In the early days of radio and then TV, talent shows were all the rage. “The Original Amateur Hour” and “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” were the two most famous shows of this genre. Now we have “American Idol,” “America’s Got Talent,” “Star Search” and many others. So there really is nothing new under the sun, just recycled ideas with new packaging.
Beginning in 1934, the now world famous stage at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem became the launch pad for the careers of some of the most famous jazz and pop artists during the past 80 years. Originally “Amateur Night at the Apollo” was a live show that was broadcast nationally over 21 radio stations. Ted Fox writes in “Showtime at the Apollo” that it “… probably exerted a greater influence upon popular culture than any other entertainment venue in the world.” Winners have included Sarah Vaughan, later to be known as “The Divine One” and “Sassy,” Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Dionne Warwick and James Brown.
While Vaughan was destined for fame (one critic said that she “possessed what has been considered one of the most wondrous voices of the 20th century”), circumstances played a huge part in her getting her career started.
She won the amateur contest at the Apollo Theatre in 1942. The prize was $10 and, most importantly, a one-week gig at the Apollo opening for a then very famous Ella Fitzgerald. When she opened for Ella, Earl “Father” Hines (a legendary big band leader) was in the audience to see Ella and he hired Sassy on the spot. She toured with his band until the next year, when she joined Billy Eckstine’s band and Mr. “B” gave her the opportunity to make her first recording. Leaving Eckstine, she was on her way to a 46-year-long international career. From contest winner to opening for Ella, to Hines, to Eckstine, to fame. And fame is what she attained: performing at every major jazz festival and club in the U.S., Europe and beyond; recording and performing with all the greats of the day; performing at the White House; receiving a Lifetime Achievement Grammy; being inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame; and being awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. When asked what musical category she fit in, she famously said, “I like to be referred to as a good singer of good songs in good taste.” And indeed that is what she was and much, much more.
Most of us knowingly nod when we hear the well-worn phrase “luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” There is no question that winning the contest at the Apollo set in motion events that Vaughan’s extraordinary talent allowed her to seize, but what isn’t generally known is that the first time she performed at the Apollo, the spotlight wasn’t even on her. Vaughan played the piano and sang in her church along with a friend, Doris Robinson, who Vaughan encouraged to compete at the Apollo. Vaughan was only 18 at the time and she was too shy to enter the competition herself, agreeing instead to be Robinson’s accompanist on piano. Robinson won second and shortly thereafter Vaughan was challenged to return to the Apollo as the headliner. She did return, determined to win on her own, singing “Body and Soul,” and she took the $10 prize money home to Newark, New Jersey, and never looked back.
Yes, Vaughan was lucky, but she was prepared and seized the opportunity.
Every year over the Labor Day Weekend the Vail Jazz Festival pays homage to a few legendary jazz musicians through the presentation of Multi-Media Tributes. This year, on Aug. 30, the great Ann Hampton Callaway will explore the life and music of The Divine One, Sarah Vaughan, by blending Sarah’s music with videos of her performances and narrative to add the rich details of her life.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 20th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.