EW remembers Sarah Vaughan
In the nearly two decades before her death on April 3 at 66, Sarah Vaughan enjoyed the rare distinction of having a huge hit song in live performances but not on record. Her 1973 recording of ”Send in the Clowns” sank without a trace, and even a later version with Count Basie, calculated to exploit her subsequent success on stage, failed to garner much attention. Yet her billowing concertizing of the same song, complete with chillingly virtuosic cadenza, was an inevitable, wildly cheered encore.
Of course, she also could be masterful in a recording studio — whether the accompaniment was a full symphony orchestra or merely a bassist. During her 45-year recording career, she created dozens of incomparable masterpieces.
Vaughan was the most munificently endowed American singer of the postwar era, as renowned for her improvisations as for her sumptuous four-octave contralto. From the beginning, she offered two faces-the ingenious jazz singer and the exquisite pop diva. Her 1945 performance with Dizzy Gillespie on ”Lover Man” astounded the cognoscenti; two years later she scored her first big hit with ”Tenderly.” Much of her early work, including a celebrated session with Tadd Dameron, has been collected on Sarah Vaughan: The Early Years (Musicraft). Her five-year contract with Columbia, though tempered by several idiot novelties, produced many landmarks, including ”Mean to Me,” with a dazzling second chorus that departs entirely from the written melody. It’s included on The Divine Sarah Vaughan: The Columbia Years, 1949-53.
For more than a decade, Vaughan recorded for Mercury, which encouraged a doppelganger approach. On the label’s jazz subsidiary, she produced such enduring classics as Swingin’ Easy and Sarah Vaughan With Clifford Brown; for the parent label, surrounded by strings and winds, she essayed Great Songs From Hit Shows and Sings George Gershwin. Her diversity should have been a boon — witness The Complete Sarah Vaughan on Mercury, Vols. 1, 2, and 3. Yet by the ’60s, producers were handing her new songs and insisting she sing them without rehearsal so that she’d stick to the melody. In 1967, fed up, she stopped recording for four years. Then she emerged as one of the world’s great concert attractions.
Among the most remarkable of her later records are Live in Japan (Mainstream); Gershwin Live (Columbia); How Long Has This Been Going On; Crazy and Mixed Up; and yes, Send in the Clowns (all on Pablo).