Sarah Vaughan and Greatness


Sarah Vaughan (1924–1990)

(Photo: Nationaal Archief, The Hague)

Her skillful, natural, and frequent changes of key and her use of improbable intervals give each of her performances a freshness and originality unmatched by any other singer. With her, enunciation is completely subservient to music.

Vaughan doesn’t waste her singing. She loves to sing but does so only for a purpose. She must have an audience she cares about. It need not be large. Once, reportedly, she sang for an audience of one. Shortly after her engagement to Atkins, she called him in Chicago from New York and sang one of her best-known ballads, “Tenderly.”

There are, in fact, times when it seems everyone wants to sing but Sarah.

Once, in 1960, she made the alarming discovery that her husband, her maid, and her pianist all felt the magnetic pull of the spotlight. A member of her accompanying trio recalls, “Man, those trips in the car from one gig to the other were something else. We had great singing contests, and we tried to get Sarah to be the judge. Each one of us would sing his or her best number. It was too much, now that I think about it. Everybody was singing but Sarah.

“She was just sitting in the corner, wishing everybody would shut up so she could get some sleep.”

Most of the early fears are conquered now. In their place have come problems of adjustment, and some new fears.

But Vaughan has never looked healthier or happier. She makes no decision regarding either her career or her personal schedule without her husband’s approval. She is openly adoring of him, and obedient to the point of subservience. Often she sits quietly, watching him, hanging onto every word. If he asks her to do anything, she is off like a shot.

She is almost childlike in her anxiety not to displease him. If in his absence she goes for a moment against his wishes, she is almost instantly contrite, hoping he will never find out what she has done.

“I guess I’m too sensitive,” she admits. “But I’m so afraid of being hurt. I’ve been hurt so much.”

Onstage, she alternates between revealing herself as the pixie-ish Sassy and the sedate Miss Vaughan. At those moments when the old fears and nightmares peek through, it is the little church organist from Newark who stands there with the cloth of her skirt between her fingers, holding on tightly. It is then that she wants to slow the pace and spend more time as Mrs. Atkins.

“What’s the use of having a home if you can’t enjoy it?” she asked. “Of course, I want to keep singing as long as anybody will listen. But I want to spend more time at home.”

She is tired of the public demands on her and, although she remains gracious when she is talking to them, she resents autograph hounds and pushy people generally.

When her husband reminded her recently that this was a part of her responsibility as a star, she replied, a little pathetically: “Honey, I’m tired of all this. Let me just be Mrs. Atkins, and you be Sarah Vaughan.” DB

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