Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Sullivan, Maxine (Marietta Williams)

Known for her swing versions of Scottish folk tunes, singer Maxine Sullivan's hits did not always do justice to her intimate style, which made her a star with radio and cabaret audiences in the forties. After retiring from music for nearly a decade, she won the hearts of audiences again as a festival favorite in the seventies and eighties.

Sullivan was born as Marietta Williams in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a factory town outside of Pittsburgh, on May 13, 1911. She sang for tips at a coyly-named speakeasy in Pittsburgh, the Benjamin Harrison Literary Club, where pianist Gladys Mosier happened to hear her. Mosier encouraged her to move to New York, where she arranged a meeting with pianist and bandleader Claude Thornhill in 1936.

In New York, Sullivan found work as an intermission singer at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, and on August 6, 1937, Thornhill took his "discovery" into the studio to record with his septet. Like other Depression-era bandleaders, Thornhill chose songs in the public domain, which he could record royalty-free. These included the traditional Scottish strains "Annie Laurie" and "Loch Lomond." The then-unknown singer was paid twenty-five dollars for her work.

“Loch Lomond” became a hit, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for Sullivan’s career. While it is hard to believe now, some radio stations refused to play the record, fearing audiences would be scandalized that a classic folk song had been reworked in swing. But the controversy sold records. And while her clear diction and tone worked well with this vintage material, Sullivan found herself typed as a novelty singer, and she followed up this hit with similar material, such as “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.”

Soon, Sullivan was a star. She made the cover of Life magazine, and was featured as a vocalist on the CBS radio network's Saturday Night Swing Club show. In 1938, she moved to Hollywood and appeared in two films, Going Places, with Louis Armstrong and Ronald Reagan, and St. Louis Blues in 1939. Also in 1939, Sullivan, along with her then-husband, bass player John Kirby, became the first African-Americans to host a national radio show for CBS, called “Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm. “

In 1941, she returned to New York to appear in a Broadway show, Swingin’ the Dream, a jazz reworking of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, along with Louis Armstrong, who played Bottom, and Benny Goodman. The cast also included the Dandridge Sisters and Moms Mabley. In the mid-1940s Sullivan recorded and performed with top bands led by Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Jimmie Lunceford, and Glen Miller.

At popular New York clubs in the forties like Le Ruban Bleu, where she held court for six years, and at the Village Vanguard, where she performed for four, she developed a large following singing pop standards such as “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “Skylark,” along with show tunes by Gershwin, Porter, and Noel Coward.

Sullivan remained a popular performer through the 1950s on the club and concert scene, and recorded albums such as her 1953 tribute to songwriter Andy Razaf, which included her take on "Massachussetts." In 1958 she was one of two singers, with Jimmy Rushing, and one of three women, with Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland, who appear in the Art Kane's historic cover photo of 45 jazz musicians for Esquire magazine, which became the subject of Jean Bach's 1995 documentary film “A Great Day in Harlem.”

As the 1950s drew to a close, Sullivan took a break from performing to spend more time with her daughter, then a young teenager. At that time she was married to pianist Cliff Jackson. She studied nursing, worked as a nurse at a local school, and was an active presence in her Bronx neighborhood, where she founded a community center called “The House That Jazz Built.” She also learned to play the flugelhorn and the valve trombone, which she incorporated into her performances when she eventually made her comeback.

In 1965, when bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Tommy Gwaltney invited her to perform at a club he was opening in Washington, D.C., called Blues Alley, she hesitated at first but then, in 1967, as she says in Arnold Shaw’s oral history, 52nd Street: The Street of Jazz: “I decided to get myself together. I picked up my music case and the handles fell off. I hadn’t touched the music in that long. But I opened and was I surprised! A lot of the old-timers who knew me showed up—I don’t know from where. The reviews were good. Maybe there’s a little starch left in the old girl.”

From then on Sullivan resumed an active and varied career performing in clubs and festivals throughout the world and appeared in the Broadway musical, My Old Friends, for which she was nominated for a Tony in 1979. Her last recorded performance was at The Fujitsu-Concord Jazz festival held in Tokyo in September of 1986. She died the following year, a month short of her 76th birthday, in New York City.

Select Discography

It’s Wonderful, 1937 (Rhapsody; available as UK import)

The Biggest Little Band in the Land, 1940 (Circle; reissued 1993)

Loch Lomond: Greatest Hits, 1937-1942 (ASV Living Era, 1998)

Ruban Bleu Years: Complete Recordings 1944-1949 (Baldwin Street Music, 1998)

Uptown, 1985 (Concord)

Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Burton Lane, 1985 (available as an import from Harbinger, reissued 2001)

Maxine Sullivan: 1938-1941 (issued 1998)

The 1950s: Swinging Miss Loch Lomond 1952-1959 (Baldwin Street Music, 2004)

Swingin’ Sweet, with the Scott Hamilton Quintet, 1986 (Concord)

Contributor: Sue Russell