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Sullivan: Petite Singer Still Packs Big Punch

March 06, 1986|LEONARD FEATHER

Here she stands, at 4 feet, 11 inches and 82 pounds: Maxine Sullivan, the undefeated sub-flyweight vocal champion, claiming new victories after entering the ring more than a half-century ago.

How many of those who will catch her show this evening at the Vine St. Bar & Grill, where she starts a three-night run, will be seeing her for the first time? This is, after all, her first Los Angeles nightclub date in more than 40 years.

How many saw her in the movies, co-starring with Louis Armstrong in the 1938 "Going Places" or singing the title song in "St. Louis Blues" in 1939?

Who around here owns the original version of her hit "Loch Lomond," recorded Aug. 6, 1937?

A sweet and modest sylph of a woman with a pure, on-target voice that matches her for size but outweighs her in emotional impact, Sullivan has had a phenomenal career. After 20 years of it she stopped of her own volition for 10 years, then returned to performing during the late 1960s.

"I've had almost another 20 years that I never anticipated," she said, "and it's getting better all the time."

Indeed it is. Long absent from records, she has had four albums out in the last year, one of which, "Great Songs From the Cotton Club," on Stash, was nominated for a Grammy. Two other new ones are due out and still another pair, recorded in the 1950s, have been scheduled for reissue.

Last year, with the saxophonist Scott Hamilton, she toured Japan for the first time (they made an LP there, "Uptown," for Concord). She has been making the jazz club, cruise and festival scene regularly--and all this without an agent. "Musicians and old friends just call me up with job offers," she says.

Sullivan's career actually began in the early 1930s in Pittsburgh (she is from Homestead, Pa.,), but her big breaks came first on records as a protege of the bandleader Claude Thornhill, and then at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, where she was teamed with bassist John Kirby (her husband from 1937-41), who led a sextet called "The Biggest Little Band in America." Their Sunday-afternoon radio show on CBS, "Flow Gently Sweet Rhythm," was an unprecedented chamber-jazz series.

One of her most delightful credits was a part in "Swingin' the Dream," a short-lived New York musical. "It was a swing version of 'Midsummer Night's Dream.' I played Titania and Louis Armstrong played Bottom. There was an incredible cast, with the Dandridge Sisters, Moms Mabley, Pearl Bailey's brother Bill, the dancer; and in boxes above either side of the stage we had the Benny Goodman Sextet with Charlie Christian, and Bud Freeman's Summa Cum Laude Band. I sang the song from that show that became a standard, 'Darn That Dream.' "

She had a straight acting role in "Taking a Giant Step" on Broadway in 1953 and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Tony award in 1979 for a musical show, "My Old Friend." In between came the long hiatus.

"I played Honolulu in late 1957, came home feeling ill, had an operation and decided to give it all up." By then she was married to the pianist Cliff Jackson. She had studied nursing, and for a while worked as a health counselor at schools.

Her return to music was virtually accidental. "I had a call to do two weeks at a club in Washington. I met a lot of old friends there who had known me at the Village Vanguard, or during my six years at the Ruban Bleu. But it was the rock era and I wasn't about to get back in the business.

"However, one thing led to another. Dick Gibson invited me to one of his jazz parties in Denver; Bobby Hackett asked me to work with him at the Riverboat in New York, and then Dick had me with his World's Greatest Jazzband, touring Europe and making records. By 1970, I realized that I was really back full time." (Jackson died in 1970.) In 1971, Dick Hyman, who had set music to some lyrics by William Shakespeare, induced her to record the enchanting "Sullivan-Shakespeare-Hyman" album.

The only thing Sullivan has not resumed is her playing career. She took up valve trombone in the '50s.

What she does continue to practice is her good work at The House That Jazz Built, a home in the Bronx that she and Jackson dedicated to providing accommodations and other necessities for musicians. She is a member of the Bronx Council on the Arts, that has provided operating grants.

Things are jumping for Sullivan. A New York club in April, then London and Bern, Switzerland, and back for her 75th birthday May 13.

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