Maxine Sullivan was one of the most talented and influential singers of jazz and popular music in the 20th century. Before Maxine burst to forefront of swing, early jazz and blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s belted out songs in loud boisterous voices. Maxine originated an innovative effortless graceful soft swing style with precise diction and timing that influenced generations of female jazz singers including Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. Her beautiful natural voice and delivery led to her meteoric rise to international fame in 1937. Visiting New York on a weekend ticket she landed a steady singing job at the famed Onyx club on Swing Street and taken into the recording studio by arranger Claude Thornfill. She stole the hearts of the nation with her ground breaking controversial swing version of the Scottish folk tune “Loch Lomond”. It became an immediate hit record and an enduring jazz classic.
A lovely young women standing only 4 ft 11 inches tall and weighing a mere 82 pounds Maxine became known as the “Pint Sized Songstress”. She became a regular performer on the CBS radio show “Saturday Night Swing” in 1938. Appearing in front of 20,000 people at the 1938 memorial concert broadcast for the late George Gershwin her version of “Summertime” stopped the show with audience demanding four encores. Her singing roles in the movies “Going Places” (1938) with Louis Armstrong, Dick Powell, and Ronald Reagan and “St. Louis Blues” (1939) with Dorthy Lomar brought her international recognition. Starring on the CBS Radio program “Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm” for two years she was one of the first African American women to regularly appear on national radio. A prolific recording artist her music appears on over 150 albums and continues to be released on new compilations. She released over forty albums on the RCA Victor, Concord Jazz, Okeh, Audiofile,Vocalion, Jazzology and other labels. As a nightclub singer she was a main stay at New York’s Onyx Club, The Cotton Club, Le Ruban Bleu, and the Village Vanguard. She toured with Claude Thornhill, John Kirby, Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, Barry Berrigan, Charlie Shavers, and Glen Gray. Maxine headlined tours in the U.S., Europe and Japan along with appearing at numerous international jazz festivals. She was honored with a Tony Award nomination for her role in the Broadway show “My Old Friends” in 1979 and with three Grammy Award nominations in 1982, 1985, and 1986. Her life and songs were remembered in the films “Brown Sugar” and “Maxine Sullivan: Love to Be In Love”. One of the foremost women in jazz history Maxine was elected to the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1998.
"A voice as soothing as a gust on wind on a balmy summer day..." Elizabeth C Marshall Pittsburgh Courier July 27, 1946.
"The Sullivan sound remains one of those immutable wonders in which simplicity, understatement and a lightweight sound that matches her dimensions have always been the bench marks." – Gilbert Feather Los Angles Times
“She put the 'ing’ in swing music on West 52nd street, the "Home of Swing” - Billy Rowe Pittsburgh Courier Nov 11 1937
"I wasn't drawn to any particular singer until I heard Maxine Sullivan. I like the simplicity and the economy of her work. She communicates so well that you really get the point of her songs right away." – Peggy Lee quoted in “Discovering Great Singers of Classic Pop: by Roy Hemming and David Hajdu; Newmarket Press, 1991
"Sullivan's diction was miraculously precise, her intonation-even in her seventies-was impeccable, and her time was something to be reckoned with....She was always incredibly warm, and her music was awesome in its very gentleness" - Will Friedwald, A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers
Beginnings in Homestead and Pittsburgh
Maxine Sullivan was born Marietta Williams in Homestead, Pa on May 13, 1911 into a musical family. Her father, a barber by trade, played the mandolin. Her namesake Aunt Marietta was a contralto singer. Uncle Harry Williams was one of Pittsburgh’s first pioneering jazz performers. During the early 1920s Harry Williams and his Homestead friend Earl Hines played in singer Lois Deppe’s jazz trio. Harry and Earl also recorded and toured with Deppe’s band the Serenaders. As Maxine’s father died in 1914 when she was only three her mother’s family helped raise her. She began singing as a young child. Recognizing her natural talent, her grandmother pushed her to perform at events around Homestead. Grandma entered Marietta in a singing competition at the Homestead Carnegie Library in 1918. Only six years old she sang “'I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles” wearing high-top shoes.
