Sarah Vaughan | Sarah Vaughan at Mister Kelly’s (1957)
Vocal Jazz 72:40
“The human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, but it is the most difficult to play.”
Singers have at their disposal a powerful instrument. It can evoke emotions through a simple change of tone. While psychologists point out that we communicate more through our body language than what we say, it would be foolish to dismiss the ability we have to convey a sense of our emotions through the human voice. And when you sing, it becomes even more obvious – a good singer can help change a mood with the very way they perform a number. But as composer Richard Strauss pointed out, it is an incredible hard instrument to play – let alone master.
I admit here and now that I am certainly no master. From being effectively ‘banned’ from school musicals to singing hymns under my breath in church, I am more than aware of my limits; I am certain of my ability to act and equally certain of my inability to hold a tune. While I enjoy picking up a guitar in a quiet room and singing along to the chords I strike, I’m under no illusion that I will never be able to keep an audience for more than a few moments if I were to attempt it in a gig. I suppose that gives me an added respect for those who have complete control of their musical voice. I may have no fear of getting on stage and acting, but to watch someone walk on stage and sing – well, then I begin to know the terror of performing. Which makes listening to Sarah Vaughan leaves me in awe – her ability and talent is mesmerising. This is a woman with the true power of the voice.
Often referred to as The Divine One for her velvet tones, it is amazing to realise that Sarah Vaughan never had any formal training. After winning an amateur contest at the Apollo in New York at the age of just 18, she was offered a week’s singing gig there, opening for Ella Fitzgerald. Spotted by Earl Hines, she was offered a job with him and her career blossomed from there. But despite her lack of any real training of her voice, she remained the critics’ darling as well as the envy of many of her contemporaries; Frank Sinatra once said: “Sassy [another of Vaughan’s nicknames] is so good now that, when I listen to her, I want to cut my wrists with a dull razor” while others simply noted that she had “the finest voice in jazz”. It is impossible not to agree.
Listening to her perform live at the Chicago night spot Mister Kelly’s, you don’t need much musical theory knowledge to realise this is a woman who is in full control of the instrument she was born with. As the evening kicks off with September in the Rain, it becomes clear this is going to be a masterclass in singing. The confidence of Vaughan is tangible as she allows her voice to rise and fall across her range throughout the set. Quickly you realise that this is a woman so in control that, even when things go wrong; the second number, a magnificent version of Willow Weep for Me, sees the musicians not finishing when Vaughan expects, leading to some sweet improvising from the singer. And this is nothing compared to her attempt to sing How High the Moon as she forgets the words; the hilarious improvising – and a reference to her fellow performer Ella – raises a smile but the sound is so perfect that it doesn’t matter what she is singing. Perhaps this reveals exactly how good her voice is – you don’t worry too much about what she is singing; the sound of her voice is more than enough.
Throughout you sense the joy in her performance as well. It is not just in the humour that slips out during numbers; here is a woman who is able to turn her hand at any style – from the witty and upbeat sound of songs like the aforementioned How High the Moon to the emotion on display on the slower numbers such as Poor Butterfly or I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write a Letter. One of the most interesting, in terms of this project, is her version of Just a Gigolo. Having already experienced an expert version earlier on in this list (on the fourth album I reviewed, in fact), I would have doubted anybody could have matched Louis Prima’s version. It seemed definitive but Vaughan succeeds on putting her own inimitable stamp on the song.
It is worth mentioning her backing band at Mister Kelly’s: pianist Jimmy Jones, bass player Richard Davis and drummer Roy Haynes. Much is made of the fact by a number of critics that Vaughan worked better in smaller ensembles. Having not heard any of her other work, it is hard to judge, but it would not surprise me. The trio behind her here, while undoubtedly extremely talented (just listen to the way they seamlessly adapt to fit in with Vaughan as she sings), never dominate. Instead, they prove the perfect foil, giving her voice the space to shine. And quite rightly – no matter how talented they may be, they cannot compete with the power of Sarah’s singing. She earned her nickname for a reason; all other female vocalists pale into mediocrity when placed alongside Sarah Vaughan. A beautiful album of a stunning singer at the top of her game.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Sarah Vaughan at Mister Kelly’s here:
Next time: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook by Ella Fitzgerald