5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Sarah Vaughan
All it might take is a second and a half of hearing her sing to make your spine tingle or your heart drop. Opera singers, jazz vocalists, writers and Vaughan’s biographer share their favorites.
For over a year, we’ve been rooting through jazz history five minutes at a time. We’ve covered favorites by Ornette Coleman, Mary Lou Williams, New Orleans’s jazz greats and many others. Now let’s turn our attention to a vocalist who epitomized — but couldn’t be contained by — jazz: Sarah Vaughan, “The Divine One,” owner of perhaps the most impressive vocal instrument in recorded history.
Forget five minutes, all it might take is a second and a half of hearing her sing to make your spine tingle or your heart drop. Across her wide contralto range she could easily alternate between thick vibrato and crystal-clear precision. Vaughan began her career as a teenager singing bebop — a then-new style that was almost exclusively the domain of hotshot instrumentalists. But she could improvise an exacting scat solo, right alongside the horn players.
Raised in a musical family in Newark, Vaughan first hit the road with Earl Hines’s big band in the mid-1940s, after its other singer, Billy Eckstine, saw her win a talent show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She became an integral part of the band, and then a star. Though naturally shy, she made it clear early on that she was to be treated as any other musician, and her bandmates soon started calling her “Sailor,” because of her fluency with four-letter words.
Heading off on a tour with Hines in 1944, she and the pianist John Malachi were lugging their suitcases into Union Station in Washington when he made the mistake of chivalry, holding the door open for her. “What are you standing up there looking at me for, fool?” she demanded. “Go on through the door! You damn fool.” Maybe that’s the moment when he gave her another of her many nicknames: “Sassy.” In any case, it stuck, and it’s the one she is still known by today.
As her career progressed, Vaughan — who died in 1990, at 66 — ventured into rock and Brazilian music. Read on for a sampling of standout Vaughan performances selected by opera singers, jazz vocalists, critics, fiction writers and Vaughan’s biographer. Enjoy listening to their choices, check out the playlist at the bottom of the article and be sure to leave your own favorites in the comments.
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Lizz Wright, vocalist
Sarah Vaughan’s voice is a whole atmosphere. In a few exquisite phrases, the current of her vibrato and the richness of her tone usher the listener into a place in time, into the poetry of song, and hint at the wealth of a great mind. As a Black woman in America, Sarah found a way to stand before masses of people around the world commanding their patient attention, respect and admiration through her powerful vocals and masterfully whimsical phrasing. Her enchanted voice gently opened doors that were often closed to women, people of color and vocalists. Everything under Sarah’s voice is draped in a playful and sacred charm that makes the moment richer than it was. She was aptly called “The Divine One.”
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Wesley Brown, novelist
Sarah. Words fail to measure up. Like Beckett, I try to fail better. A hush steadies all in the club. The mic rests ready against her chest where voice and heartbeat greet. Me on the ground, she in midair with her usual flair. Every breath a parachute, full of rumbles and quivers and flavors of sass. Such a flirt she is, the shimmy in the shoulders, much girlish mischief in the mouth. Isn’t it bliss? Me still on the ground, she in midair. Words not up to snuff. Quick. Don’t bother. She’s here!
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Cécile McLorin Salvant, vocalist
The most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard is Sarah Vaughan singing this. I believe this is one of the most luxurious vocal recordings of all time. I go back to this video very often when I want to treat myself. I’m so fascinated by her vibrato and by the moments when she gives us those sweeps in range. This version of “Maria,” a song from “West Side Story,” has an intimate, secret quality at crucial moments, and yet it is overwhelmingly grandiose, regal. I have always loved this about Sarah Vaughan. She can take you to these incredible heights with her voice, but with a word, a note, is able to infuse her interpretations with a quotidian, offhand quality. She does not keep her voice in the same place — it is heterogenous, which is what makes it so fun, so rich, so moving. She is divine and human.
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Emily Lordi, writer
Many artists have performed “I’ll Be Seeing You,” Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal’s ballad of lost love and longing. But no one has lingered in it as languorously as Sarah Vaughan. Her version of the song, recorded live with her veteran trio at Tivoli Gardens in 1963, expresses no interest in moving on or “healing.” Instead, Vaughan initiates a long, slow waltz with heartache. By casting herself into every phrase, she implies that the pain of imagining her lover in their old haunts (carousels, cafes) not only revives him; it enlivens her (hence the protracted “I” with which she begins). In a feat of breath control, she bridges the song’s two opening statements — inviting, even willing, a world made more vibrant by the afterlife of love, as it smudges the edges of everything.
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Samara Joy, vocalist
I admire how much care she puts into every word, making sure that the story of the song is heard and felt. Any improvisatory changes made to the melody are done with taste and feeling. I also love how she uses the full range of her voice to deliver the song. I almost thought the song ended once she hit that final high A-flat, but after descending two octaves lower, oscillating between G and A-flat, this Sarah performance became an instant favorite.
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Ben Ratliff, former Times jazz and pop critic
I like hearing Sarah Vaughan tear it up on an extra-slow-tempo ballad, 50 beats per minute or lower. With small groups, her unremitting virtuosity made a certain kind of design sense: She filled in the canyon-like spaces between beats. But I also like hearing her singing at slug tempos with thick, commercial, easy-listening studio arrangements: In an atmosphere of languid appeasement, she bounces off the walls. For the front half of “The Thrill Is Gone,” on “Vaughan and Violins” (1958), the arrangement by Quincy Jones clears open space for her to go full Sarah, strange Sarah, with her feats of breath control, mic technique, timbral shifts, trilling and sliding notes, hard emphatic gestures. But she keeps doing it after the tide of violins enters. I mean, the first “gone” is more than three seconds long, most of it the letter “n”; at 0:34, she delivers a pinched, acid “… si-ii-ighs”; at 0:38, “a-hand re-ee-huh-a-lize”; at 0:51, “the nights: the nights are so cold.” At a certain point you’re noticing every detail. Most affective ballads work their affect intermittently — there are a few select peaks, which makes them easier to remember. Vaughan’s were nearly all peak, and in that she took a risk.
