Sarah Vaughan Biography

Sarah Lois Vaughan, 27 March 1924, Newark, New Jersey, USA, d. 3 April 1990, Los Angeles, California, USA. Although she was not born into an especially musical home environment (her father was a carpenter and her mother worked in a laundry), the young Sarah Vaughan had plenty of contact with music-making. As well as taking piano lessons for nearly 10 years, she sang in her church choir and became the organist at the age of 12. Her obvious talent for singing won her an amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo theatre in 1942, and opportunities for a musical career quickly appeared. Spotted by Billy Eckstine, who was at the time singing in Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines’ big band, she was invited to join Hines’ band as a female vocalist and second pianist in 1943. Eckstine had been sufficiently impressed by Vaughan to give her a place in his own band, formed a year later.

It was here that she met fellow band members and pioneers of modern jazz Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Recording with Eckstine’s band in 1945, full as it was of modern stylists, gave her a fundamental understanding of the new music that characterized her entire career. After leaving Eckstine, she spent a very short time with John Kirby’s band, and then decided to perform under her own name. In 1947 she married trumpeter George Treadwell, whom she had met at the Cafe Society. Recognizing his wife’s huge potential, Treadwell became her manager, as she began a decade of prolific recording and worldwide tours. She began by recording with Miles Davis in 1950, and then produced a torrent of albums in either a popular vein for Mercury Records, or more jazz-orientated material for their subsidiary label EmArcy. On the EmArcy recordings she appeared with Clifford Brown, Cannonball Adderley and members of the Count Basie band; these remain some of her most satisfying work.

By the 60s, as Vaughan rose to stardom, her jazz activity decreased slightly, and the emphasis remained on commercial, orchestra-backed recordings. It was not until the 70s that she began to perform and record with jazz musicians again on a regular basis. Vaughan performed at the 1974 Monterey Jazz Festival and made an album in 1978 with a quartet comprising Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass, Ray Brown, and Louie Bellson. The following year she recorded the Duke Ellington Song Book, on which a large number of top jazz players appeared, including Zoot Sims, Frank Foster, Frank Wess, J.J. Johnson, and Pass. In 1980 she appeared in a much-heralded concert at Carnegie Hall, and returned to the Apollo to sing with Eckstine in a show recorded and broadcast by NBC-TV. She recorded an album of Latin tunes in 1987, and around this time appeared in another televised concert, billed as Sass And Brass. With a rhythm section featuring Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Billy Higgins, as well as a collection of trumpeters including Dizzy Gillespie, Don Cherry, Maynard Ferguson, and Chuck Mangione, she proved herself still a musical force to be reckoned with. Tragically, she died of lung cancer in April 1990.

Sarah Vaughan won the Esquire New Star poll in 1945, the DownBeat poll (1947-52) and the Metronome poll (1948-52). She also sang at the White House as early as 1965; Vaughan’s name was synonymous with jazz singing for two generations. Gifted with an extraordinary range and perfect intonation, she would also subtly control the quality of her voice to aid the interpretation of a song, juxtaposing phrases sung in a soft and warm tone with others in a harsh, nasal vibrato or throaty growl. Her knowledge of bebop, gained during her time with Eckstine’s band, enabled her to incorporate modern passing tones into her sung lines, advancing the harmonic side of her work beyond that of her contemporaries. Her recordings will continue to influence vocalists for many years to come. Vaughan probably ranks as a close second only to Ella Fitzgerald in terms of influence, vocal range and sheer, consistent brilliance.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.