Aretha’s Rainbow: Notes on Aretha Franklin’s music beyond ‘soul’

The loss of a musical and cultural titan as mighty as Aretha Franklin (March 25, 1942-August 18, 2018) naturally inspires critics, writers, bloggers, journalists and fans the opportunity to reflect on her legacy. I have listened to a wide range of Ms. Franklin’s music deeply over time and this month I discuss her remarkably underrated musical range and adaptability.


The cover of Aretha Franklin's 1961 debut album on Columbia.

The cover of Aretha Franklin's 1961 debut album on Columbia.

We have commonly known Aretha Franklin as “the Queen of Soul,” a recognition of her talents as the most influential singer in Rhythm & Blues (R&B). But her ascent to this role was not inevitable. She has always had the talent and drive to move in any musical direction of her choice. Franklin grew up the daughter of Reverend C.L. Franklin a prominent minister and civil rights activist. As a “PK” (Preacher’s Kid) Aretha’s exposure to gospel music was the outgrowth of being raised in a church environment, especially during a time when the church played an even more prominent role as a social and spiritual force in the lives of African-Americans. Her father regularly interacted with luminaries in the gospel world such as singer Clara Ward, who nurtured Aretha, so her emergence as a young gospel recording artist at the age of 14 is understandable.

In the 1950’s gospel music was far more segregated from secular music than it is today. Most popular black singers of Aretha’s youth, including jazz vocalists such as Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, and R&B singers who preceded Franklin, such as Ray Charles and Etta James, began their musical training in a church environment. Many singers, such as Roy Hamilton, Sam Cooke, and Washington achieved commercial success on the gospel circuit, before deciding to make the leap to secular music and “cross over.” Crossing over was such a major issue that many of gospel’s most accomplished voices, including Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams and Shirley Caesar, always made it a point to note that they had opportunities to sing secular music but refused.


Franklin's first top 40 pop hit was "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" a pop song Al Jolson popularized in 1918.

Franklin's first top 40 pop hit was "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" a pop song Al Jolson popularized in 1918.

Franklin’s ambitions, however, went beyond the circuit. Signed by John Hammond to sing at Columbia Records, her stint from 1961-66 is represents her complicated musical identity. While gospel vocal techniques, including the selective use of bent notes, melisma and call-and-response type arrangements, deeply inform Franklin’s singing, her taste in material extends well beyond the secularized gospel material known as R&B songs to include blues and pre-rock pop music from Broadway and film. Though she conveys a vocal intensity and emotional vulnerability best understood as “soul” her Columbia recordings tell a fuller story of her musical interests.

Her 1961 Columbia debut album Aretha (in Person with the Ray Bryant Combo) featured original songs such as “Won’t Be Long” with a strong flavor recognizable to R&B fans, but she also interpreted “Over the Rainbow” (from The Wizard of Oz) and “Ain’t Necessarily So” (from Porgy & Bess). These interpretations are distinctly Aretha-fied but cannot simply be understood as “soul” or “R&B. Like many musicians of her generation she absorbed a wide range of influences and these are as essential to understanding her career as hits like “Respect” and “Think.”


Yeah!!! released in 1965 is Franklin's finest jazz set at Columbia.

Yeah!!! released in 1965 is Franklin's finest jazz set at Columbia.

Columbia paired Franklin with many different arrangers and producers in search of commercial hits and this proved difficult. Franklin’s taste in material included a penchant for creatively reimagining tried and true standards (“Love for Sale”) and more contemporary (“If I Had a Hammer”) songs sung in jazz settings such as the superb jazz set Yeah!!! which could have made her the outstanding jazz vocalist of her generation. But she also enjoyed singing dated “showbiz” songs including “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” made famous by Al Jolson in 1918 (!), and a flashy version of the pop warhorse “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey.” These kinds of songs, combined with period era touches such as strings and background choirs, found her at odds with changes occurring in popular music in the mid-1960s. This includes the transition of rock ‘n’ roll from dance-oriented music to more serious and sophisticated “rock,” the growth of R&B into “soul,” and newer variants in jazz such as “soul jazz” and the avant-garde.


Aretha's 1967 Atlantic Records debut focused more on Franklin's gospel roots and writing, playing and arranging skills than any of her previous albums.

Aretha's 1967 Atlantic Records debut focused more on Franklin's gospel roots and writing, playing and arranging skills than any of her previous albums.

Stuck in a commercial rut, she had not found consistent success in the pop, jazz and cabaret vein of Columbia and overtly sought a label that could help her secure hits on the radio and the record charts. At Columbia Records, she had 12 top 100 singles, with only one, the rather unfortunate “Rock-A-Bye,” hitting the pop top 40. Considering the social and racial segregation of the 1960’s she was more popular on the “black” singles charts where she had 8 top 40 songs though few were major hits. Atlantic Records, under the guidance of producer Jerry Wexler, helped Franklin realize her ambitions by providing more leeway to select songs, paly piano and arrange her material. From 1967’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” onward she grew into a creative and commercial acme that went until about 1974. Had her career been assessed by the first singles she released from 1967-68, which includes (in order): “I Never Loved a Man,” “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “(Sweet Sweet Baby)Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Ain’t No Way,” “Think,” she would have had the greatest streak of winners of any singer of her time. What’s so amazing is that she continued to produce more classics, on an almost routine casual basis, including her versions of “I Say a Little Prayer,” (1968) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1971) and original compositions such as like “Call Me” (1970) and “Daydreaming” (1972).

