Vaughan, Sarah (1924–1990)

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Vaughan, Sarah (1924–1990)

Grammy Award-winning African-American singer known for her unique combination of jazz, pop, and classical styles. Name variations: (nicknames) "Sassy" Sarah Vaughan; the Divine One; the Divine Miss Sarah. Born Sarah Vaughan on March 27, 1924, in Newark, New Jersey; died of lung cancer in California on April 4, 1990; only child of Ada Vaughan and Asbury "Jake" Vaughan; educated through junior year of high school; married George Treadwell, in 1946 (divorced 1958); married Clyde B. Atkins, in 1958 (divorced 1962); married Waymon Reed, in 1978 (divorced 1981); children: (adopted) daughter, Debra, known professionally as Paris Vaughan.

Sang and played piano and organ as a child in her family's Baptist church in Newark; by early teens, played and sang at local nightclubs and ballrooms; was hired by Earl Hines to sing with his band (1943), then with Billy Eckstine's band (1944), before striking out as a solo artist; gained international reputation under guidance of first husband and manager, and began a nearly 50-year career as a progressive jazz artist, pop singer, and concert performer, culminating in two Grammy awards; inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame (1988).

One day in 1939, a stranger came to call on Jake and Ada Vaughan at their home in the "Down Neck" section of Newark, New Jersey, near the railroad station. He said he ran a nightclub in a less-than-genteel part of town and had been admiring the way their daughter Sarah played the piano and sang for his customers; so much so, that he wanted to give Sarah a full-time job playing every night. That was how the Vaughans found out what their 15-year-old daughter had been up to, why she was so tired during the day, and why her bedroom window was oddly open in the morning, even in the middle of winter. Although everyone knew that Sarah liked to sing and play, her parents were the last to find out how deeply she was committed to music.

Sarah Vaughan had been playing the organ and the piano at the New Zion Baptist Church every Sunday for as long as anyone could remember—practically, it seemed, since she was born in 1924. Both parents were musically inclined, Ada playing the piano and "Asbury" Jake strumming the guitar and singing some of the country and blues songs he'd learned in his native Virginia. Sarah was known both at church and at school for her musical talents, especially her singing. Even in grammar school, she was in the house by 5:15 every weekday to hear Bob Howard's program from the CBS station in New York, and would imitate his singing and playing style for her friends.

By the time she was in her teens, Vaughan and her friends were sneaking out at night to local ballrooms and clubs to hear the big bands that played Newark's night spots, especially the Adams Theater, where Earl "Fatha" Hines and his band would perform frequently, with Billy Eckstine handling the vocals. Then there was always The Mosque, The Picadilly, and any number of more than 60 vaudeville, burlesque, and movie houses that catered to a music scene nearly as lively as Manhattan's, just across the Hudson River. "Everybody wanted to become a star," remembered Gil Fuller, who grew up with Sarah and went on to become a composer and arranger for Dizzy Gillespie. Fuller also remembered Ada and Jake Vaughan. "They were the sort of people who didn't even want their children to go to dances," he recalled, pinpointing the source of years of friction between Sarah and her parents, especially when Vaughan dropped out of high school in her junior year and announced she was going to be a star. "I want it! I like it! And I'm going to hit!" she defiantly told a fuming Jake.

By her late teens, Vaughan was an all-night fixture at clubs around town, singing requests whenever anyone would ask her and enjoying the company of musicians. Her high-volume cigarette habit was already established, sometimes more than two packs a day, and she had already

developed a taste for gin with a splash of water and a twist. She loved loud music, crowds of people, and the hazy blue atmosphere of a nightclub in the early morning hours; and she quickly gained a reputation for her sharp repartée and fluent profanity. "Whatever she had to say," a friend remembered from those days, "she would say it right out. She didn't hold things back." The men in the various bands Vaughan befriended started calling her "No 'Count Sarah," because she held no one to account for her welfare except herself.

