When trying to discover who were THE female jazz vocalists to investigate when first buying jazz records, nine times out of ten I was pointed in direction of Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
All three of course have their merits and over the years I bought plenty of records by all three. But I found it was the voice of ‘Sassy’ Sarah that caught my ear the most. He range was extraordinary and her choice of material, especially in the 50s, seemed to chime more to my ‘bebop’ taste.
For me, Ella could be too ‘jolly’ at times whereas Billie could drag you to the ground with her songs and voice, so you had to be in the right mood for her work.
On my Facebook ‘Friday Red Wine Three’ feature, I have often gone to the voice of Sarah after returning home after having a bad day for whatever reason and her voice nearly always rescues me and so today I’ll take a look at her life and career in depth.
She was born in New Jersey in March 1924 as Sarah Lois Vaughan. Coming from a music loving church family unit, she sang in the choir of the Mount Zion Baptist Church from an early age. She also picked up the piano through lessons from the age of 7.
Popular music had also caught her ear as well though and she often saw touring bands as they passed through her town. By her mid teens she was performing illegally as a pianist and singer at various jazz venues. Her love of performing over took her love of schoolwork and she eventually dropped out of school to pursue a musical career.
In 1942 aged 18 she won an amateur talent contest at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Her ultimate prize along with the gift of 10 dollars, was a week’s engagement opening for Ella Fitzgerald.
During that week, she teamed up with pianist and bandleader Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines after being introduced to him by his then male singer Billy Eckstine.
She then toured extensively with the Hines line up that included both Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Vaughan’s singing style began to be influenced by their instruments – ‘I always wanted to imitate the horns.’ She said later.
She recorded for the first time in 1944 with ‘I’ll Wait and I’ll Pray‘ before going solo later in the same year. It was around this time that she picked up the nickname ‘Sassy’ which it was said matched her personality to a T.
She then worked extensively on New York’s 52nd street, which was of course famous for its jazz clubs like the Three Deuces, & The Downbeat.
She continued recording too, often with her old sparring partners Gillespie and Parker. Her version of Dizzy’s ‘Night In Tunisia’ – entitled ‘Interlude’ – is fondly remembered from this period.
Her clever scatting of jazz solos also earned a lot of recognition.
She was managed by George Treadwell, a trumpeter who worked on improving her stage appearance and the two later married in 1946. Popular songs of her around this time included ‘Body and Soul’ ‘Tenderly’ ‘Nature Boy’ and ‘I’ve got a Crush on You.’
By this time she had signed for the Columbia record label and was gradually steered away from jazz to a more ‘pop’ sound in the early 50s. It didn’t sit well and in truth she hankered for a return to the jazz sound and to that end often worked with Miles Davis in the early 50s. She also worked with the late trumpeter Clifford Brown in 1954 on a fine selection of tunes.
Eventually a welcome move to the Mercury label had her back in the jazz idiom. It is said that her remarkable vocal range could have had her working in the operatic field too, if she had had the correct training. Bob James, Vaughan’s musical director in the 1960s said ‘…the instrument was there. But the knowledge, and 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.’
She toured relentlessly and played at Carnegie Hall as well as the Newport Jazz Festival and teamed up with her old singing partner Billy Eckstine in 1957 for the hit record ‘Passing Stranger’s.’She had further commercial success with songs like ‘Misty’ and ‘Whatever Lola Wants.’After two messy divorces and in serious debt as a result, Sassy continued to work, including stints with Quincy Jones in the ‘60s. The early 70s found her recording pop tunes again, but this time by the likes of Gaye, Lennon and Dylan.
Her 1981 rendition of the song ‘Send in the Clowns’ demonstrated the full range of her vocal abilities. It was memorably 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 ‘ by The New York Times.
She was often on the road, with Brazil being a favourite destination. She also worked the European jazz circuit, appearing at Montreux and fondly remembered stints at Ronnie Scott’s.
Sadly, in 1989 she was discovered to be suffering from the effects of lung cancer. After undergoing gruelling chemotherapy treatment, she checked herself out of hospital and died at home aged 66 in 1990, the very same year she was inducted into the ‘Jazz Hall of Fame.’
Her legacy of course lives on and that voice once heard cannot be forgotten as Old Blue Eyes himself recalled when asked to name his favourite singers.
‘Sassy is so good now that when I listen to her I want to cut my wrists with a dull razor.’
In her honour San Francisco and Berkeley, California have made March 27th ‘Sarah Lois Vaughan Day.’
Amen to that.
The Mumper of SE5