Straightforward Look at Divine Sarah

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“SASSY: THE LIFE OF SARAH VAUGHAN” By Leslie Gourse, Scribner’s ($25) * * * 1/2

The voice of Sarah Vaughan was one of the incomparable wonders of this century’s music world. She had it all. She was a pop singer, a jazz singer, a scat singer and, as was all too rarely revealed, a classical singer: She sang Handel’s “Messiah” for the movie “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” She wanted Leonard Bernstein to compose an opera for her, but was too shy to ask him.

Gourse has placed every aspect of her career in a straightforward, often startlingly revelatory manner. The picture she has painted is not a pretty one. By no standard could Vaughan be seen as a role model, either professionally--she never studied, never practiced, seldom rehearsed--or personally.

Her private life was an endless round of send-in-the-clowns carousing, yet seemingly none of the all-night binges, all-day hangovers, nor quantity of cigarettes, booze, marijuana or cocaine could affect her divine gift. After decades of abusing her body with chemicals she sang, to the amazement of those who knew the circumstances, more gloriously than ever.


Her childhood in Newark was uneventful; she played organ and sang in a church choir. A skilled musician, she became a key figure in the be-bop era, working with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and singing in a band led by Billy Eckstine, with whom her lifelong friendship is well documented.

But for the most part, like Billie Holiday, she was attracted to men who, with few exceptions, abused and misused her. Two of her three failed marriages ended violently.

As Gourse and some of her sources point out, Vaughan’s vices tended to restrict what should have been a career without limits. Yet even with all the lovers doubling as managers, all the guzzling and gorging, she eventually brought the beauty of her sound to symphony orchestras and earned up to $1 million a year, until her lifestyle finally caught up with her--she died in 1990 of lung cancer.

The story Gourse tells is that of a natural genius, scared by an insecurity she was never able to extirpate.

Items in this periodic survey of jazz-related books, videocassettes and laser discs are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four (excellent).