Sarah Vaughan - Biography

By Nick Castro


Sarah Vaughan was one of the most famous jazz singers to ever grace the stage and studio. Her influence on the genre can be felt strongly to this day. Vaughan was born in 1924 in Newark, NJ and by age 8 was taking piano lessons. Both of her parents were amateur musicians themselves, her father playing guitar and piano and her mother singing with a baptist church. Vaughan soon began singing with her mother's choir as well and quickly excelled at all things musical as Vaughan possessed the rare ability of perfect pitch making difficult phrasings come naturally to her. She was soon playing with the church as a piano player as well as attending pop concerts at the many local venues in Newark such as the Adams Theatre, which was the first in the area to feature live big bands playing to silent movies, as well as the Montgomery Street Skating Rink and Proctor's Theatre, a rare double decker theatre in Newark that used to host vaudevillian troupes in the early days. Vaughan, in her teen years, would also sneak into jazz clubs to see performers do their thing. Surely unbeknownst to her, Vaughan was gathering all of the right influences to sculpt what would be her triumphant sound, which would enrapture the world. It was not long before a young Vaughan was not only sneaking into jazz clubs to see performers but would soon be one herself as well. Often she would gain entry to the  Piccadilly Club and Newark Airport USO to perform as both a singer and a pianist.


Vaughan attended high school at East Side High School in Newark and later the revolutionary Newark Arts High School, which was the country's first arts magnet school. She has credited this institution with instilling in her a strong foundation of music theory. Unfortunately for the school, Vaughan felt a compelling urge to pursue her music professionally before completing her studies and she dropped out of school in her junior year. Vaughan had set her sights on New York City and began making treks into the ballrooms of Harlem including the famous Apollo Theater where Vaughan would compete. When she was 18 she won the amateur contest there and got a slot opening for Ella Fitzgerald when she caught the eye of bandleader Earl Hines and singer Billy Eckstine. They quickly recruited her to replace their current female singer and she accepted. This would be her first major exposure to the life of a touring musician and she spent the majority of her time with the band traveling. Also in the band with her were two young musicians who were helping to create the new bop sound, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Unfortunately this band would never record in this configuration due to the musician's union strike going on at the time.


Eckstine, wanting to fill the role of musical director, left Hines to form a new big band with trumpet player Gillespie. They extended their invitation to Parker and Vaughan as well and they both joined ranks. This band would prove to be a haven of new talent such as the aforementioned artists as well as drummer Art Blakey, trumpet players Miles Davis and Kenny Dorham and saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons and Lucky Thompson. This setting would push Vaughan to develop her style amongst these giants of jazz. She would rise to the challenge and it was while performing and recording with this group that she was first offered a solo recording deal through Los Angeles Times jazz critic and record producer Leonard Feather, who had also recorded Dinah Washington and Louis Jordan. Gillespie would join her for the session and they would record Sarah Vaughan and Her All-Stars (1944 - Continental). It was around this time that she gained the nickname Sassy.


Vaughan would soon begin to perform as a solo artist on the now famous jazz clubs of New York's 52nd st such as the Downbeat, Famous Door and Onyx Club. By 1945 she was getting the attention of other record labels and was offered a session to record the song "Lover Man" by the Guild record label. Once again she would have Gillespie accompanying her as well as pianist Al Haig. She would spend much of this early period recording with many of modern jazz's pioneers such as violinist Stuff Smith, pianist Jimmy Jones and even in an octet featuring the young trumpet player Davis.


Whilst recording for many notable labels such as Gotham, Crown and finally Musicraft, Vaughan would meet and marry her first husband, trumpet player George Treadwell, who, though only six years her senior, had considerable professional experience already having played with multi-instrumentalist Benny Carter, bandleader Tiny Bradshaw and trumpet wah wah pioneer Cootie Williams before meeting Vaughan. Treadwell would soon forsake his musical career to become a music manager. He managed Vaughan for years, and even for a short while beyond their 1958 divorce, as well as managing Ruth Brown and The Drifters. Treadwell helped Vaughan with her stage appearance, which at the time was still rough around the edges. He gave her a more professional and slick look to match her musical prowess.


Vaughan would have a slew of hits throughout the 40's including "Don't Blame Me", "Everything I Have is Yours" and "Body and Soul" for the Musicraft label. She would crossover into the pop market in 1947 with her recording of the song "Tenderly". That same year she would win Esquire magazine's New Star Award. Her 1948 recording of the song "Nature Boy", by consumate proto-hippie eden ahbez, was released at the same time as Nat King Cole's #1 hit version, though due to another musician's strike Vaughan would be forced to record the song with an a capella group rather than a proper band. For the next few year Vaughan would regularly win awards from both Down Beat  and Metronome magazines.


It is said that Vaughan was being scouted by bigger labels while under contract at Musicraft and was looking for a way out. The latest musician's union strike provided that out when Musicraft were forced to miss royalty payments, due to lost revenues from the strike, thereby breaching their contract with Vaughan. Vaughan jumped at the opportunity and moved to the bigger Columbia records where she would record many of her most important pop works, though Vaughan herself would eventually grow weary of this maneuver . After some legal wranglings with her former record label she would release the song "Black Coffee" in 1949 which would make it to the charts. This period would see a shift towards more commercial material than the exploratory jazz of the 40's bop days. Vaughan would again have a series of hits with songs such as "Thinking of You", "I Cried for You", "That Lucky Old Sun, "Our Very Own" and "I Ran All the Way Home" as well as many others. In 1951 Vaughan would make the first of many trips to Europe to perform. She was also selling out to large audiences in the US and getting much critical acclaim from critics, DJs and the record buying public. Though her records were doing well she was seeing little money from Columbia and began to become disenchanted with the label and the pop material they kept forcing her to record.


Vaughan would sign to Mercury Records in 1954 and spend the next 5 years with them, still recording the pop material she was doing with Columbia, but also being able to do her music for Mercury's subsidiary label EmArcy. It was with EmArcy that Vaughan would produce, what are considered, some of her finest works. Though Vaughan would leave the label for a few years to work with label Roulette Records, she would eventually return to Mercury in 1964 for 3 more years. She would record with the brilliant trumpet player Clifford Brown to produce some wonderful jazz material which allowed Vaughan to display her sensitivity to the idiom. They would record the timeless classic Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown (1954 - EmArcy), which many to consider to be the highlight of this portion of her long career. Joining Vaughan and Brown on this session were pianists Jones, flautist Herbie Mann, Saxophonist Paul Quinchette, bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Roy Haynes.


Vaughan would marry her next husband Clyde Atkins in 1959 and make him her personal manager to replace Treadwell. Their marriage would end in divorce in 1963 due to Atkins' abusive nature. Atkins' gambling and spending would cause Vaughan much trouble in the 60's with the IRS who would ultimately seize her home in Englewood Cliffs. They had one adopted daughter together.


The 60's would see less success for Vaughan, as musical tastes began to change away from jazz, though she would make an appearance at the white house during Johnson's presidency. Towards the end of the 60's Vaughan moved to Los Angeles.


The 70's would begin to see some success for Vaughan once again as she began to work with Mainstream Records and recorded what would become one of her live show staples Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns". In the end of the 70's she would record for Pablo Records. In between those two labels she did an album of Beatles covers for the Atlantic label.


Although Vaughan remained active in the live club circuit throughout the 80's she only produced a handful of records during this time, which are widely considered as less than impressive. She was famous for her late night partying, drinking and smoking and she died of lung cancer in 1990. She was 66.











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