“The finest singer in the world.”
“A singer who sings so good, I want to cut my wrist with a dull blade and let her sing me to death..”
“A classical, pop and jazz singer; a soprano, contralto and coloratura...”
Sarah Vaughan is a legend. During her lifetime, she garnered worldwide accolades for her incomparable versatility, which musically bridged all the generation gaps. Not only was she a consistent winner in polls conducted among the public; in addition, she emerged on top in surveys conducted among her musical peers. For example, in 1974 she won out as “Favorite Female Singer” in the All-Star-All-Star poll conducted by Playboy magazine, in which the voting was done by the top personalities in the music business.
Her importance in the music industry was perhaps best summed up by Hon. Thomas M. Rees, of California, in a speech made in the House of Representatives on Feb. 26, 1974, when he said, “This giant of the music industry... has consistently provided the world with the very best in entertainment. For many years she has been an effective ambassador of goodwill for the United States; sharing her joyful gift of talent with people in the Orient, in Europe, in South America, in Australia—indeed just about wherever people walk on this earth.
“I am sure that all of us...have been deeply moved and thrilled by her brilliant interpretations of every type of music, from gospel to jazz, from semiclassical to contemporary.”
On March 27, 1974, on the occasion of her 50th birthday, Sarah received personal letters of congratulations from the Mayor of the City of Los Angeles, the Governor of the State of California, and the President of the United States, all noting not only her musical accomplishments, but her great international contributions to America’s goodwill.
Sarah Vaughan was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 27, 1924, into a household filled with music. Her mother was a member of the choir at Mt. Zion Baptist Church; her father was a carpenter who played piano and guitar in his spare time.
As a girl Sarah began to raise her own voice in song at the Mt. Zion Church, and at 18 entered an amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She won the contest. Her prize was $10, plus a week’s engagement at the theater, where Ella Fitzgerald was headlining.
That week singer Billy Eckstine came to see the show, and was so impressed by Sarah that he recommended her to Earl “Fatha” Hines, with whose band he was singing. Hines quickly signed her.
A year later, having left the Hines band to form one of his own, Eckstine hired Sarah as his band’s vocalist. Incidentally, accompanying her were such horn players as Dizzy Gillespie, Charley Parker, Gene Ammons, and others from whom she learned a great deal.
Shortly Sarah gained national attention with her first recording, “I’ll Wait and Pray”, and with her second disc, “It’s Magic”, which sold 2,000,000 copies. (Over the years Sarah had many other outstanding singles and albums, including Tenderly, Misty, and Broken Hearted Melody).
From the Eckstine orchestra Sarah moved along to the John Kirby Combo, and after a while decided to try it as a “single.”
Success began to come her way rapidly, helped immensely by the fact that Dave Garroway, then a Chicago radio personality, began to sing her praises to his audiences after hearing her at that city’s Blue Note. The owner of the club, impressed with the high regard in which Garroway held her, signed Sarah to return to the Blue Note as the star of the show... and she was well on her way.
But the road was not an easy one, and Sarah well recalls the many problems she faced during her earlier days: the difficulties of finding hotels and restaurants in which she would be permitted in many Southern cities; not being allowed to mingle with white customers even in Northern clubs; being pelted with overripe fruit by white racists in a Chicago nightclub.
“They’re memories not easily erased, and at the time they happened I was ready to quit show business,” Sarah recalled.
But “Sassy”, or “The Divine Sarah”—nicknames she has acquired over the years—confessed that being a singer was a totally happy experience.
“I’m happier now than ever, and it shows while I’m on the stage,” she said in 1974. “That’s because my personal life is wonderful....a great husband, Marshall Fisher, a loving mother and daughter, many close friends...all of this has helped me to be more at ease with the public than ever. Today I talk to the people, and they talk to me...I love them, and I feel their love for me.
“My audiences really keep me going. There are nights—every performer has them—when I really don’t feel up to working. But after a few numbers the audience invariably does it. Their great response gets me going and keeps me going.”
Sarah has been called “a complete artist,” one who earned the respect of all jazz and contemporary musicians alike. Her repertoire ran the gamut from old songs to new, from Errol Garner’s ethereal “Misty” to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s poignant “Alone Again, Naturally”; from “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” to “A Foggy Day”; from “The Summer Knows” to “Rainy Days and Mondays.”
One element in Sarah’s breadth of achievement was her thorough technical knowledge of music. Long before she became a singer she had learned to play the piano and organ.
It was her musical phrasing and unique treatment of individual notes which prompted John Malachi, once her piano accompanist, to call her “Sassy”, which has been one of her nicknames ever since. It was Garroway who, recalling the late Sarah Bernhardt’s nickname, first began to call Sarah Vaughan “The Divine Sarah."
It was always interesting to see what various critics said about Sarah. Buck Walmsley said in the Chicago Sun-Times, “I’ve caught Sarah a couple of hundred times...in night clubs, in concerts, and at jazz festivals...and I have never heard her give a bad performance.” Earl Calloway, in the Chicago Defender, has written that “she sings with glowing intensity as if she were an angel touching the earth gently with celestial vocal sounds.” Perry Phillips, of the Oakland Tribune, has said: “In one lifetime, very few singers find themselves pointed In the direction of immortality. There is no doubt that Sarah Vaughan is pointed right in that direction. Everything about her will be required study for any future student or historian of American Jazz and pop music. Aspiring young singers would do well in seizing this opportunity now knocking at their door.” New York Times critic John S. Wilson has summed her up with, “Just some of the most glorious pop singing you might ever expect to hear."
Sarah Vaughan died on April 3, 1990.