One of my very favorite Sarah Vaughan songs is “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” (1955). She nails her role as the seductive temptress and performs a Lola that is hip and sexy with a dash of humor. It’s as if Vaughan is winking at the listener, saying: come here, this is serious business, but not really. And her voice is stunning: full, rich, and sensuous, yet agile as she effortlessly infuses the lyric with her trademark bends and turns.
Vaughan’s cover embodies everything I love about her singing. I’m not alone in my admiration. “Lola” remains one of Vaughan’s most popular tunes. I hear it at parties, in grocery stores, and on television. It has been featured in multiple commercials, most recently Sofia Vergara’s Diet Pepsi ads; remixed by the electronica group Gotan Project; and reimagined by countless fans. With the help of “Lola,” Vaughan’s voice remains in the public imagination and her legacy continues to grow.
But what is the story behind “Whatever Lola Wants”? What’s its history? The tune was composed for the 1955 musical Damn Yankees and originally performed by Gwen Verdon. Her Lola is an instrument of the Devil tasked with convincing wholesome Joe, who sold his soul to become a youthful baseball star, to forsake his former life as a loving family man. Verdon’s performance is over the top with plenty of camp, but it’s clear that she will use her sexuality to get what she wants.
During the spring and summer of 1955, as was the practice at the time, many artists covered the tune, including Vaughan’s contemporaries Dinah Shore, Carmen McRae, Billy May, and Perez Prado. But Vaughan’s cover was the one that became a bestseller—peaking at #5 on the Billboard charts. This was a big deal.
In the 1950s the music industry, and society at large, was still deeply divided along racial lines. Prejudices and negative stereotypes informed the way that much of white America imagined and interacted with black America. And these barriers, which manifested themselves institutionally, emotionally, and, yes, sonically, kept the airwaves (both radio and television), clubs, and theaters segregated, making it difficult for African-American artists to gain widespread visibility, not to mention acceptance and popularity.
Yet with hits like “Lola” and “Make Yourself Comfortable” from 1954, Sarah Vaughan was able to get white audiences to set aside their prejudices—to look beyond negative stereotypes—to not only listen to, but to embrace a black woman singing about desire and romantic love. She used the power of her voice to cross boundaries, to break the color sound barrier. Along the way, she helped change the way that white American heard and understood race and gender in the human voice. She changed the way that white America heard black women.
So, for me, Vaughan’s rendition of “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” is much more than a masterful performance of a fun song. It’s a reminder that music has the power to initiate very real social and cultural change. And that Vaughan was a part of this.