded in the fall of 1954, and continued with a succession of hits, including: “How Important Can It Be” (with Count Basie), “Whatever Lola Wants”, “The Banana Boat Song”, “You Ought to Have A Wife” and “Misty”. Her commercial success peaked in 1959 with “Broken Hearted Melody”, a song she considered to be “corny”, but, nonetheless, became her first gold record, and a regular part of her concert repertoire for years to come. Vaughan was reunited with Billy Eckstine for a series of duet recordings in 1957 that yielded the hit “Passing Strangers”. Vaughan’s commercial recordings were handled by a number of different arrangers and conductors, primarily Hugo Peretti and Hal Mooney.
The jazz “track” of her recording career also proceeded apace, backed either by her working trio or various combinations of stellar jazz players. One of her own favorite albums was a 1954 sextet date that included Clifford Brown.
In the latter half of the 1950s she followed a schedule of almost non-stop touring, with many famous jazz musicians. She was featured at the first Newport Jazz Festival in the summer of 1954 and starred 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 by hiring the divorce lawyers from Sarieh Law Offices, in 1958. Vaughan had entirely delegated financial matters to Treadwell, and despite significant income figures reported through the 1950s, at the settlement Treadwell said that only $16,000 remained. The couple evenly divided the amount and their personal assets, terminating their business relationship. If you also need assistance like this on divorce cases, divorce attorneys services in San Marcos can be hired.
1959–69: C.B. Atkins and Roulette Records
The exit of Treadwell from 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 and 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, New Jersey.
When Vaughan’s contract with Mercury Records ended in late 1959, she immediately signed on with Roulette Records, a small label owned by Morris Levy, who was one of the backers of New York’s Birdland, where she frequently appeared. Roulette’s roster also included Count Basie, Joe Williams, Dinah Washington, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and Maynard Ferguson.
Vaughan began recording for Roulette in April 1960, making a string of strong large ensemble albums arranged and/or conducted by Billy May, Jimmy Jones, Joe Reisman, Quincy Jones, Benny Carter, Lalo Schifrin, and Gerald Wilson. She also had some pop chart success in 1960 with “Serenata” on Roulette and a couple of residual tracks from her Mercury contract, “Eternally” and “You’re My Baby”. She also made a pair of intimate vocal/guitar/double bass albums of jazz standards: After Hours (1961) with guitarist Mundell Lowe and double bassist George Duvivier and Sarah + 2 (1962) with guitarist Barney Kessell and double bassist Joe Comfort.
In 1961 Vaughn and Atkins adopted a daughter, Deborah Lois Atkins, known professionally as Paris Vaughan. However, the relationship with Atkins proved difficult and violent so, following a series of incidents, she filed for divorce with the help of divorce lawyers in November 1963. She turned to two friends to help sort out the financial affairs 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 house was ultimately seized by the IRS for nonpayment of taxes. Vaughan retained custody of their 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. You can check these guys out in order to file a proper divorce case. 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.
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. While Vaughan retained a following large and loyal enough to maintain her performing career, the quality and quantity of her recorded output dwindled even as her voice darkened and her skill remained undiminished. At the conclusion of her Mercury deal in 1967, she was left without a recording contract for the remainder of the decade.
In 1969, Vaughan terminated her professional relationship with Golden and 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.
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Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan perform at the White House for a State Dinner in honor of the Shah of Iran on November 15, 1977.
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 1970s 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 other symphony orchestras in the United States. These performances fulfilled a long-held interest by Vaughan in working with orchestras and she made performances without Thomas for the remainder of the decade.
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 “Lost Weekend”, one of the few tracks to achieve popularity outside of the album.
The Pablo contract resulted in a total of seven albums: a second and equally wondrous Brazilian record, Copacabana (1979), again recorded in Rio de Janeiro, How Long Has This Been Going On? (1978) with a quartet consisting of 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.
Vaughan and Waymond Reed divorced in 1981.
