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Interview: Carol Sloane (Part 3)

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The early 1960s was a bleak period for new jazz singers like Carol Sloane. Between 1960 and the arrival of the Beatles in 1964, pop music surged in popularity. Weary of Tin Pan Alley standards, young adult record-buyers favored music that was simple and upbeat. And new. To fill 12-inch LPs, record company A&R executives reached for the latest Broadway musicals and songs written by a new generation of show composers. [Photo of Carol and Coleman Hawkins at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1962, courtesy of Carol Sloane]

Carol's record deal with Columbia during this period produced two LPs, one in 1961 and another in 1962. But by 1963, a new female pop singer had become an overnight sensation, commanding an ever-growing percentage of Columbia's promotional dollars and efforts. As a result, virtually all female jazz singers toiling in Barbra Streisand's [pictured] rapidly expanding shadow faced an increasingly difficult battle reaching and resonating with the mass market.

In Part 3 of my interview with Carol, the legendary singer talks about recording her first two albums for Columbia, meeting the teenage Barbra Streisand at the Village Vanguard, why work for Columbia slowed suddenly, and Carol's early 1960s performances with Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster:

JazzWax: Have you listened to Out of the Blue lately, your first album for Columbia?
Carol Sloane: I hear it every now and again. I think the album is really truly lovely. I was blessed. Bob Bonis, who had become better than a friend and helped me with my career, introduced me to people like [arranger] Bill Finegan. Bill at first was just a good old friend of Bob's, someone who we went to dinner with. This was before I realized who he was and that I was in the presence of musical genius.

JW: Were you surprised when Finegan agreed to arrange your first album?
CS: I couldn't believe it. I was startled, and the thought almost frightened me to death.

JW: Why?
CS: I thought to myself, “Who am I to get Bill Finegan for my album?" Then when I arrived at the studio I was introduced to the band on the date, which really made me nervous. There was Nick Travis and Clark Terry on trumpets on different days, Bob Brookmeyer on trombone, guitarist Barry Galbraith and Jim Hall [pictured] were there separately, Gorge Duvivier and Art Davis on bass, and others. I couldn't believe it.

JW: Your voice on the album has been compared with Sarah Vaughan's. Did you listen to her often?
CS: Oh yes. She was playing all the time back then on the radio--and not just on jazz programs. Regular deejays who were playing more commercial music played Sarah--and Ella. As a result, Sarah was on every station in the country. Carmen [McRae] not as much. Carmen had a little more edge in her voice, and she didn't get the same kind of airplay that the others did. But Carmen was a stalwart on the jazz stations.

JW: What did you think when you were compared to Sarah?
CS: I don't think I came anywhere near her. Sarah had such an enormous instrument. She was blessed with a very wide range. She was a real jazz musician. Even more so than Ella. She really did improvise every time she sang. Years later Jimmy Rowles [pictured], the pianist, told me that if you heard Sarah sing a really far out version of a song, it was probably the fourth or fifth take. He said that's when she really began to dissect the material and explore it and put it together again.

JW: Do you remember recording Out of the Blue?
CS: Sure. Bill [Finegan, pictured] walked in kind of late. In fact he had copyists in the corner copying charts. The ink wasn't dry on the parts they handed out to the musicians. That was his method. He was meticulous but not great with deadlines. He wanted things to be perfect for me and the orchestra. I remember he put an 8-ounce tumbler filled to the rim with straight bourbon on top of the conductor's stand. I said to myself, “Whew, OK, I'm not the only one who's nervous here." [laughs]

JW: But you already knew Bill and he knew you.
CS: Yes but those occasions were small intimate sessions. On that 1959 demo, Larry [Elgart] had just wanted to get some kind of idea of my range. Larry said to me, “We'll just do some songs. If the range is too high, we'll take it down." So there was no pressure.