 Though the late 1960’s-early 1970’s is Franklin’s prime “classic” period this does not mean everything she recorded was classic. Franklin became an artist before albums were assembled as meticulously as they eventually became in the late 1960’s era of rock “concept” albums. Essentially her albums were compilations of potential singles and whatever was recorded recently. This shifted with 1969’s more conceptual big band jazz set Soul ’69 and on the gospel extravaganza 1972’s Amazing Grace. I mention this because even as her albums became more uneven in the early 1970’s there was still at least a handful of classic individual performances which is more than could be said for most artists. No matter how uneven an album, such as 1974’s Let Me in your Life, might be there was a classic performance like “Until you Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” that reminded you why she stirred so much excitement in 1967. Except for 1976’s Sparkle soundtrack the mid-to-late 1970’s was a commercial nadir as Franklin searched for suitable material to apply her naturally potent voice, a search complicated by the expanding strands of black pop which included quiet storm, funk, disco and Philly Soul.


1985's  Who's Zoomin' Who?  was a mid-career triumph hghlighted by "Freeway of Love."

1985's Who's Zoomin' Who? was a mid-career triumph hghlighted by "Freeway of Love."

Searching once again for “hits” Franklin took a cue from Dionne Warwick’s success at Arista Records and signed with the label. Many critics have noted how this era pales with her classic period. I respond to this in two ways. First, any artist’s peak would pale in comparison with Franklin’s late 1960s-early 1970’s hot streak. At Atlantic she as able to synthesize nearly all her disparate influences and interests into a cohesive style that was rooted in gospel but drew from a panoply of American music strands. Second, like most major artists Franklin faced a generation gap and major industrial and technological changes in the music industry. Franklin was 25 when “Respect” became a hit and nearly 40 when she had her first Arista “hit,” the ballad “United Together.” Franklin was not going to revert to the jazz and pop she began with as much of this material had been interpreted continually by a wide variety of singers since the 1910’s and she was interested in authoring new hits. Further, she was entering into an industry more defined by electric production technologies (e.g. synthesizers), personalized audio delivery systems (e.g. Walkman’s) and promotional outlets such as MTV, as well as a narrowing of radio programming menus.

In this more codified and demographically focused market Franklin made a noble effort to employ her still rich voice and sharp pop instincts to remain a vital pop figure. For someone of my vintage (ahem, mid-1970’s) I knew songs like “Respect” and “A Natural Woman,” as they were too iconic (and played on oldie stations) to not know, much like “Unchained Melody” or “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” I also experienced Franklin’s performances of 1982’s “Jump to It,” 1983’s “Get it Right” and the monstrous 1985 radio and MTV hit “Freeway of Love.” As a young listener, I was both aware of Franklin as a revered singer with a rich past and as a contemporary artist whose hits such as “Freeway,” “Sisters Are Doing It Themselves” and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” were as good as pop got in the mid-1980’s. This was new music and it was commercially viable and genuinely exciting. Sustaining the commercial success of these hits eventually became harder as Franklin’s fusion of gospel technique and sleek modern production styles competed with hip-hop, New Jack swing, modern rock, and other emerging styles. The quality of material she recorded for Arista from the late 1970’s through the early 2000’s finds her locating ways to adapt her sound to the times. Sometimes this resulted in a sublime fusion, such as 1994’s “Honey” and 1998’s “A Rose is Still a Rose,” and sometimes it resulted in her “oversouling” on slight material or straining too hard to sound “hip.”


1998's  A Rose is Still a Rose  was one of the most popular and well-received albums Franklin released in the last 20 years of her career.

1998's A Rose is Still a Rose was one of the most popular and well-received albums Franklin released in the last 20 years of her career.

Franklin’s efforts to remain current has inspired controversy among many musicians and critics. For example, several of her past producers such as Wexler and arranger Clyde Otis, wanted her to skip the contemporary pop music scene and focus on being a jazz-oriented singer. Yet Franklin has never felt like a singer seeking to be confined to one style. She took risks “crossing over” from gospel to secular music and transitioning from the jazzy pop style of the 1960’s to the more overt “soul” approach of the late 1960’s.  Most musical artists are lucky to excel in one style and she found a credible voice in multiple styles and eras. As such, her missteps must be considered in the context of their creation and the transitory nature of pop music.


While many of her peers may have been associated with a defined time in the past and lauded for their endurance, she strived to achieve ongoing relevance. A talent like hers transcends charts, sales and awards. Her spectacular performances at the 1997 VH1 Divas Live concert, at the 1998 Grammys singing “Nessun Dorma” and stopping the show with “A Natural Woman” performance at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, attest to a highly cultivated musicality and showmanship. Though many singers think “soul” is only about raw emotion Franklin has deep roots that helped her balance the emotional and technical needs of her material. Her versatility, improvisational skill, musical technique and sheer heart are uniquely her own.


Please enjoy these two playlists I compiled via Spotify:





Sassy gets her due!