Maxine Sullivan credited her uncle Harry for influencing her musical career. In 1922 Harry Williams left Deppe’s Serenaders to found his own band the Red Hot Peppers. Maxine tagged along with the band as a young teen singing in clubs around the Homestead area. As the only singer in town she became well known in Homestead. Graduating from high school in 1929 she took domestic and waitress jobs earning $10 a week. She worked for eight years earning a meager salary at her day jobs while making occasional singing appearances with the Red Hot Peppers. Her uncle introduced her to pianist Jennie Dillard. She and Dillard became a popular duo that performed in between band sets at various clubs. Maxine also visited the Harlem Club and Crawford Grill Number 1 on the “Avenue” (Wylie Avenue) where she sang requests at after hours jam sessions. She became known by the nick name “Umps”.
Uncle Harry introduced Maxine to Bennie Schwarz the manager of the Benjamin Harrison Literary Club (BHL) that was located on the second floor and third floors of 966 Liberty Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh. Bennie asked Maxine and Dillard to come to his club to audition. In March of 1936 Maxine and Dillard trekked through the gooey streets of downtown Pittsburgh that had been muddied by the great St Patrick's Day flood of 1936. Impressed with their determination to get to the club Bennie gave them a one week try out. After the probationary period they were hired as the club’s entertainment. The BHL Club was a private membership organization that had a token library of 200 books on the third floor, but in reality it was a small private after hours club with a bar and eight tables that was founded in 1888. During Prohibition, which ended in 1935, the club had been a speakeasy. The Liquor Control board took away the BHL liquor license in 1938 ruling that it sold liquor to non-members. The building that housed the BHL club later became the Chez Kimberly strip club that was torn down to build the August Wilson Center. Patrons came to the BHL club after the legitimate clubs closed at 2 A.M. to drink and dine on barbecued ribs and chicken. Accompanied by Diller on piano Maxine moved from table to table taking requests for popular songs such as “the Music Goes Round and Round”. She sang them all in swing style. Maxine also developed her own swing arrangements folks of songs including setting Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” to music. Working from 11 P.M. until the wee hours of the morning she earned $14 a week plus tips. She sang at the BHL Club for a year before she was discovered.
The BHL club was a hangout for touring jazz artists who came for drinks after their performances. The waiter Obie, who liked Maxine’s singing, brought musicians into the club to hear her sing. Maxine met members of the Chick Webb Orchestra at the BHL including two of her future husbands John Kirby and Cliff Jackson. In late 1937 Gladys Mosier a pianist in Ina Ray Hutton's band heard Sullivan sing and urged her to come to New York. Mosier told Maxine that she would help her with her singing career.
Maxine and Diller saved up for six months for a trip to New York City. They purchased round trip excursion tickets and traveled on a Sunday in June of 1937 for an overnight stay on their night off from the BHL. They told no one they were going as they planned to be back in Pittsburgh in time for their Monday night show at the BHL. But, they never used their return tickets. After dropping their bags off at the Sugar Hill apartment of Diller’s brother they called Gladys Mosier. Gladys met them after her performance at the Paramount bringing along jazz arranger Claude Thornhill of CBS. Thornhill and Moiser convinced Maxine and Diller to stay in New York and signed them to a management contract. They took Maxine and Diller into the swing clubs long West 52nd Street for auditions. On Wednesday they auditioned for Carl Kress at the Onyz Club. On Friday Maxine went to work at the Onyx singing during band intermissions accompanied by Jennie Diller. She earned 40 dollars a week. Eventually she sang with the Onyx house band lead by John Kirby. The Onyz along with the Downbeat Club, Famous Door, Jimmy Ryan’s and Three Deuces were located on 52nd Street in the blocks between Fifth Avenue and Seventh Avenue that were called “Swing Street”.
