Reference Entry

Sullivan, Maxine

Daphne Duval Harrison

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Sullivan, Maxine

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singer and instrumentalist, was born Marietta Williams in Homestead, Pennsylvania. The names of her parents are unknown, and it remains unclear why or when she began using the surname Sullivan. In an interview Sullivan credited her uncle, Harry Williams, a bandleader, with influencing her musical career, which she began as an occasional singer with his band, the Red Hot Peppers, in small clubs in and around Homestead during the late 1920s.Sullivan had no formal musical training and later claimed that she “never made a conscious effort to become a singer.” During her late teens and early twenties she supported herself as a waitress, singing whenever she had the chance. Pittsburgh was nearby and afforded her more exposure when her uncle introduced her to pianist Jennie Dillard. She and Dillard worked together as a duo that was popular as the “filler” between band sets. In the early thirties they performed regularly at the Benjamin Harris Literary Club, a private, after-hours club that was a favorite spot for musicians and singers in the swing bands that played in Pittsburgh. She was thus exposed to influential musicians such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Earl Hines, and Fats Waller. Gladys Mosier, the pianist with the Ina Ray Hutton all-women's band, heard Sullivan at the club in 1937 and encouraged her to go to New York to try out for the big clubs. Sullivan and Dillard, who had developed a close professional relationship, followed Mosier's advice and moved in with Dillard's brother while they pursued performing opportunities. Sullivan brought with her a letter of introduction to the Mills Music Company from Shirley Heller, a member of a Pittsburgh theatrical company; she also made a connection with pianist-arranger Claude Thornhill through Mosier. By the end of their first week in New York, she and Dillard landed a job as the intermission act at the famed Onyx Club. Thornhill and Mosier put Sullivan under contract and sought ways to bring her to the attention of a larger audience.When Sullivan began at the Onyx Club, the backup band included John Kirby on bass, Frankie Newton on trumpet, Buster Bailey on clarinet, and Pete Brown on alto saxophone. Later, trumpeter Charlie Shavers replaced Newton, and Russell Procope replaced Brown. With Billy Kyle on piano and O'Neill Spencer on drums, Kirby formed his first sextet. Sullivan worked with the ensemble for nearly two years. In 1939 Thornhill signed the Kirby group, along with Sullivan, to record “Loch Lomond,” which eventually became Sullivan's signature piece. Like most inexperienced performers, she did not know her contractual rights, and she agreed to a flat twenty-five dollar fee for the recording. Thornhill, who had adapted the public domain melody, garnered composer royalties, but Sullivan received the acclaim. Her mellow, graceful rendition demonstrated that she was a popular music vocalist of the highest order.The recording's success aroused the ire of some song traditionalists who decried the “jazzing up” of old favorites, and a Detroit radio station refused to air it. The protest earned more attention for the song and the singer, and the Columbia Broadcasting System hired her and Kirby's band for a network radio show, Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm. By this time Sullivan and Kirby were married, and their program achieved enough popularity to stay on the air for two years. Sullivan also starred in a Broadway show patterned after the program. These successes resulted in a substantial salary increase for Sullivan, who recognized that, while she was fortunate to be earning money in show business, her compensation was not equal with that of other performers. She said that she went from making “forty dollars a week at the Onyx Club to eighty and then one hundred fifty, which in the late 1930s was considered a great deal of money for anyone, … for a colored girl it was a fortune. Yet, I was making less than singers with some of the large bands who had a lot less talent than I.”Sullivan and Louis Armstrong starred on Broadway as Bottom and Tatiana, respectively, in Swingin' the Dream (1939), a variation on William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The show ran for only thirteen performances, even though it featured Benny Goodman's sextet and an Eddie Condon–led group. Sullivan had gained enough attention to get a tiny part in the 1939 film remake of St. Louis Blues, starring Dorothy Lamour and Lloyd Nolan, but she soon experienced Hollywood's lack of respect for black talent. She said, “The movie had nothing to do with W.C. Handy, and I played a waif washing clothes … with the usual bandanna on my head.” Sullivan's other Hollywood role was as another singing maid in Going Places (1938) with Louis Armstrong and Dick Powell. She returned to New York and resumed singing with Kirby and his band until their marriage dissolved in 1941. She then began to perform as a single. After touring with Benny Carter in 1941, Sullivan returned to her native state in 1942 for what she described as a brief break. She was back on the scene in New York by 1943, performing as a single with Goodman, Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra, and the Johnny Long and Henry Busse bands. With New York as her base, she performed regularly on the club circuit in Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities for the next ten years.Sullivan's marriage in the early fifties to Cliff Jackson, one of Harlem's great stride pianists, brought another change in her career. In 1956 she retired from singing to devote her energies to being a wife, mother, and PTA leader. She spent the next decade working in her daughter's school as a volunteer, serving as a school aide, and acting as secretary to the East Bronx Community Council. During that period she studied the flügelhorn and valve trombone and became reasonably accomplished on both instruments. She added an instrumental portion to her act because she felt she needed a gimmick to make her show more appealing to new and younger audiences.She and Jackson performed around the city in community and public concerts, but she did not return to show business full time until 1970, when she appeared with Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart's The World's Greatest Band. Her singing was still refined, crystalline, and flowing, with the lilting swing that she had introduced in the thirties, but the surprise was her ability on valve trombone and flügelhorn. Nevertheless, it was her singing that kept her going into the late 1970s. She recorded several albums, including It Was Great Fun (1983), usually to the accompaniment of well-polished small groups. Her repertoire stuck to the popular ballads and standards that she interpreted best, such as the Duke Ellington songs “I Didn't Know About You,” “Don't Get Around Much Anymore,” and “I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good),” and Hoagy Carmichael's “Skylark” and “Georgia On My Mind.” She finally gained wide recognition from the music industry when her album The Great Songs from the Cotton Club was nominated for a 1986 Grammy Award.In a career that spanned more than fifty years, Sullivan was an inimitable singer of jazz and popular ballads. Despite her petite size and quiet demeanor, she had a big voice and sang with great assurance. Although the public remembered her best for “Loch Lomond,” other singers and instrumentalists admired her polished swing style and silky, refined, rich voice. She was a singer's singer whose artistry won the praise and respect of several generations of musicians and jazz lovers. She died in New York City.

Reference Entry.  1328 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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