Legend has it that, on a Wednesday night in 1942, the 18-year-old Sarah Vaughan went to the Apollo Theatre in Harlem to compete in an amateur talent contest for the chance to win $10 and a week-long engagement. Although the events leading up to this are uncertain, there is no doubt that Vaughan sang ‘Body And Soul’ and won. Vaughan was contracted by the Apollo in spring 1943 to open for Ella Fitzgerald.
Sarah Lois Vaughan was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1924, the daughter of working-class amateur musicians. Her parents were active in the church and she started singing in the choir; studying piano led her to play church organ. Music was important in her home, and she cited Judy Garland and Doris Day as influences.
During her 1943 Apollo performance week, Vaughan was introduced to bandleader Earl Hines. Singer Billy Eckstine, with Hines at the time, has been credited by Vaughan with recommending he hire her. Initially a pianist, Sarah became the singer in a band of hugely influential players including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker and trombonist Benny Green.
When Eckstine left Hines in late 1943 and formed his own big band with Gillespie and Parker, Vaughan went with him. Eckstine’s band provided her first recording opportunity, 1944’s ‘I'll Wait And Pray’ emerging on the Deluxe label. She left the Eckstine band shortly thereafter to pursue a solo career, but Sarah recorded with him throughout her life.
Vaughan’s solo career began in 1945 playing clubs on New York’s 52nd Street. She landed a recording contract for Musicraft in 1946, having made a handful of recordings for the Crown and Gotham labels, and began performing regularly at the Cafe Society Downtown club. There she became friends with trumpeter George Treadwell, who became her manager and musical director. The couple married that September.
Musicraft being on the brink of bankruptcy, Sarah used missed royalty payments as an opportunity to sign with Columbia Records. She started to gain chart success and was steered away from pure jazz to record commercial pop ballads. During this time she won Esquire magazine’s New Star Award for 1947, and won awards from Down Beat and Metronome magazines from 1947 through to 1953.
However, her relationship with Columbia Records soured as she became dissatisfied with the material she was required to record. So in 1953, Treadwell negotiated an unusual contract with Mercury Records. Vaughan would record commercial fare for Mercury and more jazz-oriented material for their subsidiary EmArcy label.
Her first recording session for Mercury was in February 1954 and she stayed with the label until 1959. The Mercury years brought Sarah strong commercial and artistic success, and the best recordings are included on these CDs. A commercial peak came in 1959 with ‘Broken Hearted Melody’, a song she considered corny but which became her first gold record and a regular part of her concert repertoire for many years.
For most of her career, the duality of jazz and pop was present: occasionally she would make pure jazz records, but most of the time she was successful with pop music which had a distinct jazz tinge. She recorded albums of Gershwin favourites and show tunes, many of which feature here. She covered the latest pop hits and had hits of her own on the singles charts. Though she continued to perform and make albums over the following three decades, the Mercury years were her most successful chart-wise.
The personal relationship between Vaughan and Treadwell reached breaking point in 1958 and Sarah filed for divorce. She subsequently married twice more and adopted a daughter in 1961.
Sarah Vaughan was arguably the first great singer of the modern era of jazz, becoming known as the ‘Divine One’. A contralto with a range of three octaves, she herself did not categorise her singing as ‘jazz’. Speaking to Down Beat in 1982, she said: ‘I don't know why people call me a jazz singer, though I guess people associate me with jazz because I was raised in it, from way back. I’m not putting jazz down, but I’m not a jazz singer... What I want to do, music-wise, is all kinds of music that I like, and I like all kinds of music.’
She was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1982, eight years before cancer ended a near fifty-year career that had spanned jazz and pop with equal ease.
Let’s leave the last word to the lady herself: ‘There's a category for me. I like to be referred to as a good singer of good songs in good taste.’ So sit back and enjoy three hours of tasteful, divine songs in a variety of genres.