Women’s History Month: The Divine One, Sarah Vaughan

Photo William Gottlieb.

For Women’s History Month, we featured the music of  singer Sarah Vaughan.  WUSF’s Ryan Scates takes a look at her career.


“Sassy,” “The Divine One,” these are some of the nicknames given to Sarah Vaughan. Described by Allmusic.com critic Scott Yanow as having “One of the most wondrous voices of the twentieth century,” Sarah Vaughan was a vocal jazz legend, on par with the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

The Early Years

Born on March 27th, 1924 in Newark, New Jersey to Ada and Ashbury “Jake” Vaughan. Her mother sang in her local church choir and her family was very active at the Mount Zion Baptist Church. There, Vaughan got her start, singing in the church choir and playing piano for rehearsals and services. By her teens, she was attending Newark Arts High School during the day and despite being too young to legally enter a bar, she was appearing at local night clubs in Newark like the Piccadilly Club, where she sang and played piano. She eventually dropped out of high school to focus solely on music.

Early Career, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, and Early Solo Work

1942 proved to be an important year for Vaughan. She performed that fall at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem winning their Amateur Night contest and getting a prize of $10.00 and a weeklong engagement there. In November, she began her Apollo gig opening for Ella Fitzgerald. It was during that week that Vaughan says she met singer Billy Eckstein who was in a band led by the legendary Earl Hines.

By April of 1943, Vaughan would join Hines’ band where she spent a year performing and touring. When Eckstine quit the Hines band to form his own with Dizzy Gillespie in ’44, she joined him and was given her first opportunity to record.  In December, 1944, she made her first record, “I’ll Wait and Pray” on the De Luxe label. Shortly thereafter, she left the band to pursue a solo career. During this time she also became particularly adept at scat singing. In an interview broadcast on NPR’s “Jazz Profiles” she said she was inspired by performing with the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. “I mostly patterned myself after horn players. I listened to them a lot…more than singers.”

Vaughan started performing in the clubs of New York City’s 52nd Street, at the time, the center of the city’s jazz scene, appearing at the Three Deuces, the Famous Door, The Downbeat, and the Onyx Club. In May of 1945 she recorded “Lover Man” for the Guild label with Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto saxophone, Al Haig on piano, Curly Russell on double bass, and Sid Catlett on drums.

In late 1945, she was offered a contract to record for the Musicraft label after recording “Time and Again” with Stuff Smith. On Musicraft, she recorded “If You Could See Me Now,” “Don’t Blame Me”, “I’ve Got a Crush on You”, “Everything I Have Is Yours” and “Body and Soul” in 1946. Her recordings for the label in 1947 and ’48 gave her the first taste of commercial success. Her version of “Tenderly,” was an unexpected hit, “It’s Magic,” was also a success, and her version of “Nature Boy” managed to ride off the success of Nat King Cole’s version when it became a hit in the spring of 1948.

Tenderly 78

Tenderly 78, her version was the first of this much covered standard

Success! The Columbia and Mercury Years

By 1948, Musicraft, accused of missing royalty payments, was on the brink of bankruptcy. Vaughan used this as an opportunity for upward mobility and signed with Columbia Records. Her success there continued  with recordings like “Black Coffee” in the summer of 1949 followed by a number of hit pop ballads like “That Lucky Old Sun”, “I’m Crazy to Love You”, “Thinking of You” (with pianist Bud Powell), and “Saint or Sinner”. During this time, she received awards from Down Beat and Metronome Magazine and began performing before increasingly larger crowds. However, going into the early 50’s, she had less success and became increasingly dissatisfied the pop material Columbia was having her record.

When she signed to Mercury Records in 1953, Vaughan returned to recording more straight jazz material and she continued to be successful with critics and audiences. She performed to enthusiastic crowds at sold out venues around the world until the end. She never lost command of her magnificent voice, said to have a three-octave range. She performed to enthusiastic crowds at sold out venues around the world until the end. One of her best live recordings from this era was a performance made in Japan in 1971. “Live in Japan” would later be added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.

Live in Japan, added to the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry in 2007

Live in Japan, added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2007

Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown, inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1973

Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown, inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1973

In 1973, her 1955 Mercury Records album “Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown” and her single “If You Could See Me Now” were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1985, she was granted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in 1988, she was inducted into the American Jazz Hall of Fame and in 1989 she was given the National Endowment of the Arts’s Jazz Masters Award as well as the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Vaughan died on April 3, 1990 at 66 from lung cancer. Her funeral was held at the place where it all started: Mount Zion Baptist Church in Newark. ″A Newark girl comes home, having gone full circle,″ the Rev. Granville E. Seward, pastor of Mount Zion told the crowd, ″and what a circle that has been.″