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Maxine Sullivan (village Vanguard 1947)
*Maxine Sullivan was born on this date in 1911. She was a Black jazz vocalist and performer.
Born Marietta Williams in Homestead, Pennsylvania as a vocalist, she was active for half a century. Throughout her career, Sullivan also appeared as a performer on film and on stage and is considered one of the best jazz vocalists of the 1930s. Singer Peggy Lee named Sullivan as a key influence in several interviews.
Sullivan began her music career singing in her uncle's band, The Red-Hot Peppers, in her native Pennsylvania, where she occasionally played the flugelhorn and the valve trombone in addition to singing. In the mid-1930s, she was discovered by Gladys Mosier. Mosier introduced her to Claude Thornhill, leading to her first recordings in June 1937. Shortly thereafter, Sullivan became a featured vocalist at the Onyx Club in New York City.
Sullivan married four times; her second husband was the band leader John Kirby while her fourth husband, whom she married in 1950, was the stride pianist Cliff Jackson. In 1940, Sullivan and Kirby were featured on Flow Gently Sweet Rhythm, making them the first Black jazz stars to have their weekly radio series.
During the 1940s, Sullivan performed with various bands, including her husband's sextet, and groups headed by Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, and Jimmie Lunceford. She performed at many of New York's hottest jazz spots, such as the Ruban Bleu, the Village Vanguard, the Blue Angel, and the Penthouse. In 1949, Sullivan appeared on the short-lived CBS Television series Uptown Jubilee, and in 1953 starred in the play, Take a Giant Step. In 1956, Sullivan shifted from her earlier style and recorded the album A Tribute to Andy Razaf; the album featured Sullivan's interpretations of a dozen tunes featuring Razaf's lyrics.
The album also highlighted the music of Fats Waller, including versions of "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now", "How Can You Face Me?", "My Fate Is in Your Hands", "Honeysuckle Rose", "Ain't Misbehavin'", and "Blue Turning Grey Over You". Sullivan was joined by a sextet reminiscent of John Kirby's group of 15 years prior, including trumpeter Charlie Shavers and clarinetist Buster Bailey. In 1958 Sullivan worked as a nurse for eight years before resuming her musical career in 1966, performing in jazz festivals alongside her fourth husband, Cliff Jackson, at the Manassas Jazz Festival.
She continued to perform throughout the 1970s and made a string of recordings during the 1980s, despite being over 70 years old. She was nominated for the 1979 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role in My Old Friends and participated in the film biography Maxine Sullivan: Love to Be in Love shortly before her death. She is best known for her 1937 recording of a swing version of the Scottish folk song "Loch Lomond". Maxine Sullivan died on April 7, 1987; she had two children, Orville Williams and Paula Morris.
Image: William P. Gottlieb