At 4 foot 11 inches tall and weighing a mere 82 pounds, her diminutive size could hardly be considered imposing. But the moment she began to sing, she brought everything to a standstill- and became the biggest talent in the room. Performing before a crowd of over 20,000 people at a memorial concert for the late George Gershwin in 1938, Maxine Sullivan’s rendition of ‘Summertime’ stopped the show and brought the audience to its feet, demanding of her no less than four encores. Backed by 115 musicians from the New York Philharmonic Symphony and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the pint-sized Songstress of Pittsburgh proved again she was a musical force to be reckoned with.
Born Marietta Williams in Homestead, Pennsylvania in May of 1911, Maxine Sullivan performed as a vocalist on records, on stage and in films for over five decades, entertaining fans from the start of her career in the ‘30s right up until her passing in 1987.
A precursor to better-known later vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, Maxine Sullivan is considered one of the most talented big band vocalists of the swing era. She is best known for her 1937 recording with Claude Thornhill’s band of a swing version of the old Scottish folk song ‘Loch Lomond’. Sullivan also recorded ‘I’m Coming, Virginia,’ ‘Annie Laurie,’ and ‘Blue Skies,’ all backed by Thornhill on piano and a 10 piece band that included future husband John Kirby. Benny Goodman vocalist Peggy Lee frequently referred to Sullivan as a key influence on her singing career.
Sullivan began her music career singing with The Red Hot Peppers, a band her uncle started in Pennsylvania. Her father, a barber by trade, played the mandolin. A widely-talented musician, Sullivan played the flugelhorn and the valve trombone, in addition to singing in her uncle’s band. In the mid-1930s she was introduced to Claude Thornhill, which led to her first recordings made with the Thornhill band in June of 1937. This early success cemented Sullivan’s style, and she began to sing similar swing arrangements of traditional folk tunes (again arranged by Thornhill) including ‘If I Had a Ribbon Bow’ and ‘I Dream of Jeanie’.
Fresh off the success of her work with Thornhill, Maxine became the featured vocalist at the Onyx Club in New York City. It was at the Onyx Club where Sullivan was introduced to bassist John Kirby, with whom she soon began both a professional and personal relationship. The two became husband and wife in 1938. In 1940 the musical couple were featured on the radio program ‘Flow Gently Sweet Rhythm’, making them the first black big band stars to have their own weekly radio series. Her early popularity also led to a cameo appearance in the film ‘Going Places’ with trumpeter Louis Armstrong and future president Ronald Reagan.
Throughout World War Two, Sullivan performed with a wide range of bands, including husband John Kirby’s sextet, definitive swing pianist Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, and Jimmie Lunceford. Sullivan performed at New York’s hottest jazz spots, including the Cotton Club and the Penthouse. In 1949, Sullivan appeared on the early television series ‘Uptown Jubilee’ (CBS), and in 1953 starred in the Broadway play ‘Take a Giant Step’. She and John Kirby divorced in 1941.
In the mid-1950’s Sullivan recorded an album which featured 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 on the session by trumpeter Charlie Shavers and clarinetist Buster Bailey.
In the late 1950’s, Sullivan took a break from show business, becoming a nurse before trading her nursing uniform in for an evening dress and resuming her musical career in 1966. Throughout the late 1960’s and into the ‘70s, Maxine performed at jazz festivals alongside her husband Cliff Jackson (whom she married in 1950), who can be heard on the recording of Sullivan’s performance at the Manassas Jazz Festival. Sullivan continued to perform and record well into the 1980’s, despite being over 70 years old. She was nominated in 1979 for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role in ‘My Old Friends’, and with three Grammy Award nominations in 1982, 1985, and 1986. In 1985 Maxine toured Japan with Scott Hamilton’s Quintet with whom she recorded an acclaimed live album. Her last live recording was at the Fujitsu-Concord Jazz festival held in Tokyo in September of 1986. Shortly before her death, Maxine appeared in the film biography ‘Maxine Sullivan: Love to Be in Love’.
Maxine Sullivan died in New York City 1987 at the age of 75 after suffering a seizure. She was posthumously inducted into the Big Band & Jazz Hall of Fame in 1998.
The music of Maxine Sullivan is regularly featured on Swing Street Radio.
Craig Roberts writes the “Hot Big Band News” column for Swing Street Radio, and on occasion claims to have been Cab Calloway’s personal lawyer.