Sarah Vaughan (March 27, 1924- April 3, 1990) is the finest singer of popular music I have heard in a lifetime of listening. Her textural richness, infinite timbral range, sophisticated understanding of harmonic structures and bebop rooted improvisational skills are an irresistible combination to my ears. On March 29 the U.S. Postal Service issued a Forever Commemorative Stamp in her honor. As such she joins previous jazz luminaries who were honored in the Legends of American Music stamp series (including Mildred Bailey Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, Bessie Smith) and the Black Heritage stamp series, which issued an Ella Fitzgerald stamp in 2007. My response: it’s about damned time. I totally geeked out recently buying a few books of her stamps, a commemorative booklet and a special faux postcard featuring the stamp. How often does one get to support great art and keep a vital government service afloat? Below is a reader’s guide to a representative sample of her vast discography, which spans from 1943 to 1990. Even 26 years after her death multiple albums, primarily concert sets, have emerged and confirmed her mastery of the concert form.

"The Divine One" Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) finally gets a Forever Commemorative Stamp!

"The Divine One" Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) finally gets a Forever Commemorative Stamp!

Most recently Resonance Records released the 1978 concert Live at Rosy’s recorded with her trio Paul Schroeder (piano), Walter Booker (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) at the New Orleans club. In addition to singing signatures like “Send in the Clowns” and “Poor Butterfly” she surprises with a playful version of Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” a lovely rendition of the ‘70s standard “Everything Must Change,” a swinging “A Lot of Livin to Do” (from Bye Bye Birdie) and hilarious patter. 34 years into her career her she has a slightly raspy patina but her falsetto flourishes and rhythmic instincts are as fresh as ever.

Vaughan's newly issued 1978 live set, Live at Rosy's (Resonance Records, 2016) recorded with her trio in New Orleans is a triumph.

Vaughan's newly issued 1978 live set, Live at Rosy's (Resonance Records, 2016) recorded with her trio in New Orleans is a triumph.

As a child musical prodigy, who won the Apollo Amateur Night, played second piano for Earl Hines’ Band and had a front row seat while Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie honed bebop—Sarah Vaughan had music in her blood and then some. That she went on to have a stellar and influential career over nearly six decades as a jazz and pop singer was not surprising. However her boundless versatility, dazzling interpretive creativity, and constantly deepening musicality were virtually unprecedented among jazz singers.

With her luminous, wide-ranging voice and rich grasp of popular song structures she synthesized the vocabularies of swing, bebop, and classical singing into one of the most distinctive expressive vocal styles of the 20th century. Possessing major technical skill and gaining interpretive perspective over time hers is one of the most exciting and diverse careers in popular music. Fortunately, like her esteemed peers Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington the majority of her recordings remain in-print and are widely available for purchase.

 Vaughan’s earliest recordings from the early to mid-40s, available on Interlude and Musicraft, feature her young alluring voice in big band and orchestral settings. Vaughan’s recordings are generally divided between bebop anthems like “Interlude” (aka “A Night in Tunisia”), fine versions of jazz and pop standards--“Lover Man,” “The Man I Love,” and “What A Difference A Day Made”-and lush commercial fare such as “It’s Magic.”

Vaughan did not scat during this period but, like Billie Holiday, she incorporated subtle rhythmic and melodic embellishments that personalized her material, evidenced in her benchmark recording of “Mean to Me.” Though many of the pop arrangements are typical of the era Vaughan stands out, professional but never cold and appealing without sounding insipid. Town Hall is a rough, but enjoyable, recording of a 1947 concert where Vaughan showcases her impeccable skill and vocal prowess to an enthusiastic crowd. She also duets with Lester Young on two numbers.  

After her success at Musicraft, Continental and smaller independent labels Vaughan recorded for Columbia from 1949-53. Typical of the era she recorded lushly arranged ephemera (“De Gas Pipe She Leaking Joe”) and pop standards “Summertime,” “Black Coffee,” etc. The import Linger Awhile/The Great Sarah Vaughan is a reissue of two LPs, essentially compilations of singles, from the period but they are more for posterity than enjoyment though Vaughan sounds glorious as always. Though Vaughan’s Columbia period is mostly well covered on Divine, Classics Records’s Sarah Vaughan 1951-1952 fills in some interesting gaps. The arrangements are as lush as ever and Vaughan sings in her usual colorful, luscious style. However there are some interesting song choices including the spirituals “Ave Maria” and “A City Called Heaven,” delivered in a majestic style, the overlooked “If Someone Had Told Me” and several period songs of varying quality, that are rarely included on U.S. compilations. 

Her skills as an improviser are more evident on four recordings featured on Columbia’s Hi-Fi compilation which mixes pop recordings with adventurous bebop inflected interpretations on “Nice Work (If You Can Get It),” “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” “East of the Sun (West of the Moon),” and “Come Rain or Shine.” 

Vaughan recorded what is arguably her most impressive work for Mercury Records from 1954-1960. Predictably she recorded many lush commercial sides that made maximum use of her lush, gorgeous voice and the skills and in house arrangers like Hal Mooney. Many of her 50s and 60s Mercury albums are out-of-print but available thanks to (the expensive) Complete boxed set series on Mercury. Both her pop and jazz oriented recordings warrant attention. 

