Sarah Vaughan was a Grammy Award winner. The National Endowment for the Arts bestowed upon her its highest honor in jazz, the NEA Jazz Masters Award in 1989.
Sarah Vaughan's father, Asbury "Jake" Vaughan, was a carpenter and amateur guitarist. Her mother, Ada, was a laundress. Jake and Ada Vaughan migrated to Newark from Virginia during the First World War. Sarah was their only natural child, although in the 1960s they adopted Donna, the child of a woman who traveled on the road with Sarah Vaughan.
The Vaughans lived in a house on Brunswick Street, in Newark, New Jersey, for Sarah's entire childhood. Jake Vaughan was deeply religious and the family was very active in the New Mount Zion Baptist Church on 186 Thomas Street. Sarah began piano lessons at the age of seven, sang in the church choir and occasionally played piano for rehearsals and services.
Vaughan developed an early love for popular music on records and the radio. In the 1930s, Newark had a very active live music scene and Vaughan frequently saw local and touring bands that played in the city at venues like the Montgomery Street Skating Rink. By her mid-teens, Vaughan began venturing (illegally) into Newark's night clubs and performing as a pianist and, occasionally, singer, most notably at the Piccadilly Club and the Newark Airport USO.
Vaughan initially attended Newark's East Side High School (Newark, New Jersey), later transferring to Newark Arts High School, which had opened in 1931 as the United States' first arts "magnet" high school. However, her nocturnal adventures as a performer began to overwhelm her academic pursuits and Vaughan dropped out of high school during her junior year to concentrate more fully on music. Around this time, Vaughan and her friends also began venturing across the Hudson River into New York City to hear big bands at Harlem's.
Biographies of Vaughan frequently state that she was immediately thrust into stardom after a winning an Amateur Night performance at Harlem's Apollo Theater. In fact, the story that biographer Leslie Gourse relates seems to be a bit more complex. Vaughan was frequently accompanied by a friend, Doris Robinson, on her trips into New York City. Sometime in the Fall of 1942 (when Sarah was 18 years old), Vaughan suggested that Robinson enter the Apollo Amateur Night contest. Vaughan played piano accompaniment for Robinson, who won second prize. Vaughan later decided to go back and compete herself as a singer. Vaughan sang "Body and Soul" and won, although the exact date of her victorious Apollo performance is uncertain. The prize, as Vaughan recalled later to Marian McPartland, was $10 and the promise of a week's engagement at the Apollo. After a considerable delay, Vaughan was contacted by the Apollo in the Spring of 1943 to open for Ella Fitzgerald.
Sometime during her week of performances at the Apollo, Vaughan was introduced to bandleader and pianist Earl Hines, although the exact details of that introduction are disputed. Billy Eckstine, Hines' singer at the time, has been credited by Vaughan and others with hearing her at the Apollo and recommending her to Hines. Hines also claimed to have discovered her himself and offered her a job on the spot. Regardless, after a brief tryout at the Apollo, Hines officially replaced his existing female singer with Vaughan on April 4, 1943.
Vaughan began her solo career in 1945 by freelancing in clubs on New York's 52nd Street like the Three Deuces, the Famous Door, the Downbeat and the Onyx Club. Vaughan also hung around the Braddock Grill, next door to the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. On May 11, 1945, Vaughan recorded "Lover Man" for the Guild label with a quintet featuring Gillespie and Parker with Al Haig on piano, Curly Russell on double bass and Sid Catlett on drums. Later that month she went into the studio with a slightly different and larger Gillespie/Parker aggregation and recorded three more sides.
After being invited by violinist Stuff Smith to record the song "Time and Again" in October, Vaughan was offered a contract to record for the Musicraft label by owner Albert Marx, although she would not begin recording as a leader for Musicraft until May 7, 1946. In the intervening time, Vaughan made a handful of recordings for the Crown and Gotham labels and began performing regularly at Cafe Society Downtown, an integrated club in New York's Sheridan Square.
While at Cafe Society, Vaughan became friends with trumpeter George Treadwell. Treadwell became Vaughan's manager and she ultimately delegated to him most of the musical director responsibilities for her recording sessions, leaving her free to focus almost entirely on singing. Over the next few years, Treadwell also made significant positive changes in Vaughan's stage appearance. Aside from an improved wardrobe and hair style, Vaughan had her teeth capped, eliminating an unsightly gap between her two front teeth.
Many of Vaughan's 1946 Musicraft recordings became quite well-known among jazz aficionados and critics, including "If You Could See Me Now" (written and arranged by Tadd Dameron), "Don't Blame Me", "I've Got a Crush on You", "Everything I Have is Yours" and "Body and Soul." With Vaughan and Treadwell's professional relationship on solid footing, the couple married on September 16, 1946.
Vaughan's recording success for Musicraft continued through 1947 and 1948. Her recording of "Tenderly" became an unexpected pop hit in late 1947. Her December 27, 1947 recording of "It's Magic" (from the Doris Day film Romance on the High Seas) found chart success in early 1948. Her recording of "Nature Boy" from April 8, 1948 became a hit around the same time as the release of the famous Nat King Cole recording of the same song. Because of yet another recording ban by the musicians union, "Nature Boy" was recorded with an A Capella choir as the only accompaniment, adding an ethereal air to a song with a vaguely mystical lyric and melody.
In 1953, Treadwell negotiated a unique contract for Vaughan with Mercury Records. She would record commercial material for the Mercury label and more jazz-oriented material for its subsidiary EmArcy. Vaughan was paired with producer Bob Shad and their excellent working relationship yielded strong commercial and artistic success. Her debut Mercury recording session took place in February 1954 and she stayed with the label through 1959. After a stint at Roulette Records (1960 to 1963), Vaughan returned to Mercury from 1964 to 1967.