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Charenee Wade, vocalist
Sarah Vaughan, my first musical love, always brought newness to everything she sang each time she stepped onto the stage. There is a great early recording on MGM in 1949 of this song where, if one listens closely, her undeniably infectious tone and masterful phrasing speak through. This particular clip of her live performance of “Once in a While” is filmed almost 30 years later, and that essence is still there, but even more enriched. Her vocal range was unparalleled and became even deeper as she “seasoned.” She is a soulfully spontaneous and playful improviser. Her stage presence is transfixing, and her comedic timing is delightfully charming. She holds the entire room in the palm of her hand with each story she tells and intimate moment she shares. Her vocal technique is flawless, no matter which decade of her career, and one would be blessed to be able to witness her sitting down at the piano and accompanying herself just as well as any pianist had for her in the past. She is iconic, and quintessentially the definition of a True Jazz Vocalist. My first love, and I know you will love her too!
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Elaine M. Hayes, biographer
Sarah Vaughan’s “Whatever Lola Wants,” released in 1955, is a pop masterpiece. In less than three minutes, she perfectly embodies her role as a provocative temptress while demonstrating her vocal prowess, technical mastery, and savvy as a storyteller. On the surface, she sings straight. But she in fact infuses the Broadway tune with her trademark vocal inflections and nuances. A delicious slide here, a microtonal bend there. With each verse she adds layers of complexity that build momentum, pulling the listener through her performance. And while Vaughan keeps a strict beat, she deftly conveys uncertainty and spontaneity, constantly pushing the boundaries between control and the loss of control to produce a delightful tension between the two. Musically, she has re-created the dynamics of a successful seduction. By the time she sings the final “I’m irresistible, you fool/Give in, give in, give in,” her success — and the success of her single, which peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard and Variety charts — seems a foregone conclusion.
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Fredara Hadley, scholar
The older I get, the more I revel in listening to grown women’s voices. We often think of what age subtracts, but I’m attracted by what it adds. Growing up in church, people would say, “You have to be a certain age to sing that song.” Sometimes, life experience has to catch up with lyrics. One recording that always makes me feel this way is Sarah Vaughan’s 1966 interpretation of Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster’s “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Sarah Vaughan is a master interpreter of song, both melodically and narratively. I know there are countless recordings of this song, but whenever someone mentions it, I only ever think of hers.
This is Vaughan in her 40s singing with an alluring alchemy of tender reflection with the gravitas of life experience. All of her soulful vocal virtuosity paired with an orchestral arrangement infused with a bossa nova groove lulls the listener into a dreamscape. It is nearly four minutes of her starting deep in her rich contralto voice and carrying us higher into her lilting soprano. Her vocal ascent reflects the lyrical joy of remembrance, and then toward the end, she gently descends and places us back into reality. It’s an expertly crafted blend of shadow and sun, light and dark, in the colors of her voice and the story she tells. This is Sarah Vaughan in full bloom as a singer and as a woman.
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Will Friedwald, author
Back in the ’80s, my favorite selection on the jukebox at the Angry Squire was the 1959 single of Sarah Vaughan singing “Misty,” with Quincy Jones’s orchestra and Zoot Sims on tenor. Even at that noisy bar in Chelsea, the first notes of that 45 would cause the whole room to instantly freeze — as if the voice of a goddess were beaming in from another world. Some critics accused Vaughan of not paying enough attention to lyrics in general, but here was a song where she didn’t just sing the words, she actually became them. She didn’t just get “Misty” in the sense of teary-eyed, but she seemed to dissolve bodily into the atmosphere and cling “to a cloud.” Even 30 years after her passing from this world to the next, that record still has that effect on me.
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Angel Blue, vocalist
The brilliance of Sarah Vaughan reaches far beyond her exquisite sound. Perhaps her most intriguing quality is her vocal ability. Going from a high soprano range to a low contralto range effortlessly seems to be something that she was able to do within any song. One of the songs that I find particularly fascinating is “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”: She demonstrates her ability to catch the listener’s ear with a simple melody by her strong use of diction, straight tone singing, and embellished vibrato to highlight a specific word or end of the phrase.
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Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic
In the last chapter of her career, Vaughan built herself a new home in the music of Brazil, recording three albums of bossa, jazz and contemporary Brazilian pop. At the end of the first LP, “I Love Brazil,” she’s joined by the Rio de Janeiro-born balladeer Dori Caymmi on his song “Like a Lover (O Cantador).” Caymmi adds the occasional cascade of wordless vocals, as if to provide Vaughan with her string section, but mostly it’s just his acoustic guitar and her voice, singing lyrics in English about an unrequited love. In her mid-50s, Vaughan sounds like someone who knows the feeling of desire inside and out: its urgency, its unreason, the sting that can sometimes be its only reward. But enough with all that. You don’t get very far weighing Sarah Vaughan down with conversations about “authenticity” or “message.” She is concerned almost completely with the joy of singing: the variety of shapes that her notes can take, how they feel, how they taste, whether they’ll sit still or wriggle in her grasp. And that’s where the optimism that you can hear in this track comes from: She knows a song is a lover that will always requite. Sure enough, if you go back to the original Portuguese lyrics, they aren’t actually about a lover at all, they’re about a singer’s devotion to song. One of them translates to: “If only I knew how to cry/Alas, I’m a singer, I can only sing.”