Thornill took Marietta Williams under his wing. He convinced her to change her name to Maxine Sullivan as there were too many “Williams” in show business. According to Elizabeth Marshal of the Pittsburgh Courier, Thornhill told Maxine "You have a one in a million voice which will create a sensation if we can find the right song." In July of 1937 Claude wrote several swing arrangements of public domain folk songs for Maxine including “Annie Laurie” and the Scottish classic "Loch Lomand”. Maxine and Jenny performed the arrangements at the Onyz. Word spread quickly about Maxine and she became a popular attraction on Swing Street especially among the college set. On August 6, 1937 Thornhill took Maxine to a studio to make her first recordings. Sullivan recorded "I'm Coming, Virginia," "Annie Laurie," "Blue Skies," and “Loch Lomond” backed by Claude Thorhnill on piano and a 10 piece band that included John Kirby. The 78 single of Loch Lomond / I’m Coming, Virginia released on Vocalion Records in August of 1937 was credited to “Maxine Sullivan and Her Orchestra”. It was an immediate hit and was featured on the national radio show “Your Hit Parade”. Maxine became a regular featured vocalist on CBS radio’s national broadcast show “Saturday Night Swing” Loch Lomand had sold 60,000 copies by Jan of 1938 and continued to be aired across during 1938. New Yorker magazine ran a story on Maxine on January 8, 1938 titled the “Loch Lomond” Lassie. Jumping on the band wagon Benny Goodman recorded a copy cat version of “Loch Lomond” with singer Martha Tilton in January of 1938.
As airplay of the swing version of Loch Lomond spread to radio stations around the country, it stirred controversy. On March 12, 1938 Maxine sang Loch Lomond on the CBS radio show “Saturday Night Swing”. The station manager at WJR in Detroit cut off Maxine’s song in mid broadcast calling it “blasphemous”. Opposed to the irreverent “swinging” of classic ballads WJR and its sister station in Cleveland issued a press release announcing the banning the airplay of two of Maxine Sullivan’s recordings. The ban brought Maxine Sullivan artistic support and notoriety. The N.Y. Herald published an editorial two days latter declaring Maxine Sullivan an artist and WJR station manager “Leo Fitzpatrick a musical stick in the mud.” In a New York Times article on March 11, 1938 article NBC Radio, CBS Radio, WNEW, and WOR announced that they would play swing renditions of old ballads as they had heard no protests from listeners. The public wanted to hear the swing music as evidence by the 50,000 people who had purchased the Maxine Sullivan’s “Loch Lomand” single. A representative of one station said “There is no Radio law against Swing Music”. Life Magazine ran a full page story on Maxine Sullivan on March 21, 1938 titled “Swinging Folk Songs Raises Storm”. Maxine became the famous heroine of the swing era. She was a pioneer in redoing classic folk songs into modern swing numbers.
Maxine made little from the Loch Lomand recording as she was paid only $25 for the recording session and received no royalties. Claude Thornhill as published profited from the royalties of Maxine’s recordings. Benny Goodman profited on the royalties from the sheet music. But with her stardom her salary at the Onyx Club jumped from forty dollars to 150 dollars a week at the height of the Depression. She was in demand. According to the Pittsburgh Courier Maxine signed a contract with RCA Victor in February of 1948 and made releases. She release several more Claude Hill arrangements of of traditional folk tunes "Darling Nellie Gray", "I Dream of Jeanie", "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes", and "If I Had a Rainbow".
