Sarah Lois Vaughan was born on March 27, 1924 in Newark New Jersey. Her father, Asbury "Jake" Vaughan was a carpenter and amateur guitarist. Her mother, Ada, was a laundress. Jake and Ada Vaughan migrated to Newark from Virginia during the First World War. Sarah was their only natural child, although in the 1960s they adopted Donna, the child of a woman who traveled on the road with Sarah Vaughan.
The Vaughan’s lived in a house on Newark's Brunswick Street for Sarah's entire childhood. Jake Vaughan was deeply religious and the family was very active in the New Mount Zion Baptist Church on 186 Thomas Street. Sarah began piano lessons at the age of seven. Vaughan 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, Adams Theatre and Proctor's Theatre. By her mid-teens, Vaughan began venturing (illegally) into Newark's nightclubs and performing as a pianist and, occasionally, singer, most notably at the Piccadilly Club and the Newark Airport USO.
Vaughan initially attended Newark's East Side High School, later transferring to Arts High, which had opened in 1931 as the nation's first arts "magnet" high school. However, her nocturnal adventures as a performer began to overwhelm her academic pursuits and Vaughn 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 Harlem's Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theatre.
Biographies of Vaughan frequently state that she was immediately thrust into stardom after a winning an Amateur Night performance at Harlem's Apollo Theatre. In fact, the story that biographer Leslie Gourse relates seems to be a bit more complex. A friend, Doris Robinson, on her trips into New York City, frequently accompanied Vaughan. Sometime in the Fall of 1942 (when Sarah was 18 years old), Vaughan suggested that Robinson enter the Apollo Amateur Night contest. Vaughn played piano accompaniment Robinson, who won second prize. Vaughn 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, the Apollo contacted Vaughan in the spring of 1943 to open for Ella Fitzgerald.
Sometime during her week of performances at the Apollo, Vaughan was introduced to bandleader/pianist Earl Hines, although the exact details of that introduction are disputed. Vaughan and others have credited Singer Billy Eckstine, who was with Hines at the time, with hearing her at the Apollo and recommending her to Hines. Hines also claimed 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 existing female singer with Vaughan April 4, 1943.
Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine: 1943 - 1944
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 (AFM) rather than the singers union (AGVA), but after Cliff Smalls joined the band as a trombonist and pianist, Sarah's duties became limited exclusively to singing. Vaughan presented a visual paradox for audiences as a rail-thin 18-year-old waif with a remarkably mature voice. Up to that point in her life, Vaughan never had much concern for her physical appearance, so Hines and other members of the band had to provide assistance with attire and grooming appropriate for a female band singer. As a tough kid from the streets of Newark, Vaughan had no problem holding her own with her male co-workers and she often spoke very fondly in later years of the friendships built in during her brief time in the Hines band.
This Earl Hines band is best remembered today as an incubator of bop, as it included trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker (playing tenor rather than the alto that he would become famous with later) and trombonist Benny Green. Gillespie also arranged for the band, although a recording ban by the musicians union prevented the band from recording and preserving its sound and style for posterity.
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, 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 Deluxe label. That date led to 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 "Sassy".
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.
Early Solo Career: 1945 - 1948
Vaughan began her solo career in 1945 by freelancing in clubs on New York's 52nd street like the Three Deuces, the Famous Door, the Downbeat and the Onyx Club. Vaughan also hung around the Braddock Grill, next door to the Apollo Theatre 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 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 Cafe Society Downtown, an integrated club in New York's Sheridan Square.
While at Cafe 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, Vaughn had her teeth capped, eliminating an unsightly 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 same time as the release of the famous Nat King Cole recording of the same song. Because of yet another recording ban by the musicians union, "Nature Boy" was recorded with an A Capella choir as the only accompaniment, adding an ethereal air to a song with a vaguely mystical lyric and melody.
Stardom and The Columbia Years: 1948 - 1953
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. Vaughan won Esquire magazine's New Star Award for 1947. Vaughan won 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 40's. 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 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 Vaughan, "The Divine One", that would follow her throughout her career. In 1951, Vaughan made her first tour of Europe.
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 lead 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 Vaughan became dissatisfied both with the commercial material she was required to record there and lackluster financial success of her records. A set of small group sides recorded in 1950 with Miles Davis and Benny Green are among the best of her career, but those were isolated moments in her Columbia ouvre. Frank Sinatra would face similar issues at the conclusion of his Columbia contract around the same time. As with Sinatra, Vaughan needed a change of setting that would give her talents the environment to fully blossom.
