Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Hammond B-3 organist Sarah McLawler was raised in the church with gospel music. She studied organ at an Indiana Conservatory. Influenced heavily by the music of the big bands, McLawler used to sneak into clubs in Indianapolis to hear Lucky Millinder's big band. She ended up going on the road with the bandleader, and later formed an ahead-of-its-time all-woman band, the Syn-Co-Ettes. They spent some time as a house band at Chicago's Savoy Club.
After meeting Richard Otto, a classical violinist who liked to play jazz, at a residency at a Brooklyn club, she married him and the two spent years touring and recording together. As fixtures on the New York jazz scene in the 1950s, they became friends with the likes of Milt Jackson, Errol Garner, Dinah Washington, Cab Calloway, Nat Cole, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr. and others. Washington was so taken with her playing, she once offered to be her manager.
McLawler's singles for the King and Brunswick labels, recorded in the 1950s, are now collectors' items, and they include sides like "I Can't Stop Loving You" "Love, Sweet Love," both for King, as well as "Red Light" "Tipping In" "Let's Get the Party Rocking" and "Blue Room." Her recordings with violinist Otto include "Somehow," "Yesterday" "Body & Soul" for Brunswick, and "Babe in the Woods" "Relax, Miss Frisky" "Flamingo" "Canadian Sunset" and "At the Break of Day" for Vee-Jay.
She continues to perform jazz standards, because she feels a lot of the popular jazz standards have never gotten enough recognition. Her major shows include recent Newport Jazz Festivals and the Newark Jazz Festival. She's based herself in New York City for many years, and can performs periodically at the Novotel hotel there.