Vail Jazz: Apollo and the Devine One
Inside the Vail Jazz Festival
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” and many others. So there really is nothing new under the sun, just recycled ideas with changed packaging.
Beginning in 1934, the now world famous stage at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York, became the launching pad for the careers of some of the most famous jazz and pop artists over the past 80 years.
Originally, “Amateur Night at the Apollo” was a live contest show that was broadcast nationally on 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 Devine One” and “Sassy,” Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Dionne Warwick and James Brown.
Not just dumb luck
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 career start.
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 Ella Fitzgerald. When she opened for Fitzgerald, Earl “Father” Hines (a legendary big band leader) was in the audience to see Fitzgerald and he hired Vaughan on the spot.
She toured with Hines’ 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, Vaughan was on her way to a 46-year-long international career, from contest winner to opening for Fitzgerald 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. She recorded and performed with all the greats of the day. She performed at the White House, received a lifetime achievement Grammy Award, was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame and 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.” 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.” She took the $10 prize money home to Newark, and never looked back.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is readapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th anniversary season in 2019. For information about upcoming performances, visit http://www.vailjazz.org.