Jazz highlights of this period include the gorgeous intimacy on Sarah Vaughan featuring Clifford Brown which features superb, definitive versions of jazz and pop standards highlighted by an effervescent “Lullaby of Birdland,” and languorous “April in Paris.” Land of Hi-Fi features blazing versions of “Cherokee,” and “How High the Moon” mixed with lush versions of “Over the Rainbow” and “Soon.” On Swingin’ she reprises “Lover Man,” debuts the clever “Shulie-A-Bop” and swings hard on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “All of Me” featuring a fierce scat solo. No Count Basie, available on Complete, features her superb scat “No Count Blues” and a delicious version of Horace Silver’s “Doodlin’” with Jon Hendricks’ lyrics.

The Berlin set, recorded with Hines’ bandmate Eckstine, the Gershwin songbooks and the Broadway collection showcases Vaughan as both singer and actress. The combination of Vaughan’s velvet tones with Hal Mooney’s sweeping orchestrations provides a perfect dramatic punch for some of the most finely crafted theatre songs of the 20th century. The Complete set also features numerous live concerts where Vaughan’s impeccable musicianship and charming persona make for very intimate listening including her recordings at Mister Kelly’s and her London Opera House set where she famously flubs “Thanks for the Memory.”

In the early 60s Vaughan signed with Roulette, joining other jazz luminaries--Eckstine, Dinah Washington, Joe Williams and Count Basie. At Roulette she recorded the requisite mood music and lounge albums—Dreamy, Snowbound, The Divine One collected on Mosaic’s Roulette boxed set-- popular in the 60s. She also recorded a solid, if predictable album with the Count Basie band, a flowery semi-classical set and a session comprised of ephemeral pop singles.

Despite these diversions she made some of her most invigorating jazz statements at Roulette. Her two Benny Carter arranged recordings (The Explosive Side and The Lonely Hours available on a two-fer as the Benny Carter Sessions) are flawless exemplars of dynamic swing and burnished torch singing, respectively. The Quincy Jones-arranged You’re Mine You is an entertaining lounge set with a great version of “One Mint Julep,” an ecstatic near operatic “Maria,” and fine versions of Sinatra style tunes—“Witchcraft,” “The Best is Yet to Come,” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” For the spare, intimate side of Vaughan check out the bass and guitar set After Hours and its sequel Sarah + 2 (available only on the box set) For the soulful side of Vaughan check out what is perhaps her most satisfying Roulette album, Sarah Sings Soulfully a jazz organ set featuring stellar performances of “Sermonette,” “Easy Street,” “Round Midnight,” and “The Gravy Waltz.”

Vaughan heralded her return to Mercury with the sizzling Tivoli, a set of concerts recorded in Copenhagen, compiled as a two-disc set. Vaughan combines the swagger of a veteran jazz musician with a newly acquired operatic flair. Vaughan surveys highlights of her career gracing everything from “Over the Rainbow,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Maria” from Westside Story, to “Misty,” and the scat “Sassy’s Blues” with her beautiful voice, supported by a supple, swinging band. Alas, this kind of jazz artistry was short-lived during her second Mercury stint.

Inevitably, rock’s commercial domination affected the recording choices of jazz singers who wanted mainstream attention. Like Ella, Carmen, Tony Bennett and Sinatra, Vaughan tried her hand at contemporary 60s pop with mixed results. Her new Mercury phase largely included competent but trendy recordings including a perky Latin-pop set, a Henry Mancini songbook, sets mixing contemporary pop and rock tunes (i.e. Lennon-McCartney, Bacharach-David), and a set of songs organized around men (i.e. “Jim,” “Alfie,”) collected on Complete. Perhaps in response to commercial pressures Vaughan ended her reign with a superb swing set Sassy Swings Again where she reminded listeners of her formidable powers on sensational versions of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Take the A Train” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” among others.

Sarah Vaughan’s recordings at Mainstream Records, where she recorded from 1971-76 vary from garish attempts to apply her rich style to inappropriate ‘70s pop/rock to sublime displays of her prowess, notably Live in Japan. In between these efforts is her recording of Legrand tunes on the rich and ripe Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand. Her singing is as sultry as ever but the often bathetic lyrics and overwrought arrangements can bring out her most indulgent instincts.

Two of her finest and most representative concert recordings from the 1970s include her two Live in Japan Vols. 1 and 2 sets recorded in 1973, and a 1971 Monterey Jazz Festival Concord Records released in 2007 for the first time. On both sets her sense of humor, musical control and audience rapport are abundant. She sings some of her favorites including standards like “’Round Midnight,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” “I Remember You” and “The Lamp is Low” alongside a few contemporary hits of the era such as “Love Story” (Japan Volume 1) and “And I Love Him” (Monterey). Two of the highlights of the Japan include her nearly wordless rendition of “Willow Weep for Me” and languid, delicately unfolded versions of “My Funny Valentine” and “The Nearness of You.” On Monterey she cuts loose on the five minute “Scattin’ the Blues” and a jam session with jazz titans Zoot Sims and Clark Terry.

