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Celebrating singer Sarah Vaughan, on what would have been her 100th birthday


This is FRESH AIR. Jazz and pop and classical singer Sarah Vaughan was born 100 years ago today in Newark, N.J. As a girl, she sang in church in Newark before breaking into show business at New York's Apollo Theater after winning on Amateur Night there. She apprenticed in the Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine big bands, and then she was off and running. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead picks up the story.


SARAH VAUGHAN: (Vocalizing).

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Sarah Vaughan, 1954. She'd come up in the 1940s alongside a new jazz style she instantly took to, bebop with its defiant wrong notes and offbeat phrasing. She shared bandstands with bop mastermind Dizzy Gillespie, who was always ready to explain his concepts. Vaughan, who had big ears and played good piano, could follow the logic. The boppers played fast but also loved slow ballads, which were Sarah Vaughan's real forte, from early hits like "Tenderly" to her late-period closer "Send In The Clowns." With Dizzy in 1945, she recorded her first version of "Lover Man." This is the bridge.


VAUGHAN: (Singing) I've heard it said that the thrill of romance could be like a heavenly dream. I go to bed with the prayer that you'll make love to me, strange as it seems.

WHITEHEAD: At 21, Sarah Vaughan was still developing her gorgeous vocal timbre and exquisite control over pitch, dynamics and vibrato. Her manner was rough when she started out, but within a few years she acquired an air of sophistication and absolute confidence in her ability to swoop and plunge at will. She put that bebop knowledge to use. This is from her 1954 "Lover Man," nine years later.


VAUGHAN: (Singing) I've heard it said that the thrill of romance can be like a heavenly dream. I go to bed with the prayer that you'll make love to me, strange as it seems. Someday...

WHITEHEAD: By the 1950s, Sarah Vaughan was making jazz records with big and small bands and songs for the pop market with strings or maybe goofy electric guitar. A couple of tunes she hated became hits she'd reluctantly take requests for. One night very, very late in a Chicago club at the end of a live recording session, she did her best to ruin take after take of a tune she plainly didn't want to do, Bob Hope's theme, "Thanks For The Memory." She sabotaged the ending with pointed humor.


VAUGHAN: (Singing) We did have fun and no harm done, so thanks for the most craziest, upsetting, downside-est (ph) recording date I ever had in my life. (Vocalizing). I'm so glad that it's over.

WHITEHEAD: Her label released that mess anyway. In the 1960s, Sarah Vaughan continued to record both jazz and pop. One good thing about singing contemporary pop - folks already know how those songs go. That could make even her minor variations on a familiar tune stand out.


VAUGHAN: (Singing) Tall and tan and young and handsome, the boy from Ipanema goes walking. And when he passes, each one he passes goes ah. When he walks, he's like a samba that swings so cool and sways so gentle that when he passes, each one he passes goes oh.

WHITEHEAD: Sarah Vaughan in 1964. She'd engage more seriously with Brazilian music on sessions recorded in Rio de Janeiro in the late '70s. But first came some lean times. Venerable jazz stars like her recorded less often in the 1970s, and Vaughan sometimes found herself without a contract. But her reputation continued to grow. Earlier in her career, she'd drawn comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald. Now she got compared to operatic diva Leontyne Price, one of Vaughan's heroes. She began adding symphonic concerts to her schedule. In later years, Vaughan's jazz variations might grow even more extravagant. Here she is in 1979.


VAUGHAN: (Singing) They just don't understand. Living for you is easy living. It's easy to live when you're in love, and I'm so in love. There's nothing in life but you.

WHITEHEAD: Sarah Vaughan's extraordinarily supple voice held out into the 1980s, though she never pampered it. She didn't warm up before a show, though she might have a cigarette or a drink or even a meal before going on. Singers aren't supposed to do that. Sarah Vaughan made her final album in 1987, a Brazilian-tinged date very much of its time in contrast to her ageless voice. She died of cancer in 1990 at 66. Musicologist Gunther Schuller once called Sarah Vaughan the greatest vocal artist of the 20th century. Well, art shouldn't be a competition. Enough to say - she was one of the very best singers in any genre for four decades.


VAUGHAN: (Singing) I know nothing will be as it was tomorrow. Tell me, when will I hear from my people? Tell me, when will I hear from my friends? Bleeding finally deep down in my heart, no one ever can treat us apart. Holding on to a teardrop of sun in the mouth of the night.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the books "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film," "Why Jazz?" and "New Dutch Swing." Before we wrap up the show, Terry is with us, and she has something to say.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Thanks, Dave. Yeah, I'm sorry to say that Kevin has decided to step down from his role as FRESH AIR's jazz critic. Believe me, we tried and failed to get him to change his mind. He's been our jazz critic since September 1987. I don't know why he'd think that's time enough. In the world of jazz criticism, Kevin stands out for his deep knowledge of jazz history and his excitement about new performers, including from the jazz avant-garde. Personally, I'm grateful for the music he's introduced me to and for his insights. I'm also a fan of his writing. He has an ability to describe what's happening musically that opens up your ears without ever resorting to cliche and without repeating himself. I'm grateful he's agreed to return to do pieces marking special occasions like Sarah Vaughan's centennial. Thank you, Kevin. Come back soon. Back to you, Dave.

DAVIES: Thanks, Terry. I couldn't agree more about Kevin's writing. Happy trails, Kevin. We will miss you. On tomorrow's show, journalist Nancy Nichols talks about American women and cars, which she says have become our most gendered technology. Women weren't considered qualified to drive cars, but glamorous women were used to advertise them. Cars were mostly designed for male bodies, she writes, in ways that put women drivers at risk. Her book is "Women Behind The Wheel." I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.