JW: How was your range?
CS: Back then I recorded in a higher key than I do now. Just the other day I was listening to a recording of me singing What's New? The key I chose was so high. When I heard it, I said to myself, “My god, that is such a hard song to sing in that key. I could never sing that song that way anymore." But here's the fun part: That key is the one I had in my key book. Singers keep a key book because they can't remember off the top of their heads which keys work best for different songs. So last March I'm in Florida.

JW: Why?
CS: I was there to perform a series of four or five concerts. Arbors Records and Matt Domber had set them up. Dick Hyman was on piano. At our rehearsal, we were going to do What's New? So I looked in my key book and told Dick what I had written down. But I immediately corrected myself, saying, “Oh, no wait, my god that's way the hell too high." So we took it down. Fine. We go through it in rehearsal and everything's great. But at the performance that night, Dick starts by playing the introduction in the key that I gave him at rehearsal, the one I can no longer do [laughs].

JW: How did you handle that?
CS: I thought to myself, “I could stop the show and tell Dick, 'Remember, we changed that.' “ But that would have been absurd. And I didn't want to embarrass him. So I went ahead and tried to sing in the much higher key. I wound up laughing. The guys in the band behind me were laughing. Goodness, I had to drop an octave just to get to the higher one.

JW: Your first studio album, Out of the Blue, sounded great.
CS: Part of the album's fine sound was the work of the engineer who Bill [Finegan] got for the date. Bill insisted on this guy. I don't know if he's mentioned on the album cover or not. This engineer had recorded all of the Juilliard Quartet recordings and had always refused to do pop or jazz sessions. He felt it was beneath him. But when he heard me sing and looked at the song selections, he agreed to do it. Getting him was a big coup for Bill.

JW: In the summer of 1962, you recorded your second album for Columbia, Live at 30th Street.
CS: In New York, 30th Street was the location of Columbia's main recording studio. At my insistence, Mike Berniker of Columbia invited a couple of hundred people to add a live feel to the session. Peter Bogdanovich, who wrote the album's liner notes, was there. He was a freelance journalist at the time. My then-boyfriend was there, too. I remember they set up a table of food but no liquor. It was like a nice little party.

JW: Why did you want a live atmosphere?
CS: To relax me. I had had such a difficult time with the first album. I was so uncomfortable with all of those jazz greats in the band. As you're singing on a date like that, you're constantly worried that your performance is being judged by the greatest musicians around. If you have to do a retake, you worry about what they think of you or that you're taking up their time. It's awful, and that kind of stuff hangs over you in a situation like that when you're young. For Live at 30th Street, we just used a quartet featuring Bill Rubenstein on piano, Bucky Pizzarelli [[pictured] on guitar, George Duvivier on bass and Sol Gubin on drums.

JW: Then in 1965, you recorded just four more tracks for Columbia.
CS: Those were singles. They thought I should go in a more commercial direction. They hired someone who had arranged for Jerry Vale and added four or five backup singers to sing the ooo's and ahhh's at different points. Those singles are a hoot. It wasn't the direction in which I wanted to go, but I had no choice. The first two albums didn't sell that well.

JW: Why did the support at Columbia drop off?
CS: Goddard Lieberson, the president of Columbia Records, had produced the cast album for I Can Get It for You Wholesale in 1962. Barbra Streisand was in the show. Goddard signed her almost immediately after the show closed, and her first solo record, The Barbara Streisand Album, came out in 1963. Much of Columbia's energy and efforts shifted to promoting Barbra--and rightly so.

JW: Did you ever meet Streisand?
CS: Several times. The first time I was singing at the Village Vanguard in 1961. One of the waiters came up to me to tell me that there was a young girl in the back who looked kind or weird. He said she doesn't have a purse and she's wearing a T-shirt and her hair is long and stringy. The waiter asked if I wanted to see this girl or should he tell her I'm not available. I went to the back of the club and there was this ordinary looking girl. She said to me, “How do you do that?" “Do what? You mean singing," I said. “Yeah, how do you sing like that?" She said she was just starting out, but she may have been auditioning for the part in Wholesale. [Photo of Barbra Streisand in 1962 by George Silk for Life]

JW: What happened?
CS: She introduced herself, and we chatted about singing for a while, and I wished her well. The next thing I knew, Columbia signed her. Many months later, I was invited to a cocktail party where Barbra was the guest of honor. She arrived and was completely made over. She really looked great. We sat down in a corner and started yapping like two old friends. She eventually waved goodbye, and I didn't see her again until years later, when I was getting my hair done at Revlon in New York.

