Sullivan, Maxine (1911–1987)
Sullivan, Maxine (1911–1987)
African-American singer who was famous for her rendition of the Scottish folk song "Loch Lomond." Name variations: Marietta Williams. Born Marietta Williams in Homestead, Pennsylvania, on May 13, 1911; died on April 7, 1987, in New York City; trained as a nurse in the 1950s; married John Kirby (a bandleader), in 1938 (divorced 1941); married Cliff Jackson (a pianist), in 1950 (died 1970); children: Paula Morris and Orville Williams.
"Loch Lomond" (1937); "I'm Coming, Virginia" (1937); "Annie Laurie" (1937); "Blue Skies" (1937); "Nice Work If You Can Get It" (1937); "St. Louis Blues" (1938); "When Your Lover Has Gone/ My Ideal" (1942); The Complete Charlie Shavers with Maxine Sullivan (1956); The Queen (1981); The Great Songs of the Cotton Club by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler (1984); Uptown (1985).
Selected theater and film:
appeared in the Hollywood film musicals Going Places (opposite Louis Armstrong) and St. Louis Blues (both 1938); appeared on Broadway in Swingin' the Dream (1939).
Born Marietta Williams in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1911, Maxine Sullivan grew up in a home filled with music. Her father and uncles all played musical instruments, and she began singing at home when she was very young. Her grandmother encouraged the six-year-old child to sing at a local library show, and as she grew into her teens, she was performing in organized groups, including her uncle's band, the Red Hot Peppers. Sullivan made her professional debut at a small Pittsburgh speakeasy. Her soft voice was perfectly suited to the acoustics of the Benjamin Harrison Literary Club, a popular place to hear the leading jazz artists of the 1930s. Pianist Gladys Mosier heard Sullivan perform there and recommended her to pianist and arranger Claude Thornhill in 1936.
Sullivan moved to New York City, and after an audition was hired at the famous Onyx Club as an intermission entertainer earning $40 a week, with Mosier and Thornhill as her managers. Sullivan's light voice was well suited to classic folk songs, which she adapted to a swinging beat. On August 6, 1937, she recorded the Thornhill-arranged "I'm Coming, Virginia," "Annie Laurie," "Blue Skies," and "Loch Lomond." Backed by the John Kirby Quintet on "Loch Lomond," Sullivan attracted national attention. Although some radio stations did not like swing renditions of classic tunes, other stations responded to public demand and played Sullivan's recording of the Scottish folk song. As a result, her weekly salary at the Onyx soared to $80 and eventually to $150.
In addition to marrying bandleader Kirby in 1938, Sullivan also performed in two Hollywood films that year. She appeared opposite Louis Armstrong and Ronald Reagan in Going Places, and with Dorothy Lamour and Lloyd Nolan in St. Louis Blues. The year 1939 took her to Broadway with Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman in Swingin' the Dream, a jazz version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. She also included in her repertoire such pop tunes as "I've Got the World on a String," "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," and "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues." Sullivan and Kirby worked together on her radio show, "Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm," a CBS-produced broadcast that aired for two years and frequently offered jazz versions of classical music. However, while Sullivan and Kirby's careers were experiencing increasing success, their marriage disintegrated, and they divorced in 1941. After touring with the Benny Carter orchestra, Sullivan launched a solo act, performing in the late 1940s with Johnny Long and Glenn Miller before returning to New York City for six years at Le Ruban Bleu and four years at the Village Vanguard.
In 1950, Sullivan married stride pianist Cliff Jackson, and she retired six years later to devote more time to her family. She was active in local school board activities and became president of the Parent-Teachers Association of P.S. 136 in the Bronx. She also trained as a nurse, spending time working as a health counselor. In 1956, she purchased a building in the South Bronx and established a community center called the House That Jazz Built, dedicated to her husband, supported by memberships and grants, and administered with the help of senior citizens. Tired of touring, Sullivan occasionally performed at local clubs with jazz musicians such as Bobby Hackett, Charlie Shavers, Earl Hines, and Bob Wilber. In 1979, she earned a Tony Award nomination for her performance in the Broadway musical My Old Friends. Despite failing health, Sullivan appeared at jazz festivals around the world and recorded 11 albums, all of which were well received and which earned her Grammy nominations in 1982, 1985, and 1986.
After a career of more than 50 years, Sullivan suffered a seizure on April 1, 1987, and died six days later. Conflicting reports as to the cause of death indicate that she died either from heart failure or lung cancer.
Kernfeld, Barry, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1988, 1994.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women, Book II. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.
B. Kimberly Taylor , freelance writer, New York, New York