Cult Classic: Sarah Vaughan-A Time In My Life.

By 1971, when Sarah Vaughan released A Time In My Life on Mainstream Records, she had established a reputation as one of jazz’s premier vocalists. She had come a long way since winning the Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, in 1942. Back then, Sarah was just eighteen, and the prize was just ten dollars. However, more importantly, Sarah Vaughan was spotted and offered a place in Earl Hines’ band. This was the start of the rise and rise of Sarah Vaughan.

Working with Earl Hines’ band was like a musical education for Sarah Vaughan. She rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in jazz. This included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Eckstine, who would become one of Sarah’s closest friends. However, by 1944, Sarah’s time with Earl Hines’ band was at an end and she decided to embark upon a solo career.

After leaving Earl Hines’ band, Sarah signed with Continental Records. One of her first releases, was a version of Night In Tunisia, a Dizzy Gillespie classic. These early releases helped launch Sarah’s solo career. They also brought Sarah to the attention of George Treadwell.

He was originally a trumpeter, bit George soon became Sarah’s manager, and then, her husband. George helped mould Sarah, helping improve her presentation and stagecraft. Not long after this, she covered Tenderly. This was a game-changer and soon, Columbia were taking an interest in Sarah Vaughan. However, there was a problem.

Sarah was already signed to the Musicraft label. Somehow, Sarah managed to escape from her contract and signed for Columbia. This was home to her for the next five years. Most of the music Sarah recorded, is best described as pop. Jazz it seemed, had lost one of its potential great female vocalists. 

Her only jazz session came in 1950, when she accompanied a band that featured Miles Davis. Mostly, Sarah was recording pop. However, this didn’t satisfy Sarah. So, she had a clause written into her contract that allowed her to enjoy a parallel career as a jazz singer. Sarah released jazz albums on the Emarcy imprint. For Sarah, this was the best of both worlds. However, as the forties came to a close, Sarah’s life was changing.

While everything was going well in Sarah’s professional life, her marriage to George Treadwell came to an end. Once her divorce came through, she married Clyde Atkins. He had never been involved in music but despite that Sarah appointed him as her manager. 

One of the first deals Clyde did, was with Maurice Levy’s Roulette Records who signed Sarah Vaughan. Her rookie manager had done well as Roulette had some of the best arrangers in music. This resulted in Sarah recording some critically acclaimed albums. It wasn’t just jazz Sarah enjoyed success with, but pop too. It looked as if Sarah’s time at Roulette was one of the most successful periods in her career. That wasn’t the case.

Sadly, when Sarah’s deal with Roulette ended in 1963, she discovered she had a large unpaid tax bill. Worse was to come as Roulette hadn’t paid Sarah her royalties. For Sarah, this was a disaster. The only small crumb of comfort came when she was re-signed to Mercury by Quincy Jones.

For the next four years, Sarah released several albums for Mercury. These albums saw Sarah try different styles of music. The albums were either hit or miss affairs. Sarah, however, never recaptured the same heights as her early career. So, in 1967, Sarah left Mercury. 

For the next four years, Sarah Vaughan didn’t have a recording career. Then Sarah met Bob Shad, the owner of Mainstream Records. They’d first met in the fifties. While Sarah was down on her luck, Bob was flushed with success. 

The sixties had been kind to Bob Shad. He made a lot of money in the sixties working in rock music and now he decided to reinvest some of his money in his first musical love, jazz. He had signed artists like Blue Mitchell and Hadly Caliman to Mainstream, and now he wanted to sign Sarah Vaughan. This would be a coup for Mainstream. 

Sarah, who had been without a recording contract for four years, agreed. She signed to Mainstream in 1971. Before long, she was working on her Mainstream debut A Time Of My Life which  was an album of ten cover versions. They were given a unique twist by Sarah Vaughan.

This ten tracks on A Time Of My Life, included John Lennon’s Imagine, Bob Dylan’s If Not For You, John Sebastian’s Magical Connection and Marvin Gaye,  and James Nyx’s Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler). Brian Auger penned Tomorrow City and cowrote On Thinking It Over and Trouble with Jim Mullen. Other tracks included a cover of Carly Simon and Jacob Brackman That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It, and Helen and Kay Lewis’ Universal Prisoner. The other track on A Time Of My Life was Sweet Gingerbread Man which Michael Legrand cowrote with Marilyn and Richard Bergman. These ten tracks became A Time Of My Life, which was recorded in 1971.

When recording of A Time Of My Life began in 1971, the rhythm section included drummer Earl Palmer, bassist Bob Magnusson and guitarists Albert Vescovo and Joe Pass. They were joined by pianist Willy Mays and percussionists Alan Estes and Jimmy Cobb. The horn section featured trombonists George Bohanon and Benny Powell, trumpeters Buddy Childers, Gene Coe and Al Aaron and saxophonists Jackie Kelso, Bill Green and Jerome Richardson. Bill Shad produced and Ernie Wilkins arranged A Time Of My Life, which was Sarah Vaughan’s 1971 comeback album.

On the release of A Time Of My Life, it wasn’t a commercial success. Lightning struck twice for Sarah Vaughan. The same thing had happened at Mercury. However, this wasn’t her fault. The problem was jazz no longer as popular. Music had changed beyond recognition, and jazz like the blues was perceived by some as a relic of music’s past. That wasn’t the case with A Time Of My Life, which is a hidden gem and cult classic.

