Maxine Sullivan

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  • Biography
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  • The Great Songs

“Gently swinging” are the words most associated with descriptions of Maxine Sullivan’s jazz vocals. Like Peggy Lee, a singer influenced by Sullivan, she had the power to belt a swinging song but she preferred understatement, saving her power for when it was needed most.

She recorded more than ever, received Grammy Award nominations, and made annual trips to fans in Japan and Sweden. 

Her first splash on the music scene came when she joined Claude Thornhill’s band. Among the repertoire they performed were cover versions of old English ballads in a swinging setting. The most popular of these was Sullivan’s version of “Loch Lomond.” But that wasn’t the only unexpected genre explored by the Thornhill organization. The band and Sullivan covered Russian folk songs, pseudo-Yiddish ditties, Shakespearean sonnets, and other musical oddities. “Loch Lomond” became the biggest hit of her career.

She and her husband John Kirby made some excellent recordings with his classical-influenced chamber jazz ensemble. In 1940, they became the first black jazz stars to have a regular radio program. Sullivan made two notable films in Hollywood, St. Louis Blues and Going Places. The latter film also featured Louis Armstrong and he and Sullivan appeared in the last show at the Cotton Club in New York. Sullivan went on to appear on Broadway in Swinging the Dream, a jazzy retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her second big hit, “Darn That Dream,” is from Swinging the Dream. She also appeared in the musical revue, My Old Friends, for which she received a Tony Award nomination.

When her career slowed down, Sullivan devoted herself to raising her children, pursue a nursing career, and do community work. When she made her comeback in 1967, she was more mature and connecting more with the lyrics. She grew bolder in her choices, essaying increasingly emotional songs. In fact, she did her best work in the last two decades of her life. She recorded more than ever, received Grammy Award nominations, and made annual trips to fans in Japan and Sweden. She also devoted a good deal of time to The House That Jazz Built in the South Bronx, where she supported programs encouraging young talent and introducing children to the world of jazz.

The best of Sullivan’s later recordings are Great Songs from the Cotton Club by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, The Lady’s in Love with You an album devoted to the songs of Burton Lane, and Together: Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Jule Styne. (KB)

Heavy thinking and remembering

Having made only $50 from the successful “Memphis Blues,” Handy looked around for a suitable subject for another blues song. He remembered a time a few years earlier, when he was “unshaven, wanting even a decent meal, and standing before the lighted saloon in St. Louis, without a shirt under my frayed coat.” He also recalled a “woman whose pain seemed even greater. She had tried to take the edge off her grief by heavy drinking, but it hadn’t worked. Stumbling along the poorly lighted street, she muttered as she walked, ‘My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.’ By the time I had finished all this heavy thinking and remembering, I figured it was time to get something down on paper, so I wrote, ‘I hate to see de evenin’ sun go down.’ If you ever had to sleep on the cobbles down by the river in St. Louis, you’ll understand the complaint.”St. Louis Blues

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