Prolific jazz singer Sarah Vaughan was born in Newark on March 27, 1924. Her father was a working carpenter, though he played both guitar and piano. Similarly, Vaughan’s mother worked as a laundress and sang in the church choir in her free time. Growing up in Newark, Sarah began taking piano lessons at just seven years old.
In addition to piano, she sang in the church choir until she was 15. During this time, Vaughan developed a deep adoration for music. She spent many nights watching local and out-of-area musicians perform at the Montgomery Street Skating Rink. Throughout her teenage years, she began performing – illegally – as a pianist/singer at a number of New Jersey nightclubs; including Piccadilly Club in Newark.
Partway through high school, Vaughan transferred to Newark Arts High School, intending to pursue music following graduation. However, her late nights performing at clubs caught up with her, and her academics began to falter. By junior year, she dropped out of high school to focus on a career in music as a singer.
Her first big break didn’t take long to manifest: At the age of 18, Vaughan and her friend Doris Robinson competed in the Apollo Theater Amateur Night musical contest. Vaughan played piano while Robinson sang, and the duo came in second place. Afterward, Vaughan returned for the next contest – this time entering as a singer – and won first prize. Later that year she returned to the Apollo, opening for The First Lady of Song, renowned jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald.
By 1943, Vaughan was singing in Earl Hines’s band. They toured the nation during the birth of bebop, playing music that is still praised today. But the band didn’t last long, and by 1945 Vaughan moved on to develop her solo career. She began by freelancing at several recording studios in New York City; working with artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Sid Catlett and violinist Stuff Smith.
After recording hits like “If You Could See Me Now” and “Tenderly,” Sarah Vaughan signed a contract with Columbia Records. Later that same year, in 1949, her show Songs by Sarah Vaughan debuted on WMGM. Her relationship with Columbia ended abruptly, and she only recorded her debut solo album before parting ways with them.
Then, in 1953, Vaughan signed with Mercury Records. At this time, she recorded a number of major hits; including “Broken Hearted Melody,” “Whatever Lola Wants,” “Misty” and “Make Yourself Comfortable.”
Later Years and Death
Maintaining her New Jersey roots, Sarah Vaughan moved to Englewood in the late 1950s. Her contract with Mercury expired in 1959, and she quickly signed with a small label called Roulette Records. Despite finding a new label, Vaughan’s career waned in the following decades. Of course, she still worked with an array of talented artists; singing alongside the likes of John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye, she performed for sold-out audiences worldwide.
By the late 1980s, Vaughan’s physical health started to decline. In 1989, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and forced to cancel her remaining shows. Though she tried chemotherapy treatment, she passed away on April 3, 1990, at 66 years old.
From a young age, Sarah Vaughan enjoyed a remarkable music career, winning awards and stunning audiences. Her music is still heard on popular radio stations and in classic movies. A proud NJ native, she left behind an amazing jazz, bebop, and pop legacy that will never be forgotten.