Show Stopping Concert Performance
Maxine made headlines again on July 23, 1938. The Pittsburgh Courier exclaimed "Sullivan Stops Gershwin's Memorial". Maxine was the only African American on a large bill of musicians invited to perform at a memorial concert for George Gershwin on the first anniversary of his death. Backed by 115 musicians from the New York Philharmonic Symphony and the Paul Whitman Orchestra, Maxine sang Gerwshwin’s “Summertime” to an audience of 20,000 at Manhattan’s Lewisohn Stadium and a live radio broadcast audience. Maxine stopped the show receiving standing five minute ovation. They audience brought her out for four impromptu encores including the song "Nice Work If You Can Get It." The Pittsburgh Courier wrote "Giving voice to the George Geswhins's immortal number "Summertime" she eclipsed all of those who have done like-wise in the past…Maxine Sullivan, the singer with a soul." Time Magazine on July 25, 1938 wrote “Smash hit of the evening was poised, satin-voiced Negro Maxine Sullivan, singing Nice Work and Summertime (from Porgy and Bess) from memory.” Her performance of Nice Work from the radio broadcast recording is featured on the CD “Paul Whitman Conducts George Gershwin” release on RCA Victor, BMG Classics in 1999.
Hollywood and Broadway Come Calling
Sullivan made her first trip to Hollywood in August of 1938. She booked a 4 week gig at Phil Selssnick’s club and was heard twice a week on CBS Radio for her first national broadcasts. After turning down several movie offers including one from MGM she appeared in the 1938 film "Going Places" with Louis Armstrong and a young Ronald Reagan. Playing the part of Ida she sang one of her signature songs "Jeepers Creepers" in the movie. But Maxin was upset with the stereotyped racist role she was given. In a interview with music historian Leonard Feather she said “I played a waif washing clothes … with the usual bandanna on my head.” Maxine made her second movie appearance in the 1939 film “St. Louis Blues” that starred Lloyd Nolan and Dorothy Lamour. Maxine sang the title song “St. Louis Blues” and three other tunes in the film.
Maxine returned to New York to appear on Broadway with Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman in the musical “Swinging the Dream”. It was a jazz adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream set in New Orleans. Sullivan played Titania and Louis Armstrong played Bottom. The cast included the Dandridge Sisters, Moms Mabley, Pearl Bailey's brother Bill. The Benny Goodman sextet with Charlie Christian and Bud Freeman's Summa Cum Laude Band played from the boxes above each side of the stage. The show opened on Nov. 29, 1939 but closed after thirteen performances when critics panned it. Maxine’s recording of the song 'Darn That Dream” from the show became a hit record.
Maxine’s National Radio Show on CBS
Maxine married band leader John Kirby in 1938 and became the lead singer of his band. They performed in the clubs in New York and played dancehalls around the country. She appeared with John Kirby’s band back in Pittsburgh at the Savoy Ballroom. In 1940 Maxine co-hosted with John Kirby the live nation-wide CBS radio program called “Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm”. It was the only coast-to-coast radio show at that time that featured African-American MCs. Kirby's sextet played instrumental arrangements of classical tunes. Sullivan sang pop songs and swing versions of folk songs. The show was broadcast every Sunday afternoon for two years.
Recordings and performances - 1940s and 1950s
Maxine sang and recorded with John Kirby and his band until they divorced in 1941. She then began to perform as a single appearing with several big bands. She toured with Benny Carter in 1941. After a break in 1942 she went on the road again in 1943 working with Benny Goodman, Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra, Johnny Long, and Henry Busse. For the next ten years she performed on the club circuit in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities. In 1944 Maxine took charge of her career breaking with her agents and managers to become a free-lance artist. She managed and booked herself. Throughout the late 1940’s she worked long running engagements in New York City. She made good money appearing at the Le Ruban Bleu for six years and then four years at the Village Vanguard. Maxine made her first appearances in the U.K in 1948 touring with Johnny Long and returned in 1954 touring with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. She returned to Europe dozens of times including a series of annual concerts in Stockholm. She appeared in the movie short “Some of These Days” in 1942 and made her first television appearance in 1949 on the Sugar Hill Times show.