From 1969-71 Vaughan did not record for any record labels, concentrating on live dates and her early 70s recordings for Mainstream were pop records with little tie to her jazz roots. After her death several concert recordings of the era have surfaced on independent labels including her great 1969 Newport Jazz performance on Jazzfest Masters. The 70s were mostly a transitional period for Vaughan. Her voice grew darker and huskier in tone and timbre, she interpreted lyrics with more feeling and her newfound flair as a live performer made her one of the premiere jazz singers in concert. 

Vaughan’s recordings for Norman Granz’s Pablo Records are amazing recordings both for the stylistic range Vaughan covers and the quality of her instincts four decades into her career. How Long is a brilliant small group set recorded with Ray Brown and Joe Pass where she reinvents the title track as a light samba and adds classical touches to old warhorses like “Teach Me Tonight” and “More Than You Know.” Brazil is a skillful set of suadades and sambas recorded in Brazil and often featuring their composers and star musicians including Milton Nascimento, Dori Caymmi, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Vaughan has rarely sounded as blissful and energetic. Copacabana is a delightful but less consistent set of similar material.         

The two-volume Ellington sets are uneven but feature many fine performances including a sexy soulful duet with Eddie “ ‘Cleanhead’ ” Vinson on “Rocks in My Bed,”  a hard swinging “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” a wistfully dramatic take on “I Got It Bad,” and a hushed, ethereal “Daydream.”  Send in the Clowns is most famous for her unique, near-operatic performance of “Send in the Clowns” but she really shines on a swinging “All the Things You Are” and a reprise of her signature “If You Could See Me Now.” Her finest set of the era is the stunning self-produced Crazy and Mixed Up which mixes everything from romantic standards, such as “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” to Ivan Lins’s “Love Dance” and “The Island,” and an all scat version of “Autumn Leaves.”

At Pablo Vaughan seemed to be improving with age and two live 80s sets confirm just how in her element she had become. Her Grammy winning concert Gershwin Live! is a brilliant jazz and classical synthesis where she gives grand, sweeping interpretations of Gershwin including a “Porgy and Bess Medley,” a stunning 10 minute “Man I Love,” an intense “My Man’s Gone Now” and a hard swinging “Fascinating Rhythm.” She reprises her mastery of Gershwin on the superb live Paris set City of Lights. A virtual career retrospective she sings virtually all of her signature songs including confident, often playful versions of “Wave,” “Send in the Clowns,” “Sassy’s Blues,” “Misty,” and “If You Could See Me Now.”

Tragically Vaughan, a lifelong smoker, died in 1990 but left behind a rich, substantial career. Shortly after her death, Vintage Jazz Classics released a 23-song collection of unreleased performances on I’ll Be Seeing You: The Sarah Vaughan Memorial Album. Spanning from two lush pop studio recordings from 1949 to eight jazz performances from ~1961-62, it is a very entertaining glimpse of Vaughan in multiple styles and settings. It does not fully cohere but it is a trove of good to exceptional performances across a decade. The two opening pop recordings, “Tonight I Shall Sleep” and “While You Are Gone” sound like Columbia era Vaughan where her voluminous voice and infinite colors uplifting her material even in the most enveloping orchestral settings.

 However her jazz roots are on full display in several brilliant performances from a 1960 set at the Madison Square Jazz Festival and the ‘61/’62 recordings. Her perfect sense of swing, intricate soloing and masterful balladeering abound especially on two superb versions of “Just One of Those Things,” a breath-taking solo on “Sometimes I’m Happy,” and some of the finest versions of “But Not for Me” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Elsewhere she and Nat King Cole glide through a live “Love You Madly” with a few words from Ellington and a fun take on “Teach Me Tonight” with Joe Williams where she almost forgets the lyrics and they cheerfully laugh it off before continuing on.

Several fine recordings have surfaced since her death such as the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival performances on the Linger Awhile compilation and the excellent discovery of a 1961 radio recording Soft & Sassy where Vaughan’s vocal purity and improvisational prowess sparkle in a minimalist piano, bass and drum arrangement.

Collectors Choice Music’s Divine Lady of Song is a 20 song collection of rare radio and concert performances by Vaughan and small groups. No recording dates are featured but they seem to stem from the late 50s-early 60s given the fullness of her voice and the repertoire. As always she sings beautifully and thrives within the lean spacious arrangements. The songs include signatures like “Just One of Those Things,” “What is this Thing Called Love,” and unexpected songs including “Lover Come Back to Me,” “Careless” and “Gone with the Wind.”  

For the budget conscious shopper Verve, Roulette and Pablo have all released various single-disc collections of her finest recordings on CD, and in digital form, making her career readily accessible for the curious.  



