While Sarah Vaughan, one of the greatest jazz singers in history, although not wholly a New Yorker, launched her career at Harlem's Apollo Theatre in 1942 as an 18-year-old, and performed regularly in the city throughout her 50-year career. She recording over 75 albums, won four Grammy's along with a Lifetime Achievment Award. She performed and recorded with all the greats, and Ella Fitzgerald called her "the world's greatest singing talent."
Sarah's other performance venues included Carnegie Hall (where I saw her perform), the Blue Note, and the legendary Cafe Society in Greenwich Village. Early in her career in the 1940's she played the swing street clubs on 52nd Street including Downbeat, The Three Deuces and the Onyx, and spent time at Braddock Grill next to the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Born on March 27, 1924 in 1924 in Newark, New Jersey, Vaughan was immediately surrounded by music: her carpenter father was an amateur guitarist and her laundress mother was a church vocalist. Young Sarah studied piano from the age of seven, and before entering her teens had become an organist and choir soloist at the Mount Zion Baptist Church (PBS/WNET/American Masters).
According to her biography on PBS, when she was eighteen, friends dared her to enter the famed Wednesday Night Amateur Contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She gave a sizzling rendition of “Body and Soul,” and won first prize. In the audience that night was the singer Billy Eckstine. Six months later, she had joined Eckstine in Earl Hines’s big band along with jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
When Eckstine formed his own band soon after, Vaughan went with him. Others including Miles Davis and Art Blakey, were eventually to join the band as well. Within a year, however, Vaughan wanted to give a solo career a try. By late 1947, she had topped the charts with “Tenderly,” and as the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, Vaughan expanded her jazz repertoire to include pop music. As a result, she enlarged her audience, gained increased attention for her formidable talent, and compiled additional hits, including the Broadway show tunes “Whatever Lola Wants” and “Mr. Wonderful.” While jazz purists balked at these efforts, no one could deny that in any genre, Vaughan had one of the greatest voices in the business.
After the 1950s, shifting musical tastes meant that Vaughan no longer produced huge hits. However, she remained a popular performer, particularly when she sang live. In front of an audience, her emotional, vibrato-rich delivery, three-octave vocal range and captivating scat technique were even more appealing. Though her voice took on a deeper pitch as Vaughan got older—likely due in part her smoking habit—this didn't impact the quality of her singing, as could be heard on "Send in the Clowns," a staple in her repertoire.
Vaughan's later recordings include interpretations of Beatles songs and Brazilian music. Over the years, she collaborated with people like producer Quincy Jones, pianist Oscar Peterson and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. Vaughan won her first Grammy thanks to her work with Thomas and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Gershwin Live! (1982)
Vaughan's final concert was given at New York's Blue Note Club in 1989.
She passed away from lung cancer on April 3, 1990, at age 66, in Hidden Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles, California. Married and divorced four times, she was survived by her adopted daughter.
Throughout her career, Vaughan was recognized as a supremely gifted singer and performer. She was invited to perform at the White House and at venues like Carnegie Hall, was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1989 and was selected to join the Jazz Hall of Fame in 1990. She also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame