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Happy 100th birthday to the divine Sarah Vaughan. By Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | Mar 27, 2024

Sarah Vaughan (William P. Gottlieb collection)

Sarah Vaughan, christened “The Divine One” by one critic; ”Sassy” by her friends; and “the greatest singing talent in the world” by none other than Ella Fitzgerald, would have been 100 today.

Her voice - that voice - was variously described as cognac and chocolate mousse, with “the textures and colours of an orchestra. And she swung.” Although also dubbed ‘The Queen of Bebop’, she effortlessly bridged the apparent gap between jazz and popular music.

Born on 27 March 1924 in Newark, New Jersey, she was a daughter of the Great Migration. Her father, Jake, a deeply religious carpenter; her mother a seamstress who sang in the church choir, had come north from Virginia in search of better prospects. Trained from the age of eight to play the piano, Sarah was playing the organ at Newark’s the Mount Zion Baptist Church at 12 and she had begun to sing.

At 18, on a dare, she entered the amateur talent contest, stepping on to the stage of Harlem's Apollo Theatre one night in 1942, just as Ella Fitzgerald had done in 1934. When the audience heard Sarah's version of “Body and Soul”, they clapped and whistled. She won first place, $10, with a week's engagement at $40 on the theatre's regular bill. (Poor Ella was so dishevelled the Apollo denied her the performance part of her prize).

After hearing her perform, the singer, Billy Eckstine, recommended her to Earl Hines’s big band and she joined as second pianist and singer six months later. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were instrumentalists. On first hearing her, Hines apparently said, “Is that child singing? Or am I dreaming?”

The following year, when Eckstine formed his own band – with Parker, Gillespie, Art Blakey and Miles Davis, Sarah went along, and stayed for a year.

The travelling band faced racial violence, but Sarah, the only woman among 15 men, also endured the odd beating from her own colleagues. She was always resilient but this made her tough. Her bandmates began calling her “Sailor” for her four-letter fluency. Lugging their suitcases into Washington‘s Union Station the pianist John Malachi held the door open for her. “What are you standing up there looking at me for, fool? Go on through the door! You damn fool.” Perhaps this was the moment she earned the nickname “Sassy”?

Sassy she may have been but she was not political – she did not march, campaign or crusade. Her significance was that she inspired as a black woman by example.

After a two-month stint with John Kirby's jazz group in the winter of 1945-46, she began a solo career. In 1948 came her first record, "It's Magic", which sold more than two million copies.

In 1946 she had married trumpeter George Treadwell. He was her Svengali, but abusive. He had her coiffed, gowned and her teeth capped. Her misfortune was that she tended to keep inviting the men she fell for to manage her. In 1958, after divorcing Treadwell, she married Clyde B. Atkins, another abuser who also gambled away her money. In the seventies she had some luck when she met prosperous Chicago restaurateur, Marshall Fisher. He helped steady her career. Although they never wed, they lived together in the seventies until, in 1978, she giddily fell for Count Basie trumpeter, Waymon Reed, sixteen years her junior. He proved violent like her previous two spouses ("Why Are You So Mean To Me?") and they divorced in 1981. In 1961, she adopted a daughter, Paris, who became an actress.

Jazz critics were wowed at how she glided through her two-octave range with “the confident swoop of a chicken hawk”, stopping en route not just at quarter tones, but at eights. As Time magazine put it in 1950, “Her beat could be as steady as a bass fiddle's or as unpredictable as an African drum, and she could play her voice with the ease of an old-time tailgate trombonist or sing as straight as a church soloist.”

Her version of “The Lord's Prayer” even brought a congratulatory wire from her idol, Marian Anderson.

She rejected being categorised; firmly denying she was a jazz singer. "I don't want to be like anybody else. I can only be myself. I don't like that or any label. I am just a singer.”

But what a singer. Frank Sinatra hearing her perform in Las Vegas, shook his head and said, “Sassy is so good now that when I listen to her I want to cut my wrists with a dull razor……She’s finally found a style, a musical identity. Just straight singing. Sassy has discovered the art of pure, straight singing.”

Time magazine’s Thomas Thompson heard her sing in New York’s Rainbow Room in 1972 and observed “the sweat streaming shamelessly down her fine, black face…. the voice is quite simply the most stunning female musical instrument in the business today.” She sang “Where Is Love”, Nancy’s ballad from Oliver! beginning “as if it were a Bach cantata. In mid-tune she began twisting the song, swinging from the incredible cello tones of her bottom register, skyrocketing up toto the whispery pianissimo of her top. The last note, which she seemed to hold for about twenty minutes, without sneaking a new breath, hung in the smoky air like a diamond, fading out to nothing when the pinpoint spot blacked out the room. ….. There were goosebumps epidemic in the room.”

Reviewing Elaine M. Hayes’ scholarly biography, Queen of Bebop (2017) for The Washington Post, Farah Jasmine Grffin considered Sarah had “emerged as a singular artist who merged her jazz foundation, her popular music aspirations and her desire for the respect offered to the grand opera divas.” One of her peers, Betty Carter, thought that, with training, Sarah could well have reached the heights of Leontyne Price.

Her instrument, at least, had never let her down. Sarah took it for granted, drinking, smoking and snorting coke. Yet in 1987 the New York Times critic, Stephen Holden, marvelled, “her burnished contralto remains lustrous after all these years.”

Stephen Sondheim's classic "Send In The Clowns" became a late much-loved standard, which says much about the brilliance of the composer who had written it especially for Glynis Johns because she "couldn't hold a note." In the hands (throat?) of Sassy it became, in Holden's view "her ultimate vocal showpiece, 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."

In 1989, she learned she had lung cancer. When she sang for the last time at the Blue Note in New York her voice sounded magically untouched. She died six months later quietly in her bed as she watched her daughter, Paris, performing in a television film. She was 66. Billy Eckstine quipped that "God must have needed a lead singer.”

In the last phase of her career, she embraced the music of Brazil, recording three albums of bossa, jazz and contemporary Brazilian pop. As the New York Times jazz critic, Giovanni Russonello, put it, “She knows a song is a lover that will always requite. Sure enough, if you go back to the original Portuguese lyrics they aren’t actually about a lover at all, they’re about a singer’s devotion to song. One of them translates to:

“If only I knew how to cry

Alas, I’m a singer, I can only sing."