One-Five scale: Poor, Mediocre, Good, Great, Classic

Early Recordings:

♦♦♦♦ Interlude: Early Recordings 1944-1947 (Naxos Jazz Legends, 2001)

♦♦♦♦ Complete Musicraft Master Takes (The Jazz Factory, 2001)

Columbia Records:

♦♦♦   Linger Awhile/The Great Sarah Vaughan (Columbia/Sony Music Entertainment UK, 2001)

♦♦♦♦ The Divine Sarah Vaughan: The Columbia Years 1949-1953 (CBS Records, 1988)

♦♦♦½ Sarah Vaughan 1951-1952 (Classics Records, 2003)

♦♦♦♦ Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi (Columbia/Legacy, 1996)

♦♦♦♦½ The Complete Columbia Albums Collection (compilation)                                      (featuring: ♦♦♦♦  After Hours, 11949-1952; ♦♦♦♦  Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi, 1950; ♦♦♦♦  Gershwin Live, 1982; ♦♦♦ Brazilian Romance, 1987)

Verve, Mercury and EmArcy:

♦♦♦♦♦ Sarah Vaughan featuring Clifford Brown (Verve, 1954/2000)

♦♦♦♦♦ In the Land of Hi-Fi (Verve, 1955)

♦♦♦♦♦ Swingin’ Easy (Verve, 1957)

♦♦♦♦   Sings Broadway: Great Songs from Hit Shows (Mercury Records, 1957/1995)

♦♦♦½  The Irving Berlin Songbook [with Billy Eckstine] (EmArcy Records, 1957/1984)

♦♦♦♦   The George Gershwin Songbook, Volume 1 (Verve 1957/1990)

♦♦♦♦   The George Gershwin Songbook, Volume 2 (Verve 1957/1990)

♦♦♦♦♦ Sassy Swings the Tivoli (EmArcy Records, 1963/1987)

♦♦♦     Viva Vaughan! (Mercury Records, 1964/2001)

♦♦♦      It’s A Man’s World (Mercury Records 1967/2002)

♦♦♦♦♦ Sassy Swings Again (Mercury Records 1967/1983)

♦♦♦♦♦ The Complete Sarah Vaughan on Mercury Volumes 1-4 (boxed sets)

Roulette (Various Roulette CDs have been available as single CDs; most are downloadable in this form as well):

♦♦♦      Count Basie/Sarah Vaughan (Roulette Records, 1961)

♦♦♦♦    After Hours (Roulette Records, 1961)

♦♦♦♦♦  The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan (Roulette Records, 1961)

♦♦♦♦    You’re Mine You (Roulette Records, 1962)

♦♦♦♦♦  Sarah Sings Soulfully (Roulette Records, 1963)

♦♦♦♦♦  The Lonely Hours (Roulette Records, 1964)

♦♦♦½    Sweet ‘N’ Sassy (Roulette Records, 1963)

♦♦♦♦♦   The Complete Roulette Sarah Vaughan Studio Sessions (boxed set) (Mosaic Records, 2002)


♦♦♦ Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand (Mainstream Records, 1972)


♦♦♦♦   I Love Brazil! (Pablo Records, 1977/1994)

♦♦♦♦♦ How Long Has This Been Going On? (Pablo Records, 1978)

♦♦♦½  Duke Ellington Songbook One (Pablo Records, 1980)

♦♦♦½  Duke Ellington Songbook Two (Pablo Records, 1980)

♦♦♦     Copacabana (Pablo Records, 1981/2002)

♦♦♦♦   Send in the Clowns [with the Count Basie Orchestra] (Pablo Records, 1981)

♦♦♦♦♦ Crazy and Mixed Up (Pablo Records, 1982)

Concert Recordings and Radio Transcriptions:

♦♦♦♦♦  Live in Japan Vol. 1 (Mainstream Records, 1973)

♦♦♦♦♦  Live in Japan Vol. 2 (Mainstream Records, 1973)

♦♦♦♦½ Sassy at Ronnie’s (Ronnie Scott’s Jazz House Records, 1977/1991)

♦♦♦♦    Gershwin Live! [with Trio and L. A. Philharmonic Orchestra] (CBS Records, 1982)

♦♦♦♦    In the City of Lights (Justin Time Records, 1985/1999)

♦♦♦♦    I’ll Be Seeing You: The Sarah Vaughan Memorial Album (Vintage Jazz Classics, 1990)

♦♦♦♦    Jazz Fest Masters (Scotti Brothers, 1992)

♦♦♦♦♦  Soft & Sassy (Hindsight Records, 1993)

♦♦♦½    One Night Stand: The Town Hall Concert 1947 [with Lester Young] (Blue Note 1997)

♦♦♦♦    Divine Lady of Song (Collector’s Choice Music, 2004)

♦♦♦♦♦  Live at Monterey Jazz Festival (Monterey Jazz Festival Records/Concord, 2007)

♦♦♦♦½ Live at Rosy’s (Resonance Records, 2016)




The Art of Independence: A Riffs, Beats, & Codas interview with jazz vocalist Karen Marguth

San Francisco Bay Area jazz vocalist Karen Marguth is one of the most acclaimed vocal jazz artists to emerge in the 2000s. Marguth is an independent musician who has released six albums as a leader including The Best Things, Carols Everywhere, All the Waiting, Karen Marguth, A Way with Words, and Just You, Just Me. 2009’s Karen Marguth (Wayfae Music) earned four and a half stars in Downbeat magazine and is considered her breakthrough. 2013’s A Way with Words, and 2015’s Just You, Just Me have also earned strong critical recognition.


Jazz vocalist Karen Marguth performing live. Copyright   ©   Tomas Ovalle. Courtesy of Karen Marguth.

