Legendary American jazz singer Sarah Vaughan recorded more than 50 albums under her own name in a career that spanned almost 5 decades and, in this article, we get some help from Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competition finalist Lauren Bush to take a look at 10 of the best…
Sarah Vaughan’s name is maybe less widely known than Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, but her vocal-style is distinctive, her charisma is audible even in studio recordings and her opera-like style and ability to convey a lyric makes her one of the most influential singers in the world of jazz.
She was a skilled pianist, a master of scat, and a maestro of interpretation; a comedienne, a diva with a crowd and most notably, she could swing with the best of them.
She garnered the attention of Earl Hines in 1942 after winning the Apollo Theater Amateur Night contest singing Body and Soul.
She sang for Hines’ big band and then for Billy Eckstine before beginning her solo career in 1945.
Since then, she recorded albums with some of the greatest arrangers, big bands and musicians on the scene including Clifford Brown, Oscar Peterson and Quincy Jones.
Read on for a look at 10 of her most iconic records…
Sarah Vaughan (with Clifford Brown) (1954)
Originally from Newark, New Jersey, Vaughan was raised singing in church before she developed a love for performing.
Early on, she could be found singing and playing piano in clubs, underage.
Even though she went to a performing arts high school, she dropped out of school when it started to interfere with her performing opportunities.
In 1942, at age 18, Vaughan won The Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night Contest singing Body and Soul.
Her prize was $10 and a week’s engagement at the theater where she opened for Ella Fitzgerald.
As her solo career started to take off, Vaughan met George Treadwell, who became her manager (and later her husband). He helped her work on her image, fix her teeth and improve her stage appearance.
In 1948, Vaughan signed to Columbia Records and recorded her first self titled debut with them (1950) which also featured trumpeter Miles Davis.
Vaughan met Clifford Brown in the early 1950’s but Columbia might have been hesitant to feature a collaboration between Vaughan and the new young trumpeter after already having Miles Davis on board.
So when the switch to EmArcy – a subsidiary of Mercury Records – came, the opportunity to record together emerged. Thus, this album is sometimes incorrectly titled Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown.
Vaughan referred to this as her own favourite album from her discography.
It’s hard to know if this album would be as renowned if Clifford Brown wasn’t playing trumpet, (whether due to his exceptional performance or his untimely death at age 25) but it’s a moment in time that will forever be cherished.
Swingin’ Easy (1957)
Probably one of the most well known Sarah Vaughan albums, Swingin’ Easy was recorded a few years before it’s release with one trio (featuring John Malachi on piano, Joe Benjamin on bass and Roy Haynes on drums), while the rest recorded with Jimmy Jones, piano, Richard Davis, bass, and Haynes again on drums.
While Vaughan recorded with a multitude of legendary big bands, including the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, the Count Basie Orchestra and the Quincy Jones Orchestra, she is known for being most at home when performing with a piano trio.
This could be due to her own knowledge of the piano or perhaps it was the freedom that comes with fewer instruments and less strict arrangements.
The song choices here show the emotional and technical range that Vaughan was known for.
Memorable songs include Shulie A Bop, her scat on All of Me, and Polkadots and Moonbeams where she throws the phrasing around adding classical touches that prove her expertise.
No Count Sarah (1959)
Through the 1950’s Vaughan toured almost constantly with a few notable dates like the Newport Jazz Festival in Summer 1954 and Carnegie Hall later that year with the likes of Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Mercury Records spent these years turning Sarah Vaughan into a pop star of the day and, while her pop career was short and financially successful, Vaughan is reported to have hated churning out songs she didn’t connect to, calling Broken Hearted Melody “the corniest thing she ever did”.
A few years into her first stint with Mercury, No Count Sarah came out, featuring the Count Basie Big Band minus actual Count Basie.
This is regarded by many as one of the best Sarah Vaughan recordings out there and features some of her best known hits like Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Doodlin’ and a classic ‘vocalese’ on No Count Blues where she banters with trumpeter Thad Jones.
The Divine One (1961)
In 1958, Sarah Vaughan filed for divorce against George Treadwell and, despite years of success, the money between them added up to only $16,000, which they divided up equally and went their separate ways romantically and professionally.
This may have led up to a change of label, as Vaughan signed with Roulette Records – a small label owned by one of the backers of the renowned Birdland Jazz Club in NYC.
Vaughan also met a new man, C.B. Atkins, married him in 1959, and assigned him the job as her manager, falling into the similar roles of her previous marriage.
She was only with Roulette for 4 years, but her time there was well spent, recording 13 albums in that period.
The direction of her career is less definable in those years, as she seems to be pulled in every which way, recording with large ensembles conducted and arranged by people like Quincy Jones, Benny Carter and Jimmy Jones.
Vaughan was given a few nicknames in her career – her pianist John Malachi called her “Sassy” which she liked because it matched her temperament.
Later, TV personality Dave Garroway called her “The Divine One”.
The Divine One was arranged by Jimmy Jones and featured Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet. Ain’t No Use is almost like a conversation with Vaughan. Another notable track on this album is Jump for Joy.
After Hours (1961)
As well as many large ensemble recordings for Roulette (including the next one, another Basie-less recording with his orchestra), Vaughan also recorded some small group albums like After Hours with Mundell Lowe on guitar and George Duvivier on double bass.
The notable features here are mostly ballads – Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady – and an uptempo version of Great Day that features mostly Duvivier on bass.
