I have written before about my love of strong, black coffee. I have also shared my love of mid-century jazz on quite a few occasions. Today we get to combine the two with this great old record by The Divine One, Sarah Vaughan.
I have not done much with jazz singers as I am more of a fan of instrumentals. But we cannot go far in American jazz without acknowledging the great vocalists who made such a contribution. There are quite a few and there is no particular reason that Sarah Vaughan should be the first. Other than the fact that this one came up on a random playlist some time back and I have never been able to get it out of my head. So maybe writing about it will help.
Sarah Vaughan came onto the music scene a little later than many of my subjects. Born in 1924 in Newark, NJ, she entered an Amateur Night contest at the Apollo Theater in New York one evening in 1942 at the age of eighteen. As the winner she took home $10 and a chance to sing at the Apollo for a week.
It was during that week that she was heard by Billy Eckstine who sang for the Earl Hines band. Or she was discovered by Hines himself, depending on which version of the story appeals to you.
The Hines band formed a nucleus of musicians who would soon be founders of the Bebop movement. These included Eckstine, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, among several others. Hines hired Vaughan and after a time she followed Eckstine when he formed his own band.
She later ventured out as a solo act and cut several sides on the small Musicraft label starting in 1945. Vaughan was the first to sing the song Tenderly which became a surprise hit in late 1947 – and a jazz standard in the decades since. After a couple more hit singles she found herself on the leading edge of The Big Time and signed a contract with Columbia Records in 1948.
Her Columbia years (which lasted through 1953) were a little stifling for her as the label steered her towards pop songs and away from the jazz that was her background and foundation. Frank Sinatra had the same problem during the later years of his time at the label when he recorded things like Mama Will Bark, probably the most awful record he ever made. Vaughan left Columbia (the year after Sinatra did) and recorded for several labels as time passed, but the exposure she got from her Columbia years paid some dividends in that Vaughan developed an ability to go back and forth between pop and jazz for the rest of her life.
This record sort of straddles the jazz/pop dividing line, although such straddles were not as difficult in the ’40s as they would become as time passed. This record, one of her first for Columbia, hit number 13 on the Billboard Magazine chart. It would join over a dozen other top 20 hits Vaughan would sing over the next decade. But there are pop songs and then there are pop songs like this one that had some legs and could bring out the fabulous voice that introduced it.
The record itself was recorded in January and released in May of 1949. It featuted a song composed a year earlier by Sonny Burke, with lyrics by Paul Webster. This song has had a long and productive life. After Vaughan’s introductory recording it would be covered every decade to the present by dozens of performers as diverse as Petula Clark, The Pointer Sisters, k.d. lang and Sinead O’Connor. But none did it like Sassy, another of the nicknames she picked up over her career – a nickname which was both a play on Vaughan’s first name and a description of her personality.
The first thing you will notice is the incomparable voice. Although the full force of the CBS Studio Orchestra accompanied her, it does pretty much none of the heavy lifting in this performance – which is as it should be.
That voice is like no other then or since and is immediately recognizable. Smoky, sultry, silky and lots of other words could describe that lush, full sound. This song does not really give an indication of her range, which was incredibly wide – she could sing way up high in addition to the low notes she showcases here. While Billie Holiday’s thing was to bring style and emotion to her limited vocal capabilities, Vaughan’s voice, an instrument really, was a marvel and any style she brought to it (which was considerable) only added to the package.
Her’s was also that rare singer’s voice that seemed immune to the effects of age which has weakened the pipes of many a singing star in the later years of a career. Even in her sixties she retained a beautiful vocal sound envied by those much younger.
In additon to her natural vocal gifts she developed the ability to bend and shape that voice in a way that caressed and enveloped the words she sang. But rather than becoming really intimate with the lyrics as, say Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra did, Vaughan’s hallmark was the almost instrumental quality of her sound.
Vaughan refused to classify herself as a jazz singer, saying that although she had been formed by jazz, she liked all kinds of music. She claimed to be unable to sing a straight blues, but she had the ability (as this record demonstrates) to infuse the blues into almost anything she did.
The lyrics, which are a jaded lament about the hard road of a woman in love, are brought to life by that fabulous voice which infuses the the piece with a sorrow and pathos that you can almost cut with a knife. It will not occur to most people that a twenty-five year old could sing a torch song like this (and make it work) because it sounds like the story of a much older woman. But Vaughan pulls it off without even the tiniest apparent bit of effort.
Vaughan was active until shortly before her 1990 death at the age of sixty-six. A death from lung cancer, which seems ironic after listening to the lyrics of this ode to caffeine and nicotine as solace for the lovelorn.
Some of the records I feature are easy choices, big important pieces that define some part of an artist’s career. Others are just one out of a sea of excellence where you could pick one just as easily as any other. Sarah Vaughan is in the second category and this record could almost have been chosen completely at random.
But it was not, mainly because I have an affinity for things recorded before the long play record planted its flag in the world of music. With an artist of Sarah Vaughan’s age it is a fairly narrow window between her maturation into her prime as a singer and the end of the shellac 78 as the primary way of listening to it.
If you like newer stuff you will find plenty of it from Vaughan. Whether your tastes run more towards 1950s pop hits (like 1955’s Whatever Lola Wants from the show Damn Yankees or Broken Hearted Melody from 1959) or jazz renderings with top musicians like Miles Davis, Clifford Brown or Count Basie, Vaughan has something to offer you.
Me? I think I’ll just linger over some Black Coffee.
Opening photo of Sarah Vaughan, taken August, 1946 in New York by William Gottlieb. Photograph is in the public domain and found at Wikimedia Commons.
Depiction of the original record label, at Discogs.com
Sarah Vaughan & Billy Eckstine – 1981 photograph by Brian McMillen at the 1981 Monterey Jazz Festival. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.