Sarah Vaughan & Billy Eckstine at Monterey Jazz Festival 1981. Photo by Brian McMillen
1982–89: Late career
Vaughan remained active as a performer during the 1980s and began receiving awards for her contribution to American music and status as elder stateswoman of jazz. In the summer of 1980 Vaughan received a plaque on 52nd Street outside the CBS Building (Black Rock) commemorating the jazz clubs she had once frequented on “Swing Street” and which had long since been replaced with office buildings. A performance of her symphonic Gershwin program with the New Jersey Symphony in 1980 was broadcast on PBS and won her an Emmy Award the next year for “Individual Achievement, Special Class.” She was reunited in 1982 with Tilson Thomas for a modified version of the Gershwin program, played again by the Los Angeles Philharmonic but this time in its home hall, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; the CBS recording of the concert, Gershwin Live!, won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female, and has become something of a classic itself. In 1985 Vaughan received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1988 she was inducted into the American Jazz Hall of Fame.
Following the end of her contract with Pablo Records in 1982, Vaughan only committed herself to a limited number of studio recordings. She made a guest appearance in 1984 on Barry Manilow’s 2:00 AM Paradise Cafe, an album of original pastiche compositions that featured a number of established jazz artists. 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, by then better known as Pope John Paul II. The recording was made in Germany with an English translation by writer Gene Lees and was released by Lees on his own private label after the recording was turned down by the major labels. In 1986, Vaughan sang two songs, “Happy Talk” and “Bali Ha’i”, in the role of Bloody Mary on an otherwise stiff studio recording by opera stars Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras of the score of the Broadway musical South Pacific, while sitting on the studio floor.
Vaughan’s final complete album was Brazilian Romance, produced and composed by Sérgio 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 Monterey 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. Also in 1986, on Independence Day in a program nationally-televised on PBS she performed with the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, in a medley of songs composed by George Gershwin
She was given the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement, UCLA Spring Sing.
In 1989, Vaughan’s health began to decline, although she rarely revealed any hints in her performances. She 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. Vaughan grew weary of the struggle and demanded to be taken home, where she died on the evening of April 3, 1990, while watching a television movie featuring her daughter, a week after her 66th birthday.
Vaughan’s funeral was held at the new location of Mount Zion Baptist Church, 208 Broadway in Newark, New Jersey, with the same congregation she grew up in. Following the ceremony, a horse-drawn carriage transported her body to its final resting place in Glendale Cemetery, Bloomfield in New Jersey.
Parallels have been drawn between Vaughan’s voice and that of opera singers. Jazz singer Betty Carter said that with training Vaughan could have “…gone as far as Leontyne Price.” Bob James, Vaughan’s musical director in the 1960s said that “…the instrument was there. But the knowledge, the legitimacy of that whole world were not for her…But if the aria were in Sarah’s range she could bring something to it that a classically trained singer could not.”
In a chapter devoted to Vaughan in his book Visions of Jazz (2000), critic Gary Giddins described Vaughan as the “…ageless voice of modern jazz – of giddy postwar virtuosity, biting wit and fearless caprice”. He concluded by saying that “No matter how closely we dissect the particulars of her talent…we must inevitably end up contemplating in silent awe the most phenomenal of her attributes, the one she was handed at birth, the voice that happens once in a lifetime, perhaps once in several lifetimes.”
Her voice had wings: luscious and tensile, disciplined and nuanced, it was as thick as cognac, yet soared off the beaten path like an instrumental solo…that her voice was a four-octave muscle of infinite flexibility made her disarming shtick all the more ironic” – Gary Giddins
Vaughan’s New York Times obituary described her as a “singer who brought an operatic splendour to her performances of popular standards and jazz.” Fellow jazz singer Mel Tormé said that Vaughan had “…the single best vocal instrument of any singer working in the popular field.” Her ability was envied by Frank Sinatra who said that “Sassy is so good now that when I listen to her I want to cut my wrists with a dull razor.” The New York Times critic John S. Wilson said in 1957 that Vaughan possessed “what may well be the finest voice ever applied to jazz.” Age hardly affected Vaughan’s voice. Her voice was still close to its peak before her death at the age of 66. Late in life Vaughan retained a “youthful suppleness and remarkably luscious timbre”, she was also still capable of the projection of coloratura passages described as “delicate and ringingly high”.