The Mercury Years: 1954 - 1958
In 1953, Treadwell negotiated a unique contract for her with Mercury Records. Vaughan would record commercial material for the Mercury label and more jazz-oriented material for Mercury's subsidiary EmArcy label. Vaughan was paired with producer Bob Shad and their excellent working relationship resulted in strong commercial and artistic success. Vaughan's first recording session for Mercury was in February of 1954 and she stayed with the label through 1959. After a stint at Roulette Records from 1960 to 1963, Vaughan returned to Mercury for an additional time from 1964 to 1967.
Vaughan's commercial success at Mercury began with "Make Yourself Comfortable", recorded in the fall of 1954. Other hits followed, including: "How Important Can It Be" (with Count Basie), "Whatever Lola Wants", "The Banana Boat Song", "You Ought to Have A Wife". Vaughan's commercial success peaked with "Broken Hearted Melody", a song she considered "corny", that 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, the primary leaders being Hugo Peretti and Hal Mooney.
Meanwhile, the jazz "track" of her recording career also proceeded apace, backed either by her working trio or various assemblages of illustrious jazz figures. One of her favorite albums of her whole career was an album recorded in December of 1954 featuring a sextet that included Clifford Brown. The album The Land of Hi-Fi was recorded at pair of October 1955 sessions featured a 12-piece band that was lead by Ernie Wilkins and included JJ Johnson, Kai Winding, and Cannonball Adderley augmenting Sarah's working trio. In 1958 Vaughan recorded the No 'Count Sarah album with members of the Count Basie Orchestra, minus Basie, who was under contract with another record company.
Performances from this era often found Vaughan in the company of a veritable who's who of jazz figures from the mid-1950s during a schedule of almost non-stop touring. Vaughan was featured at the first Newport Jazz Festival in the summer of 1954 and would star in subsequent editions of that festival at Newport and in New York City for the remainder of her life. In the Fall of 1954, Vaughan 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, Vaughan took another brief and highly successful tour of Europe. In early 1955, Vaughan set out on a "Big Show" tour, a grueling succession of start-studded one-nighters that included Count Basie, George Shearing, Errol Garner and Jimmy Rushing. In the 1955 New York Jazz Festival on Randalls Island, Vaughan shared the bill with the Dave Brubeck quartet, Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, 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 at some time in 1958 and Vaughan filed for a divorce. Vaughan had entirely delegated financial matters to Treadwell, and despite stunning figures reported through the 1950s about Vaughan's record sales and performance income, at the settlement Treadwell said that only $16,000 was left. The couple evenly divided that amount and the personal assets and terminated their business relationship. Despite his questionable business practices, Treadwell had excellent taste and gave Vaughan the ability to just be herself. Treadwell's 12 years of management would ultimately prove to be the most focused of Vaughan's career and she would never have management that strong again.
The exit of Treadwell from Vaughan's life was also precipitated by the entry of Clyde "C.B." Atkins, a man of uncertain background that Vaughn met while on tour in Chicago and married on September 4, 1958. Although Atkins had no experience in artist management or music, Vaughan wished to have a mixed professional/personal relationship like the one she had with Treadwell. Vaughan 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 Cliffs, New Jersey.
Vaughan's contract with Mercury Records ended in late 1959 and she immediately signed on with Roulette Records, a small label owned by Morris Levy, one of the backers of the Birdland jazz club in New York where Vaughan had frequently appeared. Roulette's roster also included Count Basie, Joe Williams, Dinah Washington, Lambert Hendricks and Ross, and Maynard Ferguson, among others.
Vaughan began recording for Roulette in April of 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. Surprisingly, Vaughan also had some success in 1960 on the pop charts with "Serenata" on Roulette and a couple of residual tracks from her Mercury contract, "Eternally" and "You're My Baby". Vaughan made a pair of intimate trio albums of jazz standards: After Hours in 1961 with guitarist Mundell Lowe and bassist George Duvivier and Sarah Plus Two in 1962 with guitarist Barney Kessell and bassist Joe Comfort.
Vaughan was incapable of having biological children, so in 1961 Vaughan and Atkins adopted a daughter, Debra Lois. However the relationship with Atkins was difficult and violent and Vaughan filed for divorce in November of 1963 after a series of strange incidents. Vaughan turned to two friends to help sort out the financial wreckage of the marriage: John "Preacher" Wells, a childhood acquaintance and club owner, and Clyde "Pumpkin" Golden, Jr. Wells and Golden found that Atkins' gambling and profligate spending had put Vaughan around $150,000 in debt and the Englewood Cliffs house was ultimately seized by the IRS for nonpayment of taxes. Vaughan retained custody of the adopted 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. 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 that would be released on the album Sassy Swings the Tivoli that is an excellent example of Vaughan's life show from this period. Vaughan made her first appearance at the White House for President Johnson in 1964.
