From MICHAEL’S THING (8/16/90)



Death is with us too much these days. As I sit down to write this I still find it hard to believe that the greatest singer in the world has been silenced just one week after her sixty-sixth birthday, but it’s true — Sarah Vaughan is dead, a victim of lung cancer. The cigarettes, which seemed to have no effect on her voice, have found another way to stop that remarkable instrument.

The obituaries have been many and detailed, as befitting an artist of her international stature, so facts needn’t be repeated here; instead, perhaps, a few random thoughts as the unmistakable, miraculous sound of her singing takes wing from my CD player and alights, as always, in my heart..

Her remarkable talent is well-documented on record, tape, disc and video for future generations assuring her well-deserved immortality (or as close to it as our degenerating planet can insure). However, WE were the generation privileged enough, BLESSED enough, to have witnessed the legend with our own eyes and ears. The chance to see Sarah was something I seldom passed up. I’ve seen almost every New York appearance for the last 15 or 20 years and even on the rare "off" night her magic never failed to astound, delight and thrill me. She added new material slowly, meticulously — not wanting to offer it until it was just right, until she understood what each moment, musical and lyrical, had to offer and what changes and insights she could bring to it. But her repertoire was never stale or tired. One could hear a song three nights in a row (sometimes TWICE a night — as this "one" had done on numerous occasions) and be as surprised by the final hearing as by the first. Not only each song, but each performance was a dramatic and, above all, musical adventure to be treasured. She recorded everything from Gershwin, to The Beatles, to Sondheim, to the Popeyes, the Pope (there is in existence a rare, European recording of poems written by him, and translated by Gene Lees, and set to music by Lalo Schiffrin). This is certainly the oddest record she ever made, and not, (I admit) the best. Her Gershwin album, with Michael Tilson Thomas, the complete Live In Japan, Crazy and Mixed Up, and Brazilian Romance are all available on CD and REQUIRED for anyone interested in popular and jazz singing. It gets no better, ANYWHERE.

The memories I’ve been having today are, I suppose unsurprisingly, of odder, smaller moments — Sarah dancing around the stage with Tony Bennett at the end of a Count Basie tribute like a school girl at her first prom; Sarah singing the National Anthem at a Mets game, perhaps the only person ever to make the song seem worth of it’s station; Sarah opening an all-Gershwin concert with an a capella Summertime, as a full symphony orchestra sat behind her in silent awe; Sarah singing with Carmen McRae on a tv special, the two masters pairing on Body and Soul, and managing to encapsulate each of their varied and wondrous careers in the space of 4 minutes; Sarah warmly and graciously greeting a stammering fan backstage who had arrived with flowers and a tied tongue, AND remembering him the next time they met (guess who?); Sarah performing The Lord’s Prayer at a benefit in her hometown Newark and all but making a believer out of this confirmed NON-believer — well, I believed in HER divinity in any case.

My parents gave me my first Sarah Vaughan album as a child (a birthday gift from my parents) and hearing (on my tinny, portable hi-fi) Make It Easy On Yourself, He Touched Me, and, of all things, A Lover’s Concerto — not exactly first class material, but that VOICE! — I fell in love with her. She became, and will remain, my favorite singer. Rest well, Sarah, and thank you.