During the 1940's Maxine moved away from her folk song repertoire to record jazz and pop standards including ''I've Got the World on a String,'' ''Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams'' and ''I Got a Right to Sing the Blues.'' She recorded with several bands during the 1940s including Bobby Hacket from 1939 to 1940, Benny Carter from 1940 to 1949, Dextor Gordon from 1944 to 1946 Teddy Wilson from 1944 – 1947, and with Jimmy Lunceford on several radio broadcasts. Her recordings with those bands and from broadcast performances from this period have been re-released on several compilation CDs. One of these the compilations is “The Le Ruban Bleu Years: The Complete Recordings 1944-1949”. From 1950 through 1954 Maxine only record two songs with Ellis Larkins and Bob Haggart. See returned in 1955 and 1956 recording on albums with Earl "Fatha" Hines, Dick Hyman, Buster Bailey, Charlie Shavers, and Russell Procope.
Retirement and Community Activism
In 1945 Maxime purchased a home on 818 Ritter Street in the Bronx and settled there with her two children. Stride pianist Cliff Jackson joined the family when Maxine married him in 1950. Weary, of the road, bored with singing “Loch Lomond” four times a day for 20 years, and a facing a dwindling jazz nightclub scene, Maxine retired in 1957. Having saved money she wanted to quit while she was still ahead. After one last date in Hawaii, Maxine stopped performing to stay home to raise her 12 year old daughter Paula and become a community activist. She volunteered at her daughter’s junior high school working as a teacher's aide. Using her birth name Marrieta Williams she served as president of the PTA of Bronx P.S.136. Continuing in the educational field she served as a member of the New York Local School Board Districts 17 and 18. Her community involvement continued with her position as secretary of the East Bronx Community Council. She became a professional nurse in 1953 and worked as a school health counselor. Continuing her interest in music she learned to play to play the valve trombone and the flugelhorn. Her home at 818 Ritter Place became the center for neighborhood block parties and the headquarters of her community organizing efforts. She formed the Good Words Club holding classes at her home where she taught children vocabulary words and had them read poetry aloud in rhythm. Maxine’s home was always filled with musicians who came to rehearse and jam with her husband Cliff. Her community life and family life with her daughter Paula and husband Cliff Jackson were happy and fulfilling. With her daughter’s graduation from school and her husband Cliff Jackson’s death in 1970 she was ready to start a new chapter in her life.
Return to Stardom
Maxine was gradually coaxed out of retirement in 1966. She appeared at the first annual Manassas Jazz Festival in 1966 backed by clarinetist Tom Gwaltney and pianist Marian McPartland. The live recording of the concert was released on the Jazzology label. Maxine was invited to be the inaugural performer for the grand opening of the Blues Alley in Washington D.C, with a two week engagement. In 1968 Bobby Hackett put her to work with his World's Greatest Jazz Band with an appearance at the Riverboat jazz club in New York and eight-week engagement at the Downbeat club. In 1969 she made two recordings: “Live from Manass” with the World's Greatest Jazz Band on Jazzology and the "Music of Hoagy Carmichael" with Bob Wilber's released on Audophile Records released. She appeared on the David Frost TV show in 1970.
The House That Jazz Built
To honor her late husband Maxine founded a non-profit Bronx community center named called “The House That Jazz Built” in 1975. She donated her historic Ritter Place house and remolded it to provide space to local arts groups to hold workshops and concerts. The center was dedicated to teach jazz to the children of the Bronx through instruction, performance, and research. The grand opening was held on July 18, 1975 with a block party parade and a performance by the World's Greatest Jazz Band. Before Maxine purchased the Ritter Place house in 1945 it had been the home of several jazz musicians including singer Ethel Waters. Ms. Sullivan found a collection of Ethel Waters when she moved in and left behind her own collection of her own documents and memorability. Maxines daughter donated the documents and recordings to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at Fordham University and the the Carnegie Library of Homestead.
Honored in Films and Tony and Grammy Nominations
Sullivan returned to Broadway at age 68 appearing in the musical “My Old Friends”. The show began its run off Broadway at the Orpheum in November of 1878 and moved to the 22 Steps Theater on Broadway in 1979. In its review the New York acclaimed “Maxine Sullivan sings the night’s show stopper”. Her performance in the role of Mrs. Cooper won her a 1979 Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. The show was revived in 1985 at the American Jewish Theater with Maxine and Imogene Coca. Richard F. Shepard of the New York Times wrote on May 9, 1985, “What could be better than a performance by the feisty Maxine Sullivan…Miss Sullivan dances up a storm and stops the show with ''A Little Starch Left. She and Miss Coca have a fine duet, ''Before My Time.''
