It’s no surprise that Sarah Vaughan earned her nickname, “The Divine One” when she had a talent that left the likes of Frank Sinatra quaking in his boots. This exceptional vocalist has certainly earned her place in jazz legend.
New to the Nightclub!
Often described as having one of the most wondrous voices of the 20th century, Sarah Vaughan built a career singing with some of the biggest names in jazz. But the journey there was full of hard work and dedication.
Born to parents who were also musicians – her mother a singer and pianist in the church choir and her father who played guitar and piano – Sarah Vaughan developed an early love for pop music. Leading into her mid-teens, she bagged herself a whole host of performances as a singer and pianist in various Newark nightclubs. Of course, this was not entirely legal, but it was her passion for these underground performances that led Vaughan to drop out of high school to continue on this path to success (she just didn’t know it yet!).
Fast forward a few years to her frequent trips to New York. She always took along her friend Doris Robinson, and one day she managed to convince Doris to enter into the Apollo Theatre Amateur Night Contest, in which Doris landed a second-place prize. Feeling as though she might be able to get somewhere in this competition herself, Vaughan entered and unsurprisingly won! The prize? $10 – oh, and a week performing at the Apollo, opening for none other than Ella Fitzgerald, of course!
Mingling with the Masters!
And it was here that Vaughan’s career really began to take off. Through these performances at the Apollo, she was able to meet influential bandleader, Earl Hines, who offered her a job immediately. Touring with his big band was the next step for Vaughan, and the figures she would meet along the way were nothing short of jazz legends. Think Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon. She really was mingling with the right crew.
It was on this foundation that Vaughan decided to seek out her solo career – starting off in the clubs of 52nd street, frequently performing with firm colleagues, Gillespie and Parker. She was the first artist ever to record the jazz standard, “Tenderly”, which also became an unexpected chart sensation! Her version of “It’s Magic” for Doris Day’s film, Romance on the High Seas, was also a chart champion.
With her record label Musicraft being on rocky territory financially, leaving Vaughan fighting for royalty payments, she moved on to working with Columbia Records, a label we’re all certainly familiar with! It was in these years that she recorded her version of “Black Coffee”, which did fantastically in the charts. It continues to be one of her most popular songs to date, garnering the largest number of streams on Spotify for her! Others to cover this legendary tune have been the likes of Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, The Pointer Sisters, and perhaps you next? That’s right, because we’ve included “Black Coffee” in our Grade 6 Vocals syllabus, so you too can make history with this one.
Moving on to Mercury Records, Vaughan released hits like “Misty” and “Broken Hearted Melody”, a song that she considered “corny”, but which inevitably became her first gold record!
With countless awards that followed in the years to come, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Sarah Vaughan’s career continued to blossom and thrive. She was frequently described as having a voice that happens once in a lifetime, or once in several lifetimes. An undeniable control of her huge vocal range, with exceptional capabilities in volume and texture, a perfect ear for pitch, and no interval too difficult, “The Divine One” truly deserves all the praise that comes her way.