Guitar and bass was a new combination for her and proved to be successful enough to repeat the line up with Sarah+2 the following year.
Around this same time, Vaughan, who was unable to have children of her own, adopted a daughter, Deborah Lois Atkins (known professionally now as Paris Vaughan).
It wasn’t long after that, sadly, that her relationship with her husband started to turn sour and she turned to friends to help her out. Atkins had a severe gambling problem, allegedly leaving Sarah Vaughan $150,000 in debt.
Sassy Swings the Tivoli (1963)
When Vaughan’s contract with Roulette ended in 1962, she returned to the much safer terrain of Mercury and stayed with them until 1967.
To open her recommencement, she was invited by Quincy Jones to perform four dates in Copenhagen at the Tivoli Gardens. Jones produced the album that featured Vaughan’s own trio.
This album is considered one of the ‘gems’ of the Sarah Vaughan discography and it is widely agreed that at age 39, her voice was at its absolute peak.
While, in the past, Vaughan’s label had pushed her strongly in the direction of producing “hits”, and she did so successfully with songs like Whatever Lola Wants, The Banana Boat Song, and her biggest selling hit of all, Broken Hearted Melody, Sassy Swings the Tivoli features her at her best.
There’s audible banter between Vaughan, her bandmates and, at times, the audience, lots of scat and vocal improvisation on numbers like Sassy’s Blues, Sometimes I’m Happy and thoughtfully delivered ballads like Tenderly, where she still throws in a bit of comedy to lighten the mood.
Sassy Swings Again (1967)
The next few years on Mercury sent Vaughan back into the pop hits realm, as she released albums like Vaughan With Voices, featuring the Svend-Saaby Danish Choir and ¡Viva! Vaughan. Both were produced by Quincy Jones.
Her final album with Mercury was produced by Hal Mooney, who had worked for the label for years and had previously written arrangements for some of Vaughan’s albums in the 1950s. (Check out Sarah Vaughan Sings Broadway: Great Songs from Hit Shows.)
Sassy Swings Again features Thad Jones, JJ Johnson, Benny Golson, Freddie Hubbard and Clark Terry and memorable recordings like Every Day I have the Blues, I Left My Heart in San Francisco, and I Want to Be Happy.
Live in Japan (1973)
From the end of 1967, Sarah Vaughan went unsigned until 1971, at which point she briefly signed with Mainstream Records and released 4 studio albums and 2 live albums.
She met yet another new man but, for once, this one treated her well.
Marshall Fisher had no experience managing, but he was fair and became known for writing her love letters.
Live in Japan and Sarah Vaughan with the Jimmy Rowles Quintet – the live recordings – both showed how far Vaughan had come. Her confidence was audible in her stage conversation and her voice was still considered constant and strong.
The studio albums recorded under Mainstream were not hits as intended and Vaughan started to believe that the label might be hurting her career so she did not renew her contract and was once again without a label, this time for 3 years.
How Long Has This Been Going On? (1978)
Sarah Vaughan had developed a love for Brazil and South America after touring there several times.
So, wondering what to do next with her career, she decided to try her hand at producing her own album of bossa nova music, featuring some prominent Brazilian musicians like Dorival Caymmi and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
In 1977, she signed with Pablo Records, run by the jazz impresario Norman Granz, who had managed Ella Fitzgerald and whom Vaughan had known for years.
Granz had a dedication to producing mainstream jazz and had set up a studio date for Vaughan with the Oscar Peterson Trio.
This set of standards was nominated for a Grammy and, Granz also agreed to release Vaughan’s Brazilian passion project, I Love Brazil!, and it too was nominated for a Grammy, adding to her total of 10 nominations and 2 Grammy award wins.
With the Oscar Peterson Trio, Vaughan is definitely the boss, but the band stands out equally and the whole thing shines as a standing example of Sarah Vaughan in her later life.
Send In the Clowns (1981)
Vaughan never married Marshall Fisher, but their professional and personal relationship ended in 1977 and she was then married to Waymon Reed (another trumpet player) until 1981.
Around this time, she recorded one last album with the Count Basie Orchestra (still no Basie!).
After previously making an album called Send In the Clowns (1974) and detesting the cover, she did develop an affection for the Stephen Sondheim song and it became a staple in her repertoire. The version on this 1981 album is highly regarded and displays Vaughan’s considerable skill, even later into her life.
Her contract with Pablo Records ended in 1982 and she made very few commitments to do studio recordings after that.
Her final recording was a third album called Brazilian Romance – a nod to her fondness of Brazilian culture and music.
Vaughan’s health started to decline in the latter part of the 80s and in 1989, during a run at New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and was unable to finish what turned out to be her final series of public performances.
She passed away after a short battle, demanding to be taken home from the hospital and she is buried in Glendale Cemetery in Newark, New Jersey – her hometown, where she is still very much a part of the community.
The street outside the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre is called Sarah Vaughan Way and they hold a Vocal Competition in her honour each year.
Her rich voice, her inventive improvisations and virtuosic range mean she’s nothing if not the Divine One.
Thanks for reading this pick of 10 great albums from the legendary jazz singer Sarah Vaughan.
Of course, there were more than 40 other albums we could have chosen here, so our best tip is to use this round up as a springboard to discovering more great music from The Divine One!
Looking for more jazz music? You’ll find all our articles and recommendations here.
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