Maxine Sullivan (born Marietta Williams, May 13, 1911 – April 7, 1987) was an American jazz vocalist and performer.
As a vocalist, Maxine Sullivan was active for half a century, from the mid-1930s to just before her death in 1987. She is best known for her 1937 recording of a swing version of the Scottish folk song "Loch Lomond". Throughout her career, Sullivan also appeared as a performer on film as well as on stage. A precursor to better-known later vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan, Maxine Sullivan is considered one of the best jazz vocalists of the 1930s.
Maxine Sullivan was born in Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1911. Sullivan began her music career singing in her uncle's band, The Red Hot Peppers, in her native Pennsylvania, in which she occasionally played the flugelhorn and the valve trombone, in addition to singing. In the mid-1930s she was discovered by Gladys Mosier (then working in Ina Rae Hutton's big band). Mosier introduced her to Claude Thornhill, which led to her first recordings made in June of 1937. Shorty thereafter, Sullivan became a featured vocalist at the Onyx Club in New York. During this period, she began forming a professional and close personal relationship with bassist John Kirby, to whom she was married from 1938 to 1941.
Early sessions with Kirby in 1937 yielded a hit recording of a swing version of the Scottish folk song "Loch Lomond" featuring Sullivan on vocals. This early success "branded" Sullivan's style, leading her to sing similar swing arrangements of traditional folk tunes mostly arranged by pianist Claude Thornhill, such as "Darling Nellie Gray", "I Dream of Jeanie", "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes", and "If I Had a Ribbon Bow". Her early popularity also led to a brief appearance in the movie Going Places opposite Louis Armstrong. In 1940, Sullivan and Kirby were featured on the radio program Flow Gently Sweet Rhythm, making them the first black jazz stars to have their own weekly radio series. From 1940-1942, Sullivan often performed with her husband Kirby's sextet. During the 1940s Sullivan then performed with a wide range of bands, including those of Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, and Jimmie Lunceford. Sullivan also 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 1956, Sullivan shifted away from her earlier style and recorded the album A Tribute to Andy Razaf. Originally on the Period record label, A Tribute to Andy Razaf featured Sullivan's interpretations of a dozen tunes featuring the lyrics of the poet and lyricist Andy Razaf. 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 that was reminiscent of John Kirby's group of 15 years prior, including trumpeter Charlie Shavers and clarinetist Buster Bailey. In 1953 Sullivan starred in the play, Take a Giant Step.
From 1958 to 1966, Sullivan began working as a nurse and raising her children, which largely consumed most of her time. Her music career did not reassert itself until 1966, when she began performing in jazz festivals alongside her new husband, Cliff Jackson, who can be heard on the 1966 live recording of Sullivan's performance at the Manassas Jazz Festival.
Sullivan continued to perform throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and produced an output of recordings during the 1980s despite being over 70 years old. She was nominated for the 1979 Tony Award for Featured Actress in a Musical for her role in My Old Friends. She participated in a documentary film portrait, Maxine Sullivan: Love to Be in Love, shortly before her death.
Maxine Sullivan died in 1987 in New York. She was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1998.
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