Sarah Vaughan and Greatness


Sarah Vaughan (1924–1990)

(Photo: Nationaal Archief, The Hague)

Complexes of one sort or another are often by-products of greatness.

As Sarah Vaughan recalls it, her life began with a devastating, unutterable resentment of being dark skinned and unattractive.

“I often wished I was a medium-brown skin color,” she once said. “I imagined people that color were regarded more highly than I. To most persons who knew me, I thought, I was just another little black girl for whom the future was just as dark as it was for thousands of others like me.”

As a child, Vaughan remembers, she had dreams of being rescued by a fairy prince—only to be shoved from his horse when he discovered she was dark.

Even then, she wanted to sing. She dreamed of winning great acclaim. But in the midst of her triumph, a light-skinned girl would start calling her names.

Too young to understand the social shame inherent in race prejudice, the young Sarah Vaughan shifted the responsibility of the rejection and injustice she suffered to herself and her color. As she grew older, understanding came. But nothing could ever repair completely the emotional and psychological hurts she had suffered.

Not all her nightmares happened when she was asleep. Some were real, the kind you can’t wake up from, and they have contributed to her tendency to minimize herself. Despite the fame, glamour, commercial success, and acclaim she has achieved, she still says simply and quietly, “I don’t feel like a big star.”

And how does she think a great star should feel?

“I don’t know,” she admits. “I just feel like me, plain Sarah Vaughan.”

During most of her life, that description was painfully accurate. Sarah Vaughan was just that—plain. “I was nothing much to look at,” she says.

Even after she had begun to sing professionally, her looks were a cross she bore gravely. In the mid-1940s, a New York writer cut her to the heart when he wrote: “She is not exactly handsome to look at, having a toothy face with a flattened, ski-jump nose, almost oriental eyes, and a low forehead oppressed by a pile of black hair.”

The shy, defensive, bucktoothed girl who was to become world-renowned for her lyrical presentation, vocal flexibility, and remarkable harmonic sense was the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Asbury Vaughan. She was born in Newark, New Jersey, March 27, 1924.

Her father was a carpenter whose hobby was playing guitar and singing Negro folk tunes. Her mother, Ada, sang spirituals and hymns in the church choir in Newark. The Vaughan home was always filled with music. “Not the kind of music I sing,” Sarah adds. “They sang the music of God.”

It was the first music to influence her. As she grew, she sang bits of the tunes her parents sang. When she was 8, she began studying piano and organ. One of the proudest moments of her mother’s life came one Sunday when Sarah, then about 12, became the church organist. Her ambition at the time: to become a good choir director.

The Vaughans, deeply religious, encouraged their daughter’s dedication to the church. And although Sarah had begun to wander from that direction early in her teens—by playing piano in the high school orchestra and singing popular songs at parties—she had turned 19 before the decision to become a professional entertainer was made. Friends persuaded her to enter the amateur contest at New York’s Apollo theater. She sang “Body And Soul” and won first prize. Her career was born.

But her family wasn’t entirely happy about it. “My mother was a little disappointed in me,” she said recently. “She wanted me to go on in school and become a teacher or a choir director or something ‘respectable.’”

Whether she admitted it to her mother, Sarah had always wanted to be in show business, though not necessarily as a singer. In fact, she had been preparing herself for it by tirelessly studying piano and organ for eight years. There are musicians today who remember that Sarah was once a very good pianist.

Even after the Apollo victory, Sarah wasn’t at ease. She had a gnawing suspicion that she would never make it.

The winsome singer with the bright smile who graces the stage today, is actually a composite put together by her two husbands.

Her first husband was George Treadwell, a trumpeter who later became her manager. Treadwell was prompted to begin her metamorphosis by an experience she had at the Chicago Theater some 10 years ago.

Waiting in the wings, the duckling had not yet become a swan and was going through great inner struggles. But Dave Garroway was the emcee, and the glowing terms with which he introduced the new star dissolved much of her fear. Suddenly she was no longer just an unattractive little girl, but someone special, and she loved the feeling. She glided onstage and stood before the audience ready to pour out this newfound confidence and affection in music. Then she saw a streak in the air, felt a sharp pain in her head, and saw red stains spreading down her white dress.

“I’ve been shot!” was her first terrified thought. But the bullets were tomatoes, and they kept raining on the stage as the frightened singer stood petrified. Young bigots in the balcony did their damage and scurried away.

Garroway was livid with rage. He delivered an infuriated statement against bigotry while the confused, humiliated singer huddled in the wings with her husband.

From the audience came thunderous applause for the singer, and a demand that she return. She went back to the microphone in tears, and looked out into what she felt was the last audience she would ever face. She tried to sing. She could not utter a sound.

After several futile starts, she left the stage, positive she would never sing again. But so sympathetic was public response to the incident, and so immediate, that she was persuaded not to give up her career.

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