Sarah Vaughan was a woman of many names and talents. With three nicknames -- "Sassy" (the most common), "The Divine One," and "Sailor" -- and an immense amount of praise and number-one hits, Vaughan is one of jazz’s treasures.
She was born on March 27, 1924, in Newark, New Jersey, right outside of New York City, to two music lovers. Her father played guitar and piano as a hobby, and her mother sang in the church choir. Her parents transferred this love of music to Vaughan at an early age. Her father taught her piano starting at age 7, and she sang in the church choir throughout her childhood. By her teenage years, Vaughan was a mainstay in Newark’s nighttime music scene. When she wasn’t sneaking in to nightclubs to hear New York’s touring musicians, she was singing and playing piano live onstage. In fact, her obsession with live music was so great, she eventually dropped out of the Newark Arts High School so she could spend more time on the scene.
Like so many musicians of the time, her first big break came when she won the Apollo Theater’s famed Amateur Night in 1942, singing a rendition of “Body and Soul.” After winning a $10 cash prize, the Apollo contacted her a year later to open for Ella Fitzgerald. It was during this gig that either Billy Eckstine or Earl Hines heard Vaughan sing, and demanded that she sing and play piano for Hines’ band. At the time, Hines’ band featured some of jazz’s greatest players, who would eventually create a new style of jazz called bebop. Influenced by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and MIles Davis’ new sound, Vaughan would incorporate elements of bebop into her singing throughout her career. In fact, she, Parker, and Gillespie recorded one of her first solo hits, "Lover Man" together in 1945.
She stayed with Hines’ band for a year, though she was eventually persuaded by Eckstine (another Hines alum) to join his band. It was with him that Vaughan recorded her first single, "I'll Wait and Pray," in 1944. After being approached by a Continental record label representative, Vaughan left Eckstine’s band later that year to go solo.
The first few years of Vaughan’s solo career were characterized by freelancing gigs and one-off singles with different record companies. Her fame didn’t truly skyrocket until she met trumpeter George Treadwell in 1946. Treadwell became her manager and husband, and he revamped her style to make her more glamorous and more similar to other singers of the day. Under Treadwell’s direction, she signed with Musicraft, and recorded her first big hits: “Tenderly” (1947), “It’s Magic” (1947), and “Nature Boy” (1948).
In late 1948, after a conflict with Musicraft, Vaughan signed with pop powerhouse Columbia. With them, she became a staple on the pop charts throughout the early ‘50s. She also began touring, notably appearing with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1949, as well as appearing on national television. Yet despite her immense popularity, Vaughan was unsatisfied with the toned-down, easy-listening style of pop music Columbia mandated that she perform. Though she was always respected in the jazz community, winning awards year after year from Down Beat magazine and recording the odd single with Miles Davis and Bennie Green, she was known more for her ballads with big bands and string orchestras.
This led to her switching to the Mercury label in 1953, who allowed her to record more jazz. Luckily, these efforts were well received, leading to the hits “Make Yourself Comfortable” (1954) and her biggest record, “Broken Hearted Melody” (1959). She continued touring throughout the ‘50s, including an unprecedented show in 1954 at Carnegie Hall, also featuring the Count Basie Orchestra, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Though she, Treadwell, and Mercury would part ways in the ‘60s, Vaughan’s career never stagnated. She recorded hits and toured the world well into the ‘80s. In 1985, she received a Hollywood Walk of Fame star, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award in 1989, and her own PBS American Masters episode in 1986. She died on April 3, 1990 at age 66.
Vaughan’s genre may have changed over the years, but her distinctive voice always stayed constant. She was known in particular for her heavy use of vibrato and a three-octave range that went through soprano to baritone. Many described her voice as “operatic” and nearly perfect in pitch. Yet despite all of this classical praise, Vaughan was just as well known for her skat singing and emotionally powerful live performances. Many of jazz’s greatest musicians and critics considered her the best -- hands-down. Sinatra himself said, "Sassy is so good now that when I listen to her I want to cut my wrists with a dull razor.”