The Divine, Sublime, “Sassy” Sarah Vaughn.
Today marks what would have been the 89th B’Earthday of the one and only Sarah Vaughan.Without a doubt, she is my favorite vocalist of all time.
My love for Vaughan is easily explained: before her, I never really felt the lyrics that I heard other singers proffer. Not on any real depth. But as a child, when Sarah sang, everything made sense to me. The arrangement, the tempo, the evocative message in the music. When she sang, I felt the words where as before I’d only heard them. After Sarah, the feeling of the songs she and others were trying to convey became clearer, the emotion easily discerned and internalized, almost immediately identified as real or not. When she sang, the lyrics had temperature, color, shading, depth and resonance, a tangible texture, a feel. For me, she set the standard of what a singer should bring to a song, the underlying commitment and inherent personal responsibility to make it his or her own any vocalist serious about their craft should bring to the gig.
Born on March 27, 1924, “Sassy”, as she was known, was one of the most incredible vocalists American music has ever produced. Some call her the preeminent Jazz singer of all time, a title Vaughan herself bristled at, finding “Jazz singer” far too limiting. Over the span of a career that touched nearly six decades, Sarah Vaughan established herself as simply the singer’s singer because she sang everything – Jazz, Blues, Be-Bop, Brazilian, Pop and all manner of Broadway show tunes and standards – the whole spectrum, in her own wondrous way like no one had or has since. Her imprint is indelible: we are still hearing, feeling and seeing her artistic and stylistic echoes over two decades after her death.
Born and raised in Newark, NJ, Vaughan was primarily a pianist in her early days but she would go on to cut her teeth as a singer working with the budding stars of her time – Earl “Fatha” Hines, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker among them – who would all go on to be titled as titans, most owing their status largely but not exclusively to their primary association with Jazz.
“Body & Soul/Dedicated To You” – Sarah Vaughan & Billy Eckstine, Live
Sarah started her singing career in 1942, after winning an amateur night competition at the famed Apollo Theater singing “Body & Soul”, opening for Ella Fitzgerald for a week at the Apollo and then playing and singing in Earl Hines’ band. Legend says Eckstine discovered the ingénue. Her bond with Eckstine – mentor, brother, father figure, friend – would last for the remainder of their lives. In 1943 she left Hines’ group, joining Eckstine’s’ new band as the featured vocalist, beginning her nova-like brilliance.
“Broken Hearted Melody” – Sarah Vaughan, Live
From her early days as a featured vocalist to her eventual solo stardom, “The Divine One” crafted a style that emphasized her virtuosic employment of an amazing instrument, her voice. From the mezzo-soprano heights of her earlier years to the (female) baritone she’d employ pretty much exclusively later on, she would create an impact very few would mirror and a discography unmatched in its breadth and variety.
“Tenderly” – Sarah Vaughan, Live 1958
Most singers are lucky to have a single song associated with them; Ms. Vaughan had two (at least). Early on, “Tenderly” was the standard she was most closely associated with. “Send In The Clowns”, a Stephen Sondheim penned Broadway song taken from her sessions with conductor Michel Legrand in the 70’s, would supplant “Tenderly”, becoming her signature song during the latter part of her career, almost 30 years later.
The 40’s & 50’s were her heyday. She recorded for the Musicraft, Columbia and Mercury labels. At Columbia through 1953, Vaughan was marketed almost exclusively via pop ballads, a number of which had chart success. She would cut sides at Columbia with label mates Miles Davis and Benny Green and Jimmy Jones which proved she could sing Jazz with the best of her peers, fully incorporating Be-Bop into her singing. Her hits during this stretch include “Everything I Have Is Yours” “It’s Magic”, “Nature Boy”, “Black Coffee”, “Make Believe (You Are Glad When You’re Sorry)”, “I’m Crazy to Love You”, “I Love the Guy”, “Thinking of You”, “I Cried for You”, “These Things I Offer You”, “Vanity”, “Saint or Sinner”, “My Tormented Heart”, and “Time”, “My Funny Valentine” and “Linger Awhile” among numerous others. She became a star.
“These Things I Offer You” – Sarah Vaughan, Live
At Mercury, she enjoyed a unique contractual arrangement which stipulated she was to be marketed as both a pop and Jazz singer recording for Mercury proper and its EmArcy Jazz imprint. It was at EmArcy that she crafted her project Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown in 1954 which was said to be one of her personal favorites (I know it’s mine).