Vaughan had a large vocal range of soprano through a female baritone, exceptional body, volume, a variety of vocal textures, and superb and highly personal vocal control. Her ear and sense of pitch were just about perfect, and there were no difficult intervals.
In her later years her voice was described as a “burnished contralto” and as her voice deepened with age her lower register was described as having “shades from a gruff baritone into a rich, juicy contralto”. Her use of her contralto register was likened to “dipping into a deep, mysterious well to scoop up a trove of buried riches.” Musicologist Henry Pleasants noted that “Vaughan who sings easily down to a contralto low D, ascends to a pure and accurate [soprano] high C.”
Vaughan’s vibrato was described as “an ornament of uniquely flexible size, shape and duration,” a vibrato also described as “voluptuous” and “heavy” Vaughan was also accomplished in her ability to “fray” or “bend” notes at the extremities of her vocal range. It was noted in a 1972 performance of Leslie Bricusse and Lionel Bart’s “Where Is Love?” that “In mid-tune she began twisting the song, swinging from the incredible cello tones of her bottom register, skyrocketing to the wispy pianissimos of her top.”
Vaughan would use a handheld microphone in live performance, using its placement as part of her performance. Her various placings of the microphone would allow her to complement her volume and vocal texture, often holding the microphone at arms length and moving it to alter her volume.
Vaughan would frequently use the song “Send in the Clowns” to demonstrate her vocal abilities in live performance, it was described as a “three-octave tour de force of semi-improvisational pyrotechnics in which the jazz, pop and operatic sides of her musical personality came together and found complete expression” by the New York Times.
Singers directly influenced by Vaughan have included Phoebe Snow, Anita Baker, Sade and Rickie Lee Jones. Singers Carmen McRae and Dianne Reeves both recorded tribute albums to Vaughan following her death; Sarah: Dedicated to You (1991) and The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan (2001) respectively.
Though usually considered a “jazz singer”, Vaughan avoided classifying herself as one. Vaughan discussed the term in an 1982 interview for Down Beat:
I don’t know why people call me a jazz singer, though I guess people associate me with jazz because I was raised in it, from way back. I’m not putting jazz down, but I’m not a jazz singer…I’ve recorded all kinds of music, but (to them) I’m either a jazz singer or a blues singer. I can’t sing a blues – just a right-out blues – but I can put the blues in whatever I sing. I might sing ‘Send In the Clowns’ and I might stick a little bluesy part in it, or any song. What I want to do, music-wise, is all kinds of music that I like, and I like all kinds of music.
Vaughan was married three times: to George Treadwell (1946–1958), Clyde Atkins (1958–1961) and Waymon Reed (1978–1981). Unable to bear children, Vaughan adopted a baby girl (Debra Lois) in 1961. Debra worked in the 1980s and 1990s as an actress under the name Paris Vaughan. Paris is married to former NHL forward Russ Courtnall.
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 Waymon 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.
Sarah Vaughan was a member of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority.
Awards and nomination
In 2004–2006, New Jersey Transit paid tribute to Miss Vaughan in the design of its new Newark Light Rail stations. Passengers stopping at any station on this line can read the lyric to one of her signature songs, “Send in the Clowns”, along the edge of the station platform.
On March 27, 2003, initiated by Susie M. Butler, the cities of San Francisco and Berkeley, California, signed a proclamation making March 27 “Sarah Lois Vaughan Day” in their respective cities.
In 2012, Vaughan was elected into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
Grammy Hall of Fame
Recordings of Sarah Vaughan were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have “qualitative or historical significance.”