Maxine continued to record in the 1970s and 1980s appearing on 26 albums including her own releases and on records by Jack Teagarden, Beaver Harris, Tommy Gwaltney, and the World's Greatest Jazz Band. She was nominated three times for Grammy Awards in the Best Jazz Vocal Performance –Female category. Nominated were her albums “Maxine Sullivan with the Ike Isaacs Quartet” released on Audiophile Records (1982), “The Great Songs from the Cotton Club” on Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (1985), and “Uptown” released on Concord Jazz (1986)
Returning to Pittsburgh on March 14, 1984 to perform at Walt Harper’s Club Maxine was honored by the City of Pittsburgh. Mayor Richard Caliguiri proclaimed the day "Maxine Sullivan Day". The Pennsylvania House of Representatives honored her with a proclamation. State Representative Mike Dawida of Homestead read the proclamation to Maxine assuring her officially that "the state of Pennsylvania hasn't forgotten you."
Maxine was honored in the 1986 PBS documentary series “Brown Sugar” that honored the contributions pioneering African American female entertainer. Hosted by Billy Dee Williams it featured interviews and films clips about the careers of Billy Holiday, Lena Horne, Eartha Kit, Dorthy Dandrige, Aretha Frankin, Martha Reeve, and Maxine Sullivan. She was as memorialized in the 1991 film “Maxine Sullivan: Love to Be In Love” that documented her place in jazz history with film clips and testimonials from Ella Fitzgerald and Marian McPartland..
Becoming an in demand jazz artist Maxine was invited to appear at jazz festivals in France, Holland, Ireland, Wales. Denmark, and Japan In 1985 Maxine toured Japan with Scott Hamilton's Quintet recording an acclaimed live album. Her list live recording was at the Fujitsu-Concord Jazz festival held in Tokyo in September 1986.
The Last Trip Home
Maxine Sullivan made her last appearances in 1987 with a show in Los Angeles February and March 22 performance at the Westport Arts Center in Connecticut. Later in 1987 she planned to perform on a jazz cruise and at London Charity concert. She was to the guest of honor in June of 1987 at the Mellon Jazz Festival back in her hometown of Pittsburgh. But in April of 1987 she suffered a seizure and went into a coma. She died at age 75 on April 17, 1987 in a New York City hospital. She did not make it home to be honored but she will always be remembered in Pittsburgh and Homestead for the magical music she left behind for generations to enjoy.
Special to The Philadelphia Inquirer - Francis Davis April 13, 1987
“To The End, She Transcended Jazz And Knew What She Was Singing”
“Maxine Sullivan, who died of lung cancer Tuesday in New York at age 75, will be memorialized as one of jazz's greatest singers - which, indeed, she was, even if she never became a household name as did Billie, Ella or Sarah. But to call Sullivan a jazz singer perhaps draws too fine a distinction. She was, simply, a great American singer, one whose sensitive interpretations of timeless songs from the '20s, '30s and '40s are a reminder of an era when jazz and pop were kissing cousins. Merely singing a song straight, without scatting or indulging in unnecessary embellishments, she demonstrated the jazz lilt inherent in the tunes of such master songwriters as Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer and Arthur Schwartz.”
The Magic of Maxine Sullivan
Maxine Sullivan Youtube Playlist
Hear the great music of Maxine
Uncle Harry Williams on the far right with Lois Deppe
Benjamin Harrison Literary Club on Liberty Ave
Swing Street and the Onyx
Claude Thornhill -Maxine's Producer
Life Magazine 1938
Gershwin Memorial Lewisholn Stadium 1938
Star of Swing Street
Swinging the Dream with Louis Armstrong on Broadway