Like that of so many other singers of her generation, Vaughan's career began at Harlem's Apollo Theater, where she sang "Body and Soul" one amateur night in 1942 and won first prize. The master of ceremonies, who almost kept her from performing because she arrived so late, was in awe of her ability to vocalize changes around the melody: "She jumped octaves like she owned them." Beside the ten-dollar first prize, Vaughan walked away with a promise of a week's work at the Apollo, which didn't materialize until the spring of 1943, when she appeared on a bill headed by Ella Fitzgerald —another discovery of Apollo's amateur night. Fitzgerald was the only singer in later years who could challenge Vaughan for the title of leading female jazz vocalist. The rivalry between the two was always friendly, with Ella protecting Sarah after the Apollo show from booking agents who swarmed around her. Many years later, Fitzgerald would generously call Vaughan "the greatest singing talent in the world." Also in the house that night at the Apollo were Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine, both later laying claim to "discovering" Sarah. Three weeks later, Vaughan had her first full-time paying job in the music business with the Hines band, singing duets with Eckstine and playing second piano with Hines.

The band was Vaughan's home, family, and music school for the next year, and she couldn't have found better. In addition to Eckstine, from whom she learned much about phrasing, interpretation, and stage presence, the band included two men who would usher in the age of "progressive" jazz—trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker. "What was so exciting about the Hines band," Vaughan later recalled, "was that they were playing harmonies and complex rhythms and textures that I already knew from classical music. This was a whole new age of jazz." Gillespie was quick to realize Vaughan's ability to follow the fast, complex changes and harmonies of what he came to call bebop, with its choppy rhythm patterns and unusual note sequences. (A more musically conservative Cab Calloway called it "Chinese music.") "Sarah can sing notes that other people can't even hear," Gillespie said.

Unlike most women singers, who spent their time before and after shows in their hotel rooms, Vaughan spent her off-stage time with the band members, drinking, smoking and cursing with the best of them. It was probably during this time that she acquired the taste for cocaine that would plague her for much of her life; but no matter what habits she indulged in or how few hours of sleep she managed, her voice just got better as time went on. Her versions of "He's Funny That Way," "Once in a While," and "Sweet and Lovely," delivered in a rich, vibrato voice that was often described as smoky, became the definitive treatments for those pop standards. Her voice, with its astounding range, became as much an instrument of the band as Gillespie's trumpet or Parker's alto sax, and one reviewer noted that she could be "delicate and sweet as a violin at the top of her range, sonorous as an organ at the bottom, with all the suppleness of a trumpet in between."

In 1943, Billy Eckstine left Hines' band to form his own group, taking Gillespie and Parker with him. A year later, Vaughan followed. Now that the group was free of Hines' insistence on pop standards, Sarah found new challenges and had to integrate her voice even more tightly into the ensemble. "You had to know a little about music or have a hell of a good ear to stand before that band," Vaughan later said; but added, "I loved it, I loved it!" In 1944, she made her first recording, "I'll Wait and Pray," released that December, and picked up the nickname that would stay with her the rest of her life—"Sassy," given to her by Eckstine's pianist, John Malachi, who liked to needle her just to produce a sharp and salty retort. Later that year, when Gillespie left Eckstine's band to set up his a purely bebop ensemble, Vaughan decided to try it on her own as a solo act. She played all the 52nd Street clubs in New York—the Famous Door, the Onyx, the Three Deuces, sometimes backed by Charlie Parker, sometimes joined by Eckstine, who was often playing nearby. Although the time between gigs sometimes forced her to return home to Newark for weeks at a time, her reputation as a unique jazz stylist grew, especially when influential critic Leonard Feather wrote of her in his jazz encyclopedia for 1944: "Sarah Vaughan's voice … brought to jazz an unprecedented combination of … a beautifully controlled tone and vibrato; an ear for the chord structure of songs … [and] a coy, sometimes archly naïve quality alternating with a great sense of sophistication." He was so impressed with her that he helped get Vaughan her first recording contract with a small label called Continental, under which she released four recordings in 1944, at $20 a song. Among them was "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," which became one of her most requested numbers. The next year, she recorded "Lover Man" with Dizzy, generally considered the first widely accepted "progressive" jazz release.

Still, not everyone was ready for her sound. Her trademark vibrato was often criticized, and she was accused of being overstylized, with too many deliberate vocal fireworks—"wandering and amateurish," one reviewer put it; and Time compared her voice to a kazoo, although the magazine later printed an explanation that the kazoo was one of the few instruments that could handle half notes and quarter tones the way Vaughan could, and that the comparison had actually been meant as a compliment. Her next memorable recording, as if to prove her versatility, was as far away from bebop as she could get, a version of "The Lord's Prayer," released for the 1950 Christmas season by Musicraft, with whom Vaughan had signed after leaving Continental. It was so successful that contralto Marian Anderson , whose version until then had been the standard, sent her a congratulatory note. Even Vaughan's father, who had nearly disowned her over her career choice, began to think it hadn't been such a bad idea after all.