Vaughan's commercial success at Mercury began with the 1954 hit, "Make Yourself Comfortable", recorded in the Fall of 1954, and continued with a succession of hits, including: "How Important Can It Be" (with Count Basie), "Whatever Lola Wants", "The Banana Boat Song", "You Ought to Have A Wife" and "Misty". Her commercial success peaked in 1959 with "Broken Hearted Melody", a song she considered to be "corny", but, nonetheless, became her first gold record and a regular part of her concert repertoire for years to come. Vaughan was reunited with Billy Eckstine for a series of duet recordings in 1957 that yielded the hit "Passing Strangers". Vaughan's commercial recordings were handled by a number of different arrangers and conductors, primarily Hugo Peretti and Hal Mooney.
The jazz "track" of her recording career also proceeded apace, backed either by her working trio or various combinations of stellar jazz players. One of her own favorite albums was a 1954 sextet date that included Clifford Brown.
The latter half of the 1950s often found Vaughan in the company of a veritable who's who of jazz as she followed a schedule of almost non-stop touring. She was featured at the first Newport Jazz Festival in the Summer of 1954 and would star in subsequent editions of that festival at Newport and in New York City for the remainder of her life. In the Fall of 1954, she performed at Carnegie Hall with the Count Basie Orchestra on a bill that also included Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young and the Modern Jazz Quartet. That fall, she again toured Europe successfully before embarking on a "Big Show" U. S. tour, a grueling succession of start-studded one-nighters that included Count Basie, George Shearing, Erroll Garner and Jimmy Rushing. At the 1955 New York Jazz Festival on Randalls Island, Vaughan shared the bill with the Dave Brubeck quartet, Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, and the Johnny Richards Orchestra
Although the professional relationship between Vaughan and Treadwell was quite successful through the 1950s, their personal relationship finally reached a breaking point and she filed for a divorce in 1958. Vaughan had entirely delegated financial matters to Treadwell, and despite stunning income figures reported through the 1950s, at the settlement Treadwell said that only $16,000 remained. The couple evenly divided that amount and their personal assets, terminating their business relationship.
Vaughan remained quite active as a performer during the 1980s and began receiving awards recognizing her contribution to American music and status as an important elder stateswoman of Jazz. In the Summer of 1980, Vaughan received a plaque on 52nd Street outside the CBS Building (Black Rock) commemorating the jazz clubs she had once frequented on "Swing Street" and which had long since been demolished and replaced with office buildings.
A performance of her symphonic Gershwin program with the New Jersey Symphony in 1980 was broadcast on PBS and won her an Emmy Award in 1981 for "Individual Achievement - Special Class". She was reunited with Michael Tilson Thomas for slightly modified version of the Gershwin program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the CBS Records recording, Gershwin Live! won Vaughan the Grammy award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female. In 1985 Vaughan received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1988 Vaughan was inducted into American Jazz Hall of Fame.
After the conclusion of her Pablo contract in 1982, Vaughan did only a limited amount studio recording. Vaughan made a guest appearance in 1984 on Barry Manilow's 2:00 AM Paradise Cafe, an album of original pastiche compositions that featured a number of established jazz artists. In 1984 Vaughan participated in one of the more unusual projects of her career, The Planet is Alive, Let It Live a symphonic piece composed by Tito Fontana and Sante Palumbo on Italian translations of Polish poems by Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II. The recording was made in Germany with an English translation by writer Gene Lees and was released by Lees on his own private label after the recording was turned down by the major labels. In 1986, Vaughn sang two songs, "Happy Talk" and "Bali Ha'i", in the role of Bloody Mary on an otherwise stiff studio recording by opera stars Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras of the score of the Broadway musical South Pacific, while sitting on the studio floor.
Vaughan's final complete album was Brazilian Romance, produced and composed by Sergio Mendes and recorded primarily in the early part of 1987 in New York and Detroit. In 1988, Vaughan contributed vocals to an album of Christmas carols recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with the Utah Symphony Orchestra and sold in Hallmark Cards stores. In 1989, Quincy Jones' album Back on the Block featured Vaughan in a brief scatting duet with Ella Fitzgerald. This was Vaughan's final studio recording and, fittingly, it was Vaughan's only formal studio recording with Fitzgerald in a career that had begun 46 years earlier opening for Fitzgerald at the Apollo.
Vaughan is featured in a number of video recordings from the 1980s. Sarah Vaughan Live from Monterrey was taped in 1983 or 1984 and featured her working trio with guest soloists. Sass and Brass was taped in 1986 in New Orleans and also features her working trio with guest soloists, including Dizzy Gillespie and Maynard Ferguson. Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One was featured in the American Masters series on PBS.
She was given the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement, UCLA Spring Sing.
In 1989, Vaughan's health began to decline, although she rarely betrayed any hints in her performances. Vaughan canceled a series of engagements in Europe in 1989 citing the need to seek treatment for arthritis in the hand, although she was able to complete a later series of performances in Japan. During a run at New York's Blue Note jazz club in 1989, Vaughan received a diagnosis of lung cancer and was too ill to finish the final day of what would turn out to be her final series of public performances.
Vaughan returned to her home in California to begin chemotherapy and spent her final months alternating stays in the hospital and at home. Toward the end, Vaughan tired of the struggle and demanded to be taken home, where she died on the evening of April 3, 1990 while watching a television movie featuring her daughter.
Vaughan's funeral was held at Mount Zion Baptist Church at 208 Broadway in Newark, New Jersey which was the same congregation she grew up in, although relocated to a new building. Following the ceremony, a horse-drawn carriage transported her body to its final resting place in Glendale Cemetery in Bloomfield, New Jersey.