Jazz vocalist Karen Marguth performing live. Copyright © Tomas Ovalle. Courtesy of Karen Marguth.

Riffs, Beats, & Codas recognized her voice and bass album Just You, Just Me (recorded with bassist Kevin Hill) as one of the finest new albums of 2015 in the November 2015 blog “2015’s Raves & Faves.” Marguth is an instructional coach for the arts and literacy in a school district in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also writes periodically on her blog Marguth on Jazz and previously hosted “The Vocal Hour” a weekly radio show on Fresno’s KSFR.

 In late December I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Marguth over email about her career as an independent recording artist, the process of recording Just You, Just Me, and her philosophical approach to the arts. Below are her reflections.

 R, B, & C: To begin: In the music industry what distinguishes the career of an independent artist from a non-independent artist?

  KM: The first thing that comes to mind is the sense of creative control that independent artists have. When you connect yourself to a producer or a label, you give away control of some aspect of the creative process, as well as some of your earnings. In one case, I considered working with a label that would allow me to create whatever album I wanted, and then I would pay them to take over control of things like manufacturing the physical product, and deciding how and where to promote it. For many artists, who don’t want to deal with the business side of things, this is a perfect relationship.

 Another valuable aspect of being independent is that you are free to move with the ebb and flow of your own muse. I can’t imagine having any outside pressure on my process, for example, being required to meet someone else’s deadlines, or adjusting my vision to meet someone else’s taste, or having to select songs for some marketing person's target audience. 

 The challenge of being independent is that it’s a lot of time and effort to manage things, and you have to be willing and able to book gigs, manage rehearsals and studio time, acquire recording rights, pay for photography/design work, and do all the mailing out to radio and reviewers and such. If you enjoy the process of learning how to run your own business, then being independent is a joy.

 Finally, I think each artist has their own goal, their own definition of “success.” For me, I am as much in love with the details of the process as I am with final products and performances.  

 R, B, & C: Your response is very illuminating in terms of the sheer scope of responsibility and the struggle for artistic and creative control. Just You, Just Me has gotten consistently positive notices. As an independent artist how impactful is popular media support for your work?

 KM: Media support is that rare, elusive gem for an independent artist. I used to work at a jazz radio station, and the volume of CDs that come in each day would astound you. I’m talking hundreds of CD’s each week. It was impossible for us to listen to every CD. I did a show about female vocalists, so I would sift through the bins for those and try to listen to every one, but even in just that small category there were dozens to consider each month. I would imagine that the same is true for magazines and reviewers; there are just too many CDs to consider. 

 If a CD comes in from a well-known promoter, or a respected record label, then it definitely gets listened to, that's just the reality. So, as an independent artist, I know that I may mail out 350 CDs and not get a single spin on radio or a single positive word from anyone. But again, for me, I love the process of making music so much that I'm not really focused on what others may or may not say about it. 

 Once, I was corresponding with the great John Clayton, and I shared with him a great review I’d gotten. His response was so lovely and perfect. He wrote: “Do remember that while we celebrate these groovy and uplifting reviews, would it have affected your art, your expression, your joy and commitment if it had only received one star? My mentioning that is not to add some sort of dark cloud to the party.  It is to encourage you, stand next to you in support of what you do, no matter who encounters it. Keep doing what you do.  You and your art are too important to the world.”

 I didn’t address impact. It helps tremendously. After I received my first review in Jazz Magazine of France, you better believe I ordered stickers with quotes from the review, stuck them onto every CD, and mailed those out to hundreds of radio stations and reviewers. 

 And it made a difference. Shortly thereafter, I got reviews in both Downbeat and Jazz Times, and a steady trickle of CD sales and downloads began. 

 R, B, & C: Speaking of bassists: You have written previously about working with and learning from bassists Kevin Hill, Jason Jurzak, Sam Rocha, and Pat Olvera.  And Sheila Jordan pioneered the bass and voice duo style. What attracted you to the format?

 KM: I started learning to sing jazz in a trad jazz band. When not singing, I’d sit back by the bassist (Jason Jurzak). From that spot, I could really hear what he was doing, and how he interacted with the other sounds on stage, how he prompted some things and responded to others. I tried to hum along with what he was playing, as he played, and learned a lot from doing that. As he made choices in the moment, my understanding of each song deepened, which informed choices I could make in the future. 

 I’m attracted to the bass lines in songs, the same way I’m attracted to the harmony lines when there's more than one vocalist. I’ve always been drawn to the roots of chords, and inventive counter-melodies. 

 I also just feel so happy when I hear a bassist who can really swing. I’m always looking for that sound, always so moved by it. 

 R, B, & C: One highlight of the album is the variety of the repertoire. For example, I adore Phoebe Snow and your choice of “Harpo’s Blues” was surprising. What shaped your song choices for the album?

 KM: Song choices are such fun. 

 I keep lists of songs that I love, and then I group them into categories that seem to fit together. Some songs, like “Harpo’s Blues,” end up in multiple categories. If a song keeps showing up, again and again, I’ll most likely record it or perform it at some point. 

