Maxine Sullivan was a jazz vocalist with a light and intimate style that sadly recorded far too few jazz songs in her career. She enjoyed success in the swing era, and then repeated that success several eras later.
Maxine Sullivan had very little formal music training. She was discovered while singing at the Benjamin Harrison Literary Club in Pittsburg by Gladys Mosier. Mosier was, in the mid 1930's, an acquaintance of fellow pianist Claude Thornhill. She soon introduced her new find to Thornhill and as his protege', Maxine Sullivan made her first records in June of 1937, accompanied by the pianist's all-star band.
The critics at Metronome magazine received Maxine's first records warmly, giving the discs good ratings and reviews. Around the same time Maxine became the vocalist at The Onyx Club in New York. It was here that she formed both a music and personal partnership with bass-man John Kirby who she soon married. Kirby had worked with Fletcher Henderson in the early 1930’s as well as Henry Red Allen. Sullivan and Kirby remained married until 1941.
It was this first session with Kirby that proved to be both a blessing and a curse for Maxine Sullivan. It produced a hit record, a swing version of a Scottish folk song called “Loch Lomond.” Unfortunately it "typed" her and she depended on similar folk style performances for many subsequent records, despite her ability to adapt to other forms of Pop and jazz songs equally well. Her cool, soft, tone and subtle and intimate style was equally swinging on records like “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Blue Skies,” “St Louis Blues,” and “Stop Your Breaking My Heart.”
In 1940 Sullivan and Kirby were featured on the radio program Flow Gently Sweet Rhythm. They were the first black jazz stars to have their own weekly radio series. Sullivan and Kirby’s last shows together were in the fall of 1941 and were recorded by two different companies, World and Associated. In the mid 1940s she was recorded with the bands of Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, and Jimmie Lunceford and can be heard singing mainly ballads with all three groups.
Aside from sessions with Ellis Larkins and Bob Haggart, her recorded output was little until 1955 and 1956. Finally recorded singing better material in the company of musicians like Dick Hyman, and old cohorts Buster Bailey, Charlie Shavers, and Russell Procope; Sullivan produced a series of sides that were her most exciting since her 1937 sessions.