On July 23, 2011, the world lost one of the greatest singer-lyricist of our time, Amy Winehouse.
Soul, jazz, R&B and hip hop, Winehouse infused it all with her own unique sound. But who influenced Winehouse’s music? Over the next few days TWM will look at the artists whose influence can be seen in her life and work. Chaka V.
On her first album Frank, Amy Winehouse remixed Sarah Vaughan’s “Lullaby of Birdland,” giving the above shout out to her musical inspiration. Sarah Vaughan had a big impact on Amy Winehouse’s approach to music, melody and style as Winehouse matured into the singer we would later know. Not only referenced in her songs, Winehouse talked passionately about the singer whose dark rich voice took musical forays most singers can only appreciate from a far.
Sarah Vaughan was born on March 27, 1924 to highly religious parents. Though brought up in the church – cutting her baby teeth on gospel music – it was popular music that became her first love. Endowed with a similar rebellious spirit as Winehouse, in her teens Vaughan became enraptured by nightlife, quickly losing interest in her studies. Seeking out any opportunity to perform at nightclubs (despite being underage), Vaughan played the piano and on the rare occasion sang. She eventually dropped out of high school to pursue music full time.
The Apollo Theater would be a definitive moment in Vaughan’s early career. After playing the piano for another artist, Vaughan returned soon after to compete herself, this time as a singer. She sang “Body and Soul” – the last song Winehouse would record with Tony Bennett before her death – Vaughan won and later opened for Ella Fitzgerald at the Apollo. Her Apollo success lead to her role as a lead singer for the Earl Hines big band. From the Hines big band she moved over to the Eckstine band – after Billy Eckstine left the Hines big band to start his own band (many members of Eckstine’s band later went on to become very influential and iconic musicians). In the Eckstine band Vaughan began to leave her indelible mark on the popular tunes of the era. But it was her decision to go solo and transition to jazz-oriented sounds that would cement her legacy as one of the greatest singers in history.
Her inimitable interpretations of the standards and her gorgeous youthful range that stretched from deep and low to high and pitch perfect and later aged like fine whiskey set her apart from most of her contemporaries. Her unique way of interpreting a song, crafting distinctive phrasing and melody, garnered her acclaim and it is one of the many things that makes her revered today.“Tenderly” and later “Send in the Clouds” are two songs forever associated with Vaughan. Her idiosyncratic style and incomparable voice has inspired other inimitable artists such as Anita Baker, Chaka Khan and Teena Marie to name a few.
Like Winehouse, Vaughan was drawn to an array of genres and refused to be stereotyped or defined as simply a jazz singer. “There’s a category for me,” she once said, “I like to be referred to as a good singer of good songs in good taste.” Exemplifying this versatility, in the late Seventies she recorded a Beatles album that was released in the early Eighties.
Lively, feisty and exceptionally charming – her nickname was “Sassy” – Vaughan could be very shy as well, and suffered from stage fright. She was also deemed as “difficult” by some. In retrospect, Vaughan was a woman and artist navigating a very treacherous terrain where record companies jealously held all the power and artists rarely reaped the full financial benefits of their talents and hard work. Yet somehow Vaughan lived to tell the tale (in the words of Madonna) becoming an elder stateswoman of jazz and a legend in her own time.
One can go on and on about Sarah Vaughan but it is best to discover her for yourself. You won’t regret it.