From the Archives: Sarah Vaughan, ‘Divine One’ of Jazz, Dies at 66


Sarah Vaughan, whose remarkable range and smoky contralto voice earned her the nickname “The Divine One,” has died of lung cancer, it was announced Wednesday. She was 66.

Miss Vaughan, who had checked out of Cedars Sinai Hospital a few hours earlier, died at 9:20 p.m. Tuesday at her home in Hidden Hills, according to her attorney and manager, Harold Levy.

Levy said he and Miss Vaughan’s 87-year-old mother, Ada, and her adopted daughter, actress Paris Deborah Vaughan, were at her side when she died. Levy said they were watching a television movie in which the daughter appeared.


Dubbed “Sassy” for her onstage manner, Miss Vaughan was associated with recordings of such perennial jazz and pop favorites as “Body and Soul,” “It’s Magic,” “Misty,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Lover Man,” “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “Send in the Clowns.”

Despite her seven-month fight with cancer, Miss Vaughan had hoped to begin working on a new recording this week. Levy said complications forced her to go to the hospital Saturday, but that she decided Tuesday she would be more comfortable in her home.

Last Sept. 3, after Mayor Tom Bradley proclaimed Sarah Vaughan Day in Los Angeles, she sang with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, capping her long career and delighting 11,878 fans with the soaring lyric voice that made her so popular for nearly five decades.

Four days later, Miss Vaughan, a longtime smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer and carcinoma of the joints in one hand.

“She just kept becoming greater and greater as the years went on,” Times jazz critic Leonard Feather, a longtime friend of Miss Vaughan, said Wednesday. “In the last few years she was just astonishing. She was the idol and envy of virtually all singers.”

Feather appraised her professional versatility in his “Encyclopedia of Jazz Singers” by saying that she was “capable of incomparable jazz performances yet qualified to be an opera singer.”


That opinion was echoed Wednesday by Times music critic Martin Bernheimer, who reviews performances of classical music including opera:

“Sarah Vaughan had a voice of extraordinary sweetness, flexibility and purity, and she used it with uncanny insinuation throughout a wide range. She could have taught many an opera diva lessons in breath control, in legato phrasing and in expressive communication. She was a great singer. Period.”

“Now that Sassy is gone,” said Miss Vaughan’s longtime friend, comedian Bill Cosby, “there is no one to measure great singers by.”

Miss Vaughan, who recorded popular and standard songs as well as jazz classics, had scoffed at attempts by fans and music critics to categorize her as a jazz singer.

“I just sing,” she said. “I sing whatever I can.”

Born March 27, 1924, in Newark, N.J., to a carpenter and a laundress, she received her musical training in the church choir with her mother, first as a singer and later as organist.

She claimed she never envisioned getting into show business, even when, on a friend’s dare, she signed up for amateur night at New York’s storied Apollo Theater in 1942.

“I just quit in the third year of high school and started singing at amateur hours,” she once told an interviewer. “The night I won at the Apollo I was only doing it for the $10.”

But Billy Eckstine heard her that night and recommended her to band leader Earl (Fatha) Hines, who hired her. Her career as a concert and recording star was launched.

Feather, who was present at the Apollo when Miss Vaughan first opened there with Hines’ band April 23, 1943, wrote of her in his jazz encyclopedia:

“Sarah Vaughan’s voice, completely different from that of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald or any of the other great jazz stylists before her, brought to jazz an unprecedented combination of attractive characteristics: a rich, beautifully controlled tone and vibrato; an ear for the chord structure of songs, enabling her to change or inflect the melody as an instrumentalist might; a coy, sometimes archly naive quality alternating with a sense of great sophistication.”

Fitzgerald herself once called Miss Vaughan “the greatest singing talent in the world today.”

Miss Vaughan’s remarkable range with the husky voice, made huskier over the years by her smoking, was so extraordinary that it often prompted exaggeration.

“They say four octaves but it’s not true,” she said modestly in a 1986 interview. “Two octaves and a fifth maybe. Maybe a little more.”

Her voice was considered more instrumental than vocal and was often likened to a horn, a comparison she found logical.

“I don’t think I ever modeled myself after a singer,” she said. “I’ve more or less copied the styles of horn-tooters right from the start.”

Miss Vaughan did admit to some influence by singer Marian Anderson. The prize for one of the amateur contests she won as a teen-ager was a choice between roller skates or a ticket to a Marian Anderson concert. She chose the concert and said she “fell in love with the sound of her voice.”

After her debut with Hines, Miss Vaughan toured with his band for a year, working with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and trying to imitate their trumpet and saxophone.

When Eckstine formed his own band in 1944, he hired Miss Vaughan and backed her in her first recording, “I’ll Wait and Pray.”

Feather, a jazz musician as well as critic, received a demonstration record of Miss Vaughan’s singing from Gillespie and arranged for her to record under her own name with Continental. She sang four songs for $20 each, with Feather playing the piano accompaniment.

Miss Vaughan first won a national following with her recording of “Lover Man,” made with Gillespie.

Her early career, which she dismissed in interviews as paying “a lot of dues,” included concerts in tobacco warehouses and barns in the South, as well as modestly successful records and a few appearances in places like New York’s Copacabana in the 1940s.

“It wasn’t until the early 1950s that Sassy began singing in the better spots and collected a following--like at Birdland in New York . . . and the Blue Note in Chicago, where Dave Garroway heard her, called her ‘the Divine One’ and promoted her on radio and TV,” John Malachi, an early accompanist who nicknamed her “Sassy,” recalled in an interview a few years ago.

By the 1970s she had a strong international following and won Downbeat’s international critics’ poll for best female singer in the world six times—1973 and 1975-79. She sang with major symphony orchestras and for heads of state and in prestigious places like Carnegie Hall.

As recently as last year, her concert performances prompted a reviewer to write that “she continues to cause excitement wherever she appears.”

“Thank God,” said Levy Wednesday, “we have her recordings to preserve her greatness. She was one of a kind.”

Miss Vaughan married and divorced four husbands: trumpeter George Treadwell, former pro football player Clyde Atkins, Las Vegas restaurateur Marshall Fisher, and musician Waymon Reed.

Funeral services are scheduled Saturday in her home city of Newark. Levy said plans for a memorial service in Los Angeles are pending.


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