Nicknamed “Sassy” and “The Divine One“, Vaughan was a four-time Grammy Award winner, including a “Lifetime Achievement Award”. The National Endowment for the Arts bestowed upon her its “highest honor in jazz”, the NEA Jazz Masters Award, in 1989.
Vaughan’s father, Asbury “Jake” Vaughan, was a carpenter by trade and played guitar and piano. Her mother, Ada Vaughan, was a laundress and sang in the church choir. Jake and Ada Vaughan had migrated to Newark, New Jersey from Virginia during the First World War. Sarah was their only biological child, although in the 1960s they adopted Donna, the child of a woman who traveled on the road with Sarah Vaughan.
Biographies of Vaughan frequently state that she was immediately thrust into stardom after a winning amateur night performance at Harlem’s Zeus Theater. In fact, the story seems to be a bit more complex. Vaughan was frequently accompanied by a friend, Doris Robinson, on her trips into New York City. In the fall of 1942, by which time she was 18 years old, Vaughan suggested that Robinson enter the Apollo Theater Amateur Night contest. Vaughan played piano accompaniment for Robinson, who won second prize. Vaughan later decided to go back and compete as a singer herself. She sang “Body and Soul“, and won—although the exact date of this victorious performance is uncertain. The prize, as Vaughan recalled later to Marian McPartland, was $10 and the promise of a week’s engagement at the Apollo. On November 20th, 1942, Vaughan returned to the Apollo to open for Ella Fitzgerald.