VAUGHAN, SARAH (1924–1990) Singer

Called by Frank Sinatra “one of the finest vocalists in the history of pop music,” Sarah Lois Vaughan was born on March 27, 1924, in Newark, New Jersey. She began taking piano lessons at seven and by her teens had become a church organist. Vaughan dropped out of high school to work as a singer and pianist in local nightclubs. On a dare, Vaughan entered a talent contest at the famed Apollo Theater in New York City in 1942. Performing “Body and Soul,” she won not only first prize but also the attention of singer Billy Eckstine. Eckstine convinced Earl Hines to hire Vaughan as a singer for his big band, which then included bebop innovators Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Two years later, Vaughan quit to join Eckstine’s own band, where she worked with many other jazz greats, such as Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Dexter Gordon. Vaughan began performing as a solo act in 1945. The same year, she made her first important recording, “Lover Man.” Among her other early hits were “If You Could See Me Now” (1946), “It’s Magic” (1948), and “(I Love the Girl) I Love the Guy” (1950). In 1946, Vaughan married trumpeter George Treadwell, whom she divorced 12 years later. She was subsequently married to and divorced from professional football player Clyde Atkins, estaurateur Marshall Fisher, and trumpeter Waymon Reed. With Atkins, she adopted a daughter, Deborah, who later became an actress working under the name Paris Vaughan.

Vaughan started recording with Mercury Records in 1954. The company encouraged her to sing both pop and jazz, releasing each genre on a different label. Although she generally preferred jazz, she recognized few differences between the two styles. “I just sing,”  Vaughan explained. “I sing whatever I can.” Vaughan also became known for her phenomenal range. She maintained it was two and a half octaves, though her control over her voice allowed her to make it seemed even greater. In performance, especially, she displayed an enormous talent for improvising. Though Vaughan returned to the same standards throughout her career, she took pride in saying she never sang a song the same way twice. For decades, Vaughan toured jazz venues in the United States and Europe backed by a trio of piano, bass, and drums. Beginning in 1954, she also became a fixture the Newport Jazz Festival. Later in her career, Vaughan frequently sang concerts with major city orchestras. Although some critics complained that Vaughan’s sometimes showy vocal technique detracted from her ability to interpret a song, most lavished praise on her voice, which only became richer with time. Her fans included her contemporary  ELLA FITZGERALD, who once claimed that “the greatest singing talent in the world today is Sarah Vaughan.” By the 1980s, Vaughan’s talents were earning her awards and accolades worldwide. In 1981 she won a special Emmy Award for outstanding individual achievement for the television special “Rhapsody and Song: A Tribute to George Gershwin.” Vaughan received her first Grammy Award two years later for best female jazz performance for her album Gershwin Live! Her second Grammy, a special lifetime achievement award, came in 1989.

Widely known by the nickname “The Divine One,” Vaughan spent her final months recording songs for Quincy Jones’s  Back on the Block. The album included “Birdland,” the only recorded duet between Vaughan and Fitzgerald. On April 4, 1990, the jazz world mourned when Vaughan died suddenly of lung cancer at her home in Los Angeles, California.


    * 1944 Sarah Vaughan and Her All-Stars (Continental Records)
    * 1949 Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi
    * 1954 The Divine Sarah Sings
    * 1954 Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown
    * 1955 In the Land of Hi-Fi
    * 1957 At Mister Kelly's
    * 1957 Swingin' Easy
    * 1957 Passing strangers, duet with Billy Eckstine
    * 1957 Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine: Irving Berlin songbook
    * 1957 Sarah Vaughan Sings George Gershwin
    * 1957 Sarah Vaughan Sings Broadway: Great Songs from Hit Shows
    * 1958 No Count Sarah
    * 1959 After Hours at the London House
    * 1959 Vaughan and Violins
    * 1960 Dreamy
    * 1961 The Divine One
    * 1961 The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan
    * 1961 Count Basie/Sarah Vaughan
    * 1961 After Hours
    * 1962 You're Mine You
    * 1962 Sarah + 2
    * 1963 Sarah Sings Soulfully
    * 1963 Snowbound
    * 1963 Lonely Hours
    * 1963 We Three (with Joe Williams and Dinah Washington)
    * 1963 The World of Sarah Vaughan
    * 1963 Sweet 'n' Sassy
    * 1963 Star Eyes
    * 1963 Sarah Slightly Classical
    * 1963 Sassy Swings the Tivoli
    * 1963 Vaughan With Voices
    * 1964 Pop Artistry
    * 1964 Sweet 'N' Sassy
    * 1964 The Lonely Hours
    * 1965 !Viva! Vaughan
    * 1965 Sarah Vaughan Sings the Mancini Songbook
    * 1966 The New Scene
    * 1967 Sassy Swings Again
    * 1967 It's A Man's World
    * 1971 A Time in My Life
    * 1972 With Michel Legrand
    * 1972 Feelin' Good
    * 1973 Live in Japan
    * 1974 Send in the Clowns
    * 1977 I Love Brazil
    * 1977 Ronnie Scott's Presents Sarah Vaughan Live
    * 1978 How Long Has This Been Going On?
    * 1979 The Duke Ellington Songbook, Vol. 1
    * 1979 The Duke Ellington Songbook, Vol. 2
    * 1979 Copacabana
    * 1981 Songs of the Beatles
    * 1981 Send in the Clowns
    * 1982 Crazy and Mixed Up
    * 1982 Gershwin Live!
    * 1984 The Mystery of Man (aka Let It Live, Sarah Vaughan Sings the Poetry of Pope John Paul II)
    * 1986 South Pacific (A studio cast recording with Kiri Te Kanawa, Mandy Patinkin, and José Carreras)
    * 1987 Brazilian Romance
    * 1989 Back On The Block
    * 2009 Everything I Have Is Yours, back in print, featuring 1945-47 session recordings via Shout! Factory

Further Reading
Brown, Denis.  Sarah  Vaughn: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood, 1991.
Gourse, Leslie. Sassy: The Life of Sarah Vaughan. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Essential Sarah Vaughan. Mercury, CD, 1992.
Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One (1993). BMG  Video, VHS, 1993.
Sarah Vaughan: Jazz Profile. EMD/Blue Note, CD, 1998.