It became clear to many that the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Jimmy Webb, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Bob Dylan and their contemporaries were more than just a flash in the pan. The most prescient observers could have realized – and some did – that these songs would one day be sung in programs alongside those of Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Irving Berlin and the Gershwins. But from a purely commercial standpoint, the songs of the younger generation sold records, and most veteran artists didn’t want to miss the boat. In his 1974 memoir, Clive Davis boasted of the great success he had at Columbia Records with so-called “middle of the road” artists – from Andy Williams to Jim Nabors, Percy Faith to Ray Conniff - “covering” contemporary hits. (The one holdout was Tony Bennett. Davis remembered a frustrated conversation during which he admonished the singer, “With all the music written today, it’s inconceivable that you can’t pick eleven [current] songs to fill out an album!” Tony is still, happily, true to himself and The Great American Songbook Mk. I all these years later.) Jazz artists weren’t immune to the syndrome, either. In fact, many did fine and rewarding work in the idiom. One such artist was the great Sarah Vaughan. Ace’s Boplicity Records imprint has recently reissued her 1971 Mainstream Records LP A Time in My Life, featuring ten contemporary songs.
The Newark, New Jersey-born vocalist, nicknamed “Sassy” as well as “The Divine One,” had been a mainstay on records since the mid-1940s. Columbia and Mercury largely molded her as a pop ballad singer, but she yearned to sing jazz, and did so successfully for the latter’s Emarcy imprint. A stint at Roulette earned her more pop success before she was signed by Quincy Jones – another now-legendary talent to have successfully straddled the realms of pop and jazz – once more to Mercury. She departed the label a second time in 1967 and remained a free agent until her old friend Bob Shad entered the picture.
Shad had known Vaughan since the 1950s in his capacity as a producer and A&R man at Mercury, and knew the singer would make a good match for his Mainstream label. He paired her with arranger Ernie Wilkins (who supplied a fusion-style backing) and a top-flight roster of musicians including guitarist Joe Pass, drummer Earl Palmer, trombonist George Bohanon, percussionists Jimmy Cobb and Alan Estes, trumpeter Buddy Childress, saxophonist Jerome Richardson, pianist Willie Mays and bassist Bob Magnusson, among others, for her debut record on Mainstream. Shad produced the album, and selected the eclectic repertoire from a variety of young composers including Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, John Sebastian, Carly Simon and especially Brian Auger, represented by three songs out of ten. The album wasn’t Vaughan’s first to rendezvous with modern composers; in her second stint at Mercury, she had recorded songs by Bacharach and David, Lennon and McCartney, Tony Hatch and other bright lights. But A Time in My Life marked the most explicit marriage of pop and jazz for the singer yet, with a heavy element of R&B/soul new to the mix.
Vaughan’s commitment to the material and vocal confidence makes A Time in My Life more than a curio for fans of the singer. Her fierce performance of Gaye’s scorching, then-brand new “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” was utterly relevant, while she brought a strong gospel fervor to Lennon’s “Imagine.” Her moody, soulful vocals enhanced the intricate mesh of jazz, pop and rock on Brian Auger’s “On Thinking It Over” and a lesser-known John Sebastian song, “Magical Connection,” from his John B. Sebastian solo debut. Carly Simon’s 1971 solo debut opened with “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” a dark, haunting and intensely personal art song co-written by Simon and Jacob Brackman. Vaughan bravely tackled Simon’s song, reveling in its contradictions and juxtapositions of multiple portraits of relationships at various stages.
A more straightforward, brassy pop approach informed Michel Legrand and the Bergmans’ “Sweet Gingerbread Man,” also memorably recorded by Jack Jones. (Clearly compatible musically, Vaughan and Legrand teamed in 1973 for a collaborative album on Mainstream.) “Universal Prisoner” from onetime Motown artists The Lewis Sisters (Helen and Kay Lewis) is one of the many tracks to allow the instrumentalists room to breathe and shine. For the album’s closer, an uptempo romp through Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You,” Vaughan was both sensual and earthy. All told, the ten tracks showed the vocalist squarely in “Tomorrow City,” to quote another Brian Auger-penned title here. This particular Time in Vaughan’s life showed her eager to embrace all styles without boundaries or limitations.
With Ace’s new CD reissue, A Time in My Life can be rescued from its status as a curio or cult favorite. If it might not rank in the top echelon of Vaughan’s most memorable recordings, it’s nonetheless a completely engaging portrait of the chanteuse in transition, at the top of her game and experimenting with strong new repertoire. She continued in the vein of the album for the duration of her time at Mainstream, recording fresh songs by Gilbert O’Sullivan, The Bee Gees, Donny Hathaway, Paul Williams and Roger Nichols and others before decamping for Norman Granz’s Pablo label in 1977 and concentrating once again on “pure” jazz singing.
This edition is housed in a digipak and includes a booklet with excellent notes by Dean Rudland. Nick Robbins has done his customary fine job remastering this edition for Boplicity. A Time in My Life is available now at the links below!
- On Thinking It Over
- Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)
- Sweet Gingerbread Man
- Magical Connection
- That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be
- Tomorrow City
- Universal Prisoner
- If Not for You