“He’s My Guy” – Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown [
Vaughan signed with Roulette Records in the 60’s, making a string of well received large ensemble albums arranged and/or conducted by Quincy Jones, Benny Carter and Lalo Schifrin among others. She also had pop success with “Serenata”, “Eternally” and “You’re My Baby” (leftover tracks from her Mercury days) and released 2 albums of Jazz standards: After Hours (1961) and Sarah + 2 (1962).
Vaughan returned to Mercury Records in 1963 recording Sassy Swings the Tivoli in Denmark, recorded over four days of live performances with her trio under the auspices of Quincy Jones. But soon, due to the changing taste of the times, Vaughan, like many Jazz stalwarts found themselves out of favor and with no recording home. Vaughan was lucky to have a dedicated fan base that allowed her to tour extensively. Still, between Roulette and Mercury, Vaughan released a prolific 23 albums during the decade.
“Misty” – Sarah Vaughan, Live 1964
Vaughan experienced a rebirth in 1971 when Bob Shad, who had produced her at Mercury Records, signed her to his new label, Mainstream Records. The results were the albums A Time in My Life, Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand (“Send in the Clowns” came from these sessions), Feelin’ Good and a live album in Tokyo, Live in Japan, recorded with her trio in1973.
“Send In The Clowns” – Sarah Vaughan, Live 1971
In 1974 she collaborated with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas in his all-Gershwin show with a guest appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. They would go on to replicate the performance with concerts in Buffalo, New York with Thomas’ home orchestra and with symphony orchestras across the country in 1975 and 1976.
“Gershwin Live (Medley)” – Sarah Vaughan, Live With Los Angeles Philharmonic
In 1977 when Vaughn signed with Pablo Records label, she hadn’t had a recording contract for three years (though she recorded an album of Beatles songs with contemporary pop arrangements for Atlantic Records that was eventually released in 1981). Vaughan’s first Pablo release was the Grammy nominated I Love Brazil! recorded with an all-star cast of Brazilian musicians in Rio de Janeiro in the fall of 1977. In total, she recorded seven Pablo albums : Copacabana, also recorded in Rio (1979), How Long Has This Been Going On? (1978), two Duke Ellington Songbook albums (1979), Send in the Clowns (1981) with the Count Basie Orchestra and Crazy and Mixed Up (1982).
In the 80’s Ms. Vaughan began receiving recognition for her contributions to modern music and feted in a manner befitting her status. She won an Emmy Award for a PBS broadcast of her performance of the Gershwin program with the New Jersey Symphony and another Emmy in 1981 for “Individual Achievement – Special Class”. Her CBS Records reunion with Michael Tilson Thomas & Gershwin Live! with the Los Angeles Philharmonic won Vaughan the 1983 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female. 1985 saw Vaughan receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was inducted into the American Jazz Hall of Fame in 1988.
Vaughan recorded just a few times in the 80’s. In 1984 on Barry Manilow’s 2:00 AM Paradise Cafe and The Planet is Alive, Let It Live, based on Italian translations of Polish poems by Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II. Vaughan’s final complete album was Brazilian Romance, produced and composed by Sérgio Mendes and recorded primarily in the early part of 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.
Fittingly, her final recorded performance was a duet with Ella Fitzgerald (the only one ever for a recording session) on “Birdland” from Quincy Jones’ Back On The Block in 1989. It was Vaughan’s only formal studio recording with Fitzgerald in a career that had begun 46 years earlier opening for Ella at the Apollo (the two performed together often on television shows and on stage over their storied careers). She also sang on “Setembro (Brazilian Wedding Song)” with Take 6 on BOTB.
Ms. Vaughan died April 3, 1990.
She left a legacy of influence that can be heard in singers across the spectrum. From Anita Baker, Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Liz Scott, Regina Belle, Chrisette Michelle, Aretha Franklin, Rachelle Ferell, Teena Marie, Faith Evans, Stevie Wonder and even Bilal, all echo the indelible stylistic stamp of Sassy Sarah Vaughan.
We could be here all day citing favorite recordings by Vaughan, but mine has always been the sessions she did with trumpeter Clifford Brown. Here’s “Lullaby of Birdland” & a 12 minute performance from 1951 featuring “You’re Not The Kind”, which would appear later with a different arrangement from the lp with Clifford Brown, sandwiched in with other jewels.
“Lullaby of Birdland” – Sarah Vaughan & Clifford Brown, 1954
Sarah Vaughan “You’re Not The Kind”, Live, 1951