 In the case of “Harpo’s Blues, I only discovered it five years ago, when someone came up after a gig and suggested it as a song I might like. I love it when people do that; I’ve found so many untapped beauties that way. I heard it, and loved it, and then researched everything I could find about it. The more I learned about it, the more I loved it. And, I found that very few people had covered it, so I knew it hadn’t been done to death. It’s such a gorgeous tune, with wonderful lyrics, and it’s strange that so few other people have recorded it. 

 And, the content of the lyrics resonated with me. I definitely get that feeling of grief and loss when a wonderful collaboration or project comes to an end. 

 When putting together the choices as a whole for this album, I considered tunes that I loved, that lyrically fit the idea of “just two people,” and which would feature Kevin's inventiveness.

 R, B, & C: This is interesting to me because I imagine vocal artists must have some system to decide on what to sing. There are some other gems that are relatively obscure that grabbed my ear. I enjoyed your rendition of “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives Me” which I had only previously heard on a Dinah Shore collection. When did you first hear that one? Similarly, I was totally unfamiliar with “Love’s Got Me in a Lazy Mood” and it’s fabulous. 

 KM: I was schooled on “Naughty Sweetie” by Brady McKay, a vocalists who tours on the Trad Jazz circuit and who wrote the hilarious fast verse on it. And “Lazy Mood” I learned from a Susannah McCorkle album I found at the radio station one day, as I was digging through female vocal CDs. 

 I feel like one of my responsibilities is to mine for those hidden gems from the past. I’m in agreement with Becky Kilgore that some of the finest songs were crafted before the 1960s, and that a jazz vocalist needs to be carrying those songs forward so they aren’t forgotten. 

I also think that there are songs that have been done too many times, over and over again, with no value added. If I can’t add something new to a song, or if there’s already a stunning version of it that's been done, then I'm wise to respect that and find an overlooked gem and present that instead. 

 R, B, & C: As an independent artist it seems that live performance is an essential aspect for sharing your art, as well as developing comradery with local and regional musicians. What role has the Fresno jazz scene played in shaping your artistry?

 KM: The Fresno jazz scene is almost entirely responsible for shaping my artistry.

 The “bad boys of Dixieland,” Fresno’s Blue Street Jazz Band, gave me my initial experiences with performing jazz. I'd been a listener of it all my life (thanks to the Columbia Record Club, with albums arriving every month throughout my childhood). But working with Blue Street pushed me to learn to sing many, many, many tunes. In some cases I was asked to master the band's arrangement; in other cases, I was asked to just know the tune and be ready in case it was called, to-be-arranged-on-the-spot. They didn’t ever make set lists, they'd just call tunes as they went, so I just had to have the tunes in my head and be ready if a tune was called. It was what I call scary-fun.

 Fresno also has several weekly jam sessions, an organization called Jazz Fresno which brings in performances, and several great venues which feature weekly jazz gigs. One band, Espacio, invited me to join them at their weekly gig for several years, and that collaboration deeply enriched my growth. Getting out a few times a week to either perform or listen to live performances is THE way that jazz artists develop. And the musicians there, well they’re just so open and supportive of each other. Everyone works gigs with everyone else, in varying and ever-changing configurations. I was made better by every single musician I got to hear or work with in Fresno. And last summer, I was invited to serve as an instructor at the Milestones Youth Jazz summer camp in Fresno, which was such a gift -- to see hundreds of kids there, at all levels, just loving the chance to learn and jam. 

 I’m not in Fresno now; I’ve moved to the Bay Area, so ‘'m back to that phase where I have to find connections and make gigs for myself. It's a new challenge. But I go back occasionally and record and perform in Fresno, and really really miss all the great musicians there.  

R, B, & C: As an educator working in a vulnerable field, the arts, how do you convey your passion for the arts to your students?  In a related vein, in addition to teaching and singing you are also a radio show host and blogger. What motivates you?

 KM: As an educator, I have found that children are inherently motivated and engaged by the processes in all of the arts, whether music, visual art, drama, or dance. When I’m able to incorporate arts into, say, a math or history or science lesson, student engagement shoots through the roof, and learning of concepts happens on a deeper level. Students start to lose interest in the arts when it becomes separated out from the academic curriculum and called “an elective.” It becomes something that's separate, extra, not-everyday. That’s when you start to hear kids say things like, “I can't take art, I'm terrible at drawing,” or “I can’t take choir, I can’t sing worth beans.”  Or, their parents say, “You don’t have time to take band, you need to get in all those AP classes!” 

  share my passion with students and colleagues by continuously pointing them to research on the benefits and rigors of artistic habits of mind. Fortunately, the pendulum in US public educations seems to be swinging back toward valuing at least music, if not the other arts, in a quality academic environment. 

 My motivation for doing what I do comes from a clear sense of my own purpose, and that has grown over a lifetime of trying different things, different jobs, and finding myself always circling back to the power of the arts and the creative process. There’s so much wickedness and worry and fret and garbage out there, but then look what happens to people when the aesthetics of their neighborhood is improved, beautified, or when live music is performed—they get uplifted, and they behave better towards others. It seems to me that we've gotten away from the things that sooth our souls, and connect us as human beings, and remind us of our common frailties and our goodness and our capacity for joy. Making some good jazz music, and advocating for the arts in education is my small way of adding some goodness to my community.