Sarah-TDO227

"IT'S JUNE – and we’re bursting out all over with great pride!” declared an ad for Roulette Records in 1960. The reason for their glee: “THE SOUND OF SARAH VAUGHAN is now on Roulette.” Signing her was indeed a feather in the label’s cap: among living jazz singers of the day, Vaughan stood second only to Ella Fitzgerald in popularity and acclaim. “The Divine One,” as she was known, had risen from the insular and non-commercial world of ‘40s bebop to a high place on the pop charts. A year earlier, her version of a catchy jukebox tune, “Broken-Hearted Melody,” had sold big; it even won her a Grammy nomination. “God, I hated it!” said Vaughan of that tune, with its backbeat, sawing fiddles, and doop-doo-dooping choir.

But the record, issued by her former label, Mercury, had made her more bankable than ever; and Roulette, a mafia outfit with deep pockets, had succeeded in luring her away. Over the next three years they released thirteen Vaughan albums and many singles. The material encompassed big-band and small-group jazz, bachelor-pad make-out music with strings, some out-and-out pop fluff, and the pseudo-operatic
Sarah Slightly Classical, a collection of “serious” themes with words added. Projects such as that inflamed the jazz critics, who had already branded Vaughan a sellout; Down Beat’s writers slammed her Roulette LPs as “bland” and “pretentious” disappointments in a “frustrating” career.

Today, a return visit to her Roulette work (comprehensively gathered in a 2002 Mosaic box set) makes most of the carping seem unfounded. Vaughan made few classier albums than her second one on Roulette,
The Divine One, released in October of 1960. It placed her in the sensitive hands of Jimmy Jones, the Memphis-born arranger-pianist who worked with two other Roulette stars, Dinah Washington and Joe Williams. The Divine One is scored intimately for rhythm section, guitar, and a few horns, including that of master trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison. This relaxed setting lightens the mannerisms that had annoyed so many critics; instead, Vaughan’s voice – a jazz instrument of almost unparalleled splendor – holds forth with few frills.

Unlike Carmen McRae, who was an unstinting truth-teller in song, Vaughan used music to fly above life’s harsher realities, particularly her disappointing love life. As the cultural critic Margo Jefferson wrote: “Rarely has a less romantic, less confessional temperament been set loose on material (American popular song) so endlessly, obsessively, exquisitely, and absurdly devoted to romance.” Vaughan swooped from dusky low notes to soprano highs; she soared and glided, hitting every note dead-center. She heard myriad possibilities in each chord, making the most luscious melodies in pop sound richer.

Vaughan does all that here, but also takes a deeper-than-usual look at the words. In Rodgers and Hart’s
Have You Met Miss Jones? (here feminized as Have You Met Old Jones?), she’s playful but not cloying; scat singing flows from her so effortlessly that it sounds like an extension of the lyric. She brings a similar light touch to the torrid R&B standard Ain’t No Use, singing “Take your love and go away!” with cool defiance. Harry “Sweets” Edison adds his spare, sly comments on muted trumpet. In Saturday Review, jazz critic Martin Williams cited Ain’t No Use as one of his three favorite Vaughan recordings: “She teases that song, she cajoles it – to miss her sly but guileless humor is to miss her art.”

The adventurous repertoire includes several Manhattan saloon songs she never sang again; Vaughan sings them with misty eyes.
What Do You See in Her? is a 1955 tearjerker by Hal David, Burt Bacharach’s future writing partner. Vaughan remakes her 1947 version of Alec Wilder’s Trouble Is a Man, a study in masochistic chic. I’m Gonna Laugh You Out of My Life is one of Cy Coleman’s earliest songs, written when Coleman was earning his living as a jazz pianist. If Vaughan seldom ventured into the dark emotional corners where Billie Holiday felt at home, she doesn’t shy completely from the grimness of Gloomy Sunday, a 1936 dirge that inspired numerous suicides.

Jazz singer Etta Jones flipped when
The Divine One was played for her in a Down Beat Blindfold Test. “She’s got the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard,” exclaimed Jones. “She has so much control … You just don’t beat her. Five stars.”

-- James Gavin, New York City, 2007

[James Gavin, the author of
Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, is writing a biography of Lena Horne for Simon & Schuster.]