By the late 1940s, the stage was set for Vaughan's emergence as an international talent, and the catalyst was the man she married in September 1946, George Treadwell. Treadwell played the trumpet for a Harlem band, and traveled down to Greenwich Village one night, to a club called Café Society, to hear the new singer everyone was talking about. He fell in love—first, he said, with the music and, second, with the woman. In a pattern Vaughan would repeat throughout her life, the man she married also became her manager. Treadwell put every aspect of Sarah's career under his control—from the clothes she wore, to the vocabulary she used, to the songs she sang—with great success. Some of her best recordings for Musicraft were done under his guidance, including her first jazz recording to cross over to the pop charts, "Tenderly," released in 1947, and "It's Magic," which stayed at number 11 on the charts for nearly three months. When he met her at Café Society in 1946, she was being paid $250 a week; when she played the same club three years later, she received over $2,000 a week, plus a percentage of the door. Treadwell secured interviews for her on radio, in magazines and newspapers, and made sure her records received plenty of airplay. Esquire gave her its New Star award in 1947, and Down Beat named her most popular female vocalist for five years running. Treadwell took care of everything, including handling the money, for Vaughan freely admitted she was a spendthrift. "He can count good," she said of her husband in 1947, "and he likes chili and so do I." Treadwell organized her first national tour, with appearances from Miami to Los Angeles to Chicago, where radio personality Dave Garroway became such a fan that he put her on his live midnight show from the Sherman Hotel and played Vaughan's version of "Don't Blame Me" so often that it became his theme song. It was Garroway who dubbed Sarah "The Divine One," a title with which, by 1948, few felt inclined to argue. Metronome noted that "not since Billie Holiday has a singer hit other singers so hard."

After a contract dispute with Musicraft, Vaughan signed with Columbia in 1949, where she recorded another jazz-pop crossover tune, "Make Believe," and her first pure pop standard, "I Cried for You." By now, Treadwell was promoting her as a pop stylist, rather than a jazz singer, and the transformation was apparent to The New York Times' jazz critic John Wilson, who noted that she had moved from being an "esoterically appreciated singer into a showman who can hold her own with those select few who roost up on the top rung."

I sing. I just sing.

—Sarah Vaughan

In 1951, Vaughan embarked on the first of many European tours, where jazz fans in London, Paris, and Munich flocked to hear the new American phenomenon. Friends remembered that first trip as one long party for Sarah, and again expressed amazement that the alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs only seemed to improve her voice. They also noted that relations between Vaughan and Treadwell were becoming strained, so much so that George often stayed in New York to run their management business while Sarah was touring. Now earning close to $200,000 a year, with soldout appearances at Carnegie Hall and guest spots on major network television shows, Vaughan had seen her career explode under Treadwell's eye, but she missed her jazz roots and resented Treadwell's emphasis on pop. She left Columbia and signed with Mercury in a deal that allowed her to record mainstream music under their main label and more experimental jazz under a subsidiary label, EmArcy. "My contract with Mercury is for pops," she said, "and my contract with EmArcy is for me." Her last recording under Treadwell's guidance was "Broken-Hearted Melody," a love ballad Sarah disliked and called "corny," but it was her first million seller and was nominated for a Grammy in 1959, the first of seven such nominations. But by then, George and Sarah had divorced, with George revealing that of the $150 million Vaughan had supposedly made on royalties, only $16,000 remained. There were never any public explanations of where the rest had gone, but even so, Sarah always admitted that she owed much of her success to George.

Shortly after the divorce was finalized, Vaughan announced her marriage to Clyde B. ("C.B.") Atkins, a shadowy Chicago businessman who claimed to own a fleet of taxicabs and to have been a professional football player. Although he knew nothing about the music business, Sarah turned the running of The Devine [sic] One, her new management company, over to her new husband. She went back to work by leaving Mercury and signing a new contract with Roulette Records, and left again for Europe to sing at the Brussels World Fair in 1958 at the invitation of the State Department. C.B. and Sarah adopted a daughter, Debra, in 1961, and Vaughan portrayed herself publicly as a happily married woman. But friends knew differently. C.B. jealously kept her at home when she wasn't performing, spent much of his time gambling with her money, and abused her physically. Claiming C.B. threatened her life, Vaughan filed for divorce in 1962, only to discover that C.B. had left her $150,000 in debt. The IRS seized her home in Newark for non-payment of taxes, and Sarah and Debra eventually moved in with John "Preacher" Wells, a childhood friend, who, not unexpectedly, became Vaughan's manager and lover. Wells sorted out Sarah's finances, even opened her first official checking account, and helped get her life back on track.

