Sarah Vaughan :: Biography

Sarah Lois Vaughan was born on March 27, 1924 in Newark, New Jersey. Both of her parents were musicians, her father, a carpenter played the guitar and sang folk music; her mother, a laundress, played the piano and sang in the Mount Zion Baptist Church Choir.

At the same church Sarah sang at the choir at the age of 7, she became the organist at the age of 12, and sang as a soloist. She quit school at a young age, and started singing at "Amateur Hour" contests. She competed at the Apollo theatre Amateur Night and won in 1942, that led to numerous opportuntities in the music world. Billy Eckstine a vocalist with the Earl Hines Orchestra, witnessed the singers performance and was struck by her talent; he recommended her for the position of second piano in the band.

Billy Eckstine left the Earl Hines Orchestra soon after, breaking away to form his own group. He took Sarah Vaughan with him to join along with trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro, saxphonists Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Art Blakey. These band members were many of the pioneers of the Bebop style. Vaughan developed an ear for the intricate harmonies and melodies of Bebop. It was with this band that she made her recording debut on New Year's in 1944 with tracks recorded on the Continental label for which she relucatanly accpeted $20. It was not until she signed with Musicraft label in 1945 that her recording career finally began in earnest, singing what are now considered classic tunes, such as "Lover Man" and "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" as well as less well-known songs such as "Motherless Child".

By the age of 20 she had already become something of a legend amongst her fellow musicians, a new look in the new wave of bebop musicians. Her "one of the boys" attitude ensured that she was guaranteed a place as a serious musician in the male dominated world, rather than being demoted by her fellow musicians to the status of a "mere vocalist". Her 1945 recording of the song "Lover" performed with Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker, established her reputation as a leading jazz singer.

In 1947 she recorded with trumpeter Geroge Treadwell who she met at the Cafe Society. Treadwell recognized his wife's huge potential and he became her manager, as she began a decade of prolific recording and worldwide tours. She recorded with Miles Davis in 1950 and then recorded about 60 tracks for Columbia Records. Her recordings document her radical experiments with melody and vocal timbre, and illustrate the many aspects of her art that were to become less pronounced in later years.

She joined Lester Young in 1950 at the Town Hall Concert. It was with this move that she decided to pursue a solo career, the path that she would follow for the rest of her career, and she began to establish herself as an independent force.

Sarah Vaughan joined Mercury Records in 1954 and embarked on the most prolific few years of her life. The new contract allowed her to pursue dual careers, one as a commercial "hit maker" on the Mercury Label, and the other as a jazz singer on the sister label, EmArcy: "I'm not allowed to do whatever I want on one side, and they let me pick the hot tune on the other side."

It was with Mercury that she made her classic recordings of "Misty and "Tenderly" that were to become a permanent part of her live set, and perhaps her biggest commercial hits "Broken Hearted Melody" and the less well known "Passing Strangers", the duet with Billy Eckstine. The two singers became very close and they recorded many tracks together.

On the EmArcy label she recorded what many consider to be some of her finest jazz work. She recorded with Clifford Brown, Cannonball Adderley, and the Count Basie band, which contains the classic "Lullaby of Birdland" and "Swingin' Easy". She showcases her peerless vocal skills as demonstrated on the track "All of Me". She appeared with Clifford Brown, Cannonball Adderley and members of the Count Basie band; these include some of her most satisfying work.

Sarah Vaughan left Mercury Records in the autumn of 1959. The contract had been arranged by George Treadwell, now her ex-husband and ex-manager, was over and she was learning to take charge of her own career. Treadwell was the first of many managers considered to have taken advantage of her.

Fortunately, she received a contract with Roulette Records, owned by her friend Morris Levy, that was home to Count Basie, Joe Williams and Dinah Washington. She remarried to C.B. Atkins, whom she assigned as manager. They divorced in 1962 amidst a battle for their adopted daughter Paris, and a debt of $150,000. Her friends realized that perhaps she sang her best when she was in personal turmoil.

A highlight of the Roulette Years is the session with the Count Basie band, without the Count, in which she flies through several standard tunes; "Lover Man", "I Cried For You", and a stratoshperic version of "Perdido" that is classic Sarah Vaughan - a stunning display of passion and fireworks. The album "The Divine One" features a more intimate band setting arranged and conducted by Jimmy Jones, featuring songs such as "You Stepped Out Of A Dream" and "Have You Met Miss Jones". These recordings represent one more peak Sarah Vaughan, there were many more to come.

In 1963 she left Roulette to move back to Mercury where she once again had the luxury of the EmArcy jazz label. An important partnership with Quincy Jones developed, illustrated by the albums that they made together, "Sassy Wings the Tivoli", "Vaughan and Voices", and best of all "You're Mine You". She recorded a number of latin influenced arrangements, the first is an indication of the style that was later to become one of her favorites. She finished her contract at Mercury with a Big Band session recorded in New York in 1967. When she returned to the studio in the early 1970s it was as though a new woman had emerged: the voice was even bigger, the range even wider and the technique even stronger.

Granz's Pablo Iabel. Granz made many sessions with Vaughan throughout the 70s. She made two Duke Ellington Songbooks, worked with Count Basie and Oscar Peterson and even did an album of Afro-Latin and Brazilian material. There was a marvelous two-record live set recorded in Japan.

Like a gifted actress, Sarah Vaughn always made the lyrics come alive. She combined exquisite elegance, impressive range, and an effortless delivery. Vaughan played her voice with a musical creativity, as if it were a "real" instrument.

Her health worsened in the '80s, but she recorded an album of Gershwin songs with The Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1982. She recorded "The Man I Love" and received a Grammy Award. The years of smoking finally took their toll. Sarah Vaughan died at her home in Hidden Hills, California, on the 3rd of April 1990. There were tributes worldwide - outpourings of grief. In the words of Quincy Jones, "she left a great big hole in my life."


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