A cover of John Lennon’s Imagine opens A Time Of My Life. The arrangement is understated and wistful. Muted horns, a chiming guitar and the rhythm section combine with percussion. They provide the backdrop for Sarah’s heartfelt, hopeful. As the bass powers the arrangement along, Sarah combines power, hope and passion, delivers the lyrics as if she means every word.

A wistful flute flutters above the arrangement to On Thinking It Over. It meanders along, just an electric piano, vibes, rhythm section and eventually, blazing horns accompanying Sarah. Her vocal veers between tender and thoughtful, to a vocal powerhouse. Her band mirror Sarah’s every move. They veer between understated to dramatic. Meanwhile, Sarah’s vocal is wistful, emotive and tinged with regret. Memories come flooding back, as Sarah ponders her hopes and aspirations. 

Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) is given a makeover. Horns rasp, while the rhythm section lay down a groove. Atop the arrangement Sarah scats, before breathing life and meaning into lyrics that ooze social comment. Keyboards join the rhythm section and blazing horns. They create a dramatic, funky and jazz-tinged backdrop for Sarah, as a Marvin Gaye classic takes on new meaning.

Just a bass, then keyboards and pounding drums set the scene for Sarah on Sweet Gingerbread Man. Again, Sarah reinvents the song. She literally grabs the song, and breathes new life into it. Accompanied by a mostly understated arrangement, Sarah delivers a vocal that swings. Horns occasionally add bursts of drama. They’re the perfect foil to Sarah’s vocal, as she rolls back the years.

Horns bray and blaze, fluttering above the arrangement to Magical Connection. They’re joined by an electric piano and understated rhythm section. Sarah’s vocal is suitably understated. Soon, it grows in power. Quickly, it becomes apparent that this song is perfect for Sarah. So good is her phrasing and delivery, that its as if Magical Connection was written especially for Sarah.

Dark, moody horns open That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It. Then when Sarah’s vocal enters, it’s full of sadness and hurt. Memories come flooding back, of a sad and troubled childhood. Gradually, the arrangement unfolds. A chiming guitar, the rhythm section and bursts of horns accompany Sarah, as her sadness turns to hope, hope for the future. Her vocal becomes hopeful, then sometimes needy, on this beautiful, emotive, roller coaster.

Tomorrow City has a much more contemporary sound. It features a confused, troubled Sarah. The rhythm section and keyboards set the scene for Sarah. She’s confused and worried. “All my values are collapsing.”  Everything she believed in has been turned upside down. Stabs of horns and washes of keyboard accompany her. Meanwhile, the rhythm section provide the heartbeat. Sarah’s vocal is a mixture of power, confusion and disbelief. Later, when it drops out, the best guitar solo on A Time In My Life is laid down. When it gives way, Sarah returns her vocal powerful, emotive and soulful.

Universal Prisoner sees the tempo drop, and a sultry horn float above the arrangement. When it drops out, keyboards, percussion and the rhythm section accompany Sarah. Her vocal is tender and thoughtful, gradually growing in power. As the power increases, horns blaze and drums pound, matching Sarah every step of the way. This seems to inspire Sarah. She unleashes one of her finest vocals, with the lyrics taking on new meaning.

Trouble is another track reinvented by Sarah. It’s given a jazzy makeover, and in Sarah’s hands, swings. She’s aided and abetted by her all-star band. While the rhythm section drive the arrangement along, horns growl, bray and blaze. They’re joined by a jazzy guitar, percussion and piano. They provide the perfect accompaniment to Sarah, as she ensure her version of Trouble swings, and then some.

If Not For You was penned by Bob Dylan and closes A Time In My Life. It’s an oft-covered track. This makes covering If Not For You a challenge. Especially since Bob Dylan recorded the original. Sarah decides to stay true to the original, but give it a jazzy twist. This means bursts of growling horns, stabs of piano and a jaunty rhythm section. This results in a captivating, jazzy take on a Bob Dylan classic.

After four years without a record contract, Sarah Vaughan made her comeback with A Time In My Life. Accompanied by some of the most talented jazz musicians of the early seventies, Sarah rolls back the years on ten cover versions. Tracks by John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Bryan Auger and Carly Simon are given a makeover. They either head in the direction of pop or jazz, the two genres Sarah Vaughan made her name singing. These ten tracks took on new life and meaning. Some are reinvented, others given a twist. Sadly, despite its undoubtable quality, A Time In My Life passed record buyers by.

A Time In My Life was the wrong album at the wrong time. Jazz music, including Sarah’s brand of vocal jazz, was no longer as popular. Rock music was now King. For many music lovers, jazz was yesterday’s music. As a result, some jazz musicians were turning to fusion. That wasn’t possible for Sarah who was a jazz vocalist. 

Even singing pop wasn’t going to prove profitable for Sarah Vaughan. So, in 1971, when A Time In My Life was released by Mainstream Records, it sunk without trace.

Since then, a Sarah Vaughan’s oft-overlooked hidden gem A Time In My Life has been reappraised by some critics and this cult classic is somewhat belatedly starting to find be appreciated by jazz fans. A Time In My Life which was once regarded as Sarah Vaughan’s lost album, is sorted to find the audience it deserves forty-eight years after its release.

Cult Classic: Sarah Vaughan-A Time In My Life.








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