Even with Wells' help, however, Vaughan found it hard to give up the all-night hours and habits to which she was accustomed. Roy McClure, who played bass for her group for a time, claimed she would "gorge herself on drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes" before a performance, and then sing like a bird. Sarah's voice just seemed to get deeper and richer, but by the late '60s, rock 'n' roll was replacing jazz as the alternative to pop, and her recordings of the '40s and '50s were now being played as oldies on the radio. Searching for new ways to use her voice, Vaughan recorded "The Messiah" with a 40-voice chorus for Quincy Jones, which formed part of the soundtrack for the 1969 film Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, and even expressed a desire to sing opera. But from 1967 to 1970, she made no recordings and had no contract with a major label. Vaughan broke up with Wells, moved with Debra to a rented house in Los Angeles, and tried to remain active by appearing at "event" concerts and jazz festivals, often sharing the bill with old friends from the Harlem days, like Billy Eckstine, Fitzgerald, and Carmen McRae .

Finally, Sarah met the person who would do for her in the 1970s what George Treadwell had done for her in the 1950s. Marshall Fisher, a successful Chicago restaurateur, had been a fan since the Sherman Hotel days and introduced himself one night after Sarah's performance at a jazz festival in California. Although he was a white man, the love affair that followed seemed to friends to be just the thing for their Sassy. Fisher "hustled her music, not her money," as one of them said. "He fit right in. The racial difference didn't mean a thing to Sassy or to any of us." Fisher, like Treadwell before him, made sure Vaughan wore the right clothes, chose the right songs, and was seen with the right people—even going so far as to convince her to move with him to a luxurious home in an exclusive Los Angeles community, Hidden Hills. Although they never married, the press always referred to Marshall as Vaughan's husband, which he was in all but the legal sense until Sarah took a new lover six years later. She legally married 38-year-old Waymon Reed, a trumpeter for the Count Basie band, in 1978, when she was 54. But Reed's drinking and psychological problems brought a divorce in 1981.

Despite the turmoil in her personal life, Vaughan kept up a nearly constant touring schedule, and, by the late 1970s, she had been discovered by a new generation, helped by a series of all-Gershwin concerts she sang with the young composer and conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, and which brought her her first Grammy Award in 1982 for the Gershwin album they recorded together. Further appearances with the Philadelphia Symphony, the Washington National Symphony, and the classical orchestras of other cities from Denver to Kansas City underscored her astounding range and versatility with everything from "America, the Beautiful" to "The Man I Love." She sang at the White House for visiting dignitaries, was praised in Congress where she was honored for her many appearances on behalf of American cultural programs abroad, and won an Emmy Award for one of the Gershwin concerts that had been presented on PBS. In 1988, she was made a member of the Jazz Hall of Fame, and in 1989 was awarded a second, special Grammy for lifetime achievement.

By 1989, however, Vaughan's health began to trouble her. She was often short of breath, and suffered from arthritis in her hands. She was forced to cancel several appearances that year, including part of an engagement at The Blue Note in New York, during which she learned she had lung cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and recovered enough to plan a new album with Quincy Jones, swearing she'd get it done "even if I have to sing it right from this bed." But on a July evening in 1990, while watching a television film in which Debra, known professionally as Paris Vaughan , was starring, she quietly passed away.

The reach of Sarah Vaughan's influence can be gauged by the variety of artists who attended the many memorial services in her honor—Rosemary Clooney, Nell Carter, Joni Mitchell , opera diva Leontyne Price , who said that Vaughan "had gone to the place the music comes from," and a frail Billy Eckstine, who remarked to reporters that "God must have needed a lead singer." Vaughan would have been pleased, having once confessed to Leonard Feather, "It's a nice feeling to know that people will remember you after you've gone; that you'll manage to be a little bit of history."


Gourse, Leslie. "Sarah Vaughan" (interview), in Down Beat. July 27, 1967.

——. Sassy: The Life of Sarah Vaughan. NY: Scribner, 1993.

——. "The Wondrous Warble of Sarah Vaughan" (obituary), in U.S. News and World Report. Vol. 108, no. 15. April 16, 1990.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York

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Vaughan, Sarah (1924–1990)

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