Unfortunately, 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.
Rebirth in the Seventies
Vaughan met Marshall Fisher after a 1970 performance at a casino in Las Vegas and Fisher soon fell in to the familiar dual role as Vaughan's lover and manager. Fisher was another man of uncertain background with no musical or entertainment business experience. However, unlike some of Vaughan's earlier associates, he was a genuine fan of Vaughan's and was devoted to furthering Vaughan's career.
The seventies also heralded a rebirth in Vaughan's recording activity. In 1971, Bob Shad, who had worked as a producer with Vaughan during her contract with Mercury Records, asked Vaughan 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 of 1971. In April of 1972, Vaughan recorded a lovely 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 a live album in Tokyo with her trio in September of 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 Vaughan's 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 private concert for U.S. 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. Established jazz artists Dave Grusin on piano, Ray Brown on bass, drummer Shelly Manne and saxophonists Bill Perkins and Pete Christlieb would augment the orchestra. The concert was a success and Thomas and Vaughn repeated the performance with Thomas' home orchestra in Buffalo, NY, followed by appearances in 1975 and 1976 with symphonies around the country. These performances fulfilled a long-held interest by Vaughan in working with symphonies and she made orchestra performances without Thomas for the remainder of the decade.
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 Waymond 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 Vaughan's third husband in 1978.
In the Summer of 1977, Tom Guy, a young filmmaker and public TV producer, followed Vaughan around on tour, interviewing numerous artists speaking about Vaughan 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, which aired on September 21, 1978 on New Jersey Public Television. As of this writing, the film has not been commercially released.
Finally in 1977, Norman Granz, who was also Ella Fitzgerald's manager, signed Vaughan to his Pablo record label. Vaughan had not had a recording contract for three years, although she recorded a 1977 album of Beatles songs with contemporary pop arrangements for the Atlantic record label that was eventually released in 1981. Vaughan's first release for Pablo was I Love Brazil, which was recorded with an all-star cast of Brazilian musicians in Rio de Janeiro in the fall of 1977 and led to a Grammy nomination.
The Pablo contract would ultimately result in five albums. In the Spring of 1978, Vaughan recorded How Long Has This Been Going On? with a quartet that included pianist Oscar Peterson, guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Louis Bellson. In the fall of 1979, Vaughan recorded material for two Duke Ellington Songbook albums. In the Spring of 1981, Vaughan recorded the album Send In The Clowns with the Count Basie orchestra playing arrangements primarily by Sammy Nestico and including a second recording of what had become her signature song. Her contract concluded in March of 1982 with Crazy and Mixed Up, another quartet album featuring Sir Roland Hanna on piano, Joe Pass on guitar, Andy Simpkins on bass and Harold Jones on drums. Vaughan and Waymond Reed divorced in 1981.
Vaughan remained quite active as a performer during the 1980s and began receiving awards recognizing her contribution to American music and status as an important elder stateswoman of Jazz. In the Summer of 1980, Vaughan received a plaque on 52nd street outside the CBS building commemorating the jazz clubs she had once frequented on "Swing Street" and which had long since been demolished and replaced with office buildings. A performance of her symphonic Gershwin program with the New Jersey Symphony in the Fall of 1980 was broadcast on PBS and won her an Emmy Award in 1981 for "Individual Achievement - Special Class". She was reunited with Michael Tilson Thomas for slightly modified version of the Gershwin program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the CBS Records recording, Gershwin Live won Vaughan a Grammy award. In 1985 Vaughan received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1988 Vaughan was inducted into American Jazz Hall of Fame.
After the conclusion of her Pablo contract in 1982, Vaughan did only a limited amount studio recording. Vaughan made a guest appearance in 1984 on Barry Manilow's 2 A.M. Paradise Cafe, an odd 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 Wytola, the future 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, Vaughn 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 Jose Carreras of the score of the Broadway musical South Pacific.
Vaughan's final complete album was Brazilian Romance, produced and composed by Sergio Mendez 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 Monterrey was taped in 1984 or 1983 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.
In 1989, Vaughan's health began to decline, although she rarely betrayed any hints in her performances. Vaughan canceled a series of engagements in Europe for the Fall of 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 the Fall of 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. Toward the end, Vaughan tired of the struggle and demanded to be taken home, where she passed away on the evening of April 4, 1990 while watching a television movie featuring her adopted daughter.
Vaughan's funeral was at the First Mount Zion Baptist Church in Newark, NJ, which was the same congregation she grew up in but which had relocated to a new building. Following the ceremony, a horse-drawn carriage transported her body to it's final resting place in Glendale Cemetery in Bloomfield, NJ.
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