JW: What happened?
CS: She came in, and my hairdresser said she was making a big fuss. He urged me to go over to see her, but I didn't want to invade her space, especially if she was upset about something. So I sent over a note. A minute later the note came back with a note from her on the flip side asking me to come over.

JW: How was she?
CW: When I went over, Barbra was sitting in a chair with foil in her hair and both arms extended while her nails were being done and someone else was giving her a pedicure. She was absolutely charming and adorable.

JW: So Streisand's meteoric rise really knocked the wind out of female jazz singers' sails at this time.
CS: I'm sure. When I started a year or so earlier, Columbia had just begun a “new stars" series. The original cover of Out of the Blue had a star on it, as part of that program. Columbia's guys out in the field would go from radio station to radio station pushing new albums. I went on a radio tour for my first album. I was met at airports and wined and dined. It was a big deal. But after signing Barbra, Columbia decided they were really going to lay hard on stations for her. This meant there was less energy and enthusiasm left for jazz singers. Which, of course, made complete sense given Barbra's enormous talent.

JW: In 1962, George Wein invited you to sing at the Newport Jazz Festival, which was revived after 1961.
CS: Yes, I was singing there with Bill Rubenstein on piano. I had just finished the first chorus of a ballad, Willow Weep for Me, when I stepped back to let the piano player have at it. That's when I heard this tenor saxophone playing.

JW: You weren't working with a tenor in your group?
CS: No, just a trio. So I turn around and there's Coleman Hawkins. He wasn't supposed to be there but he just appeared on stage playing. I don't' know why or how. I didn't see him afterward and I have no idea why he decided to come out when he did. Obviously, no one would have told him what to do. I think he was just backstage with his horn and wanted to play or he liked the song I was singing.

JW: Did Hawkins ever tell you why he came out?
CS: No. I saw him many years later, when I sang at the Village Vanguard during a New Year's Eve gig. Coleman Hawkins was there and so were Phil Woods, Bobby Brookmeyer and Thelonious Monk. I was singing there with a trio. Hawk was very sweet to me. He said he remembered coming out on stage to play.

JW: A similar incident happened in December of 1963, didn't it?
CS: [Laughs]. Yes, I was working this gig at a little club called Kings and Queens in Pawtucket, RI. I was asked by the manager to sing for the weekend. The club was gong to be packed with chums from my school days. Mike Renzi was going to play piano for me along with other guys who were gigging around Providence at the time. Well, I got to the club and the owner says to me, “Oh, by the way, I have Ben Webster coming in from New York for the weekend."

JW: What did you think?
CS: I froze in my tracks. I said to him, “Are you certain it's the Ben Webster." Yep, that's who it was. So I decided I had better sing a lot of Ellington music that weekend. I also pulled out my Ella Fitzgerald voice.

JW: How was Ben?
CS: Out of his noodle. The whole weekend. He was really drinking hard. But for me, it was incredible. I was singing with Ben Webster, and when I wasn't, I was standing there listening to a legend play a solo. I knew I wasn't impressing anyone that weekend, especially Ben,

JW: How was it for him?
CS: He was having fun because he was playing songs that he loved. And I was having fun because I was singing songs I loved. I wanted to stop and say to the audience, “Forget about me singing. Look who's here with me."

JW: What happened afterward?
CS: Bob [Bonis] and I drove him all the way back to New York. Later I found out a bunch of lawyers had recorded the session.

JW: What did Ben say in the car about your singing?
CS: Nothing. He snored all the way home in the car. Bob tried to pry out some information out of him. Bob was much more knowledgeable about the Ellington Orchestra. I mean, you have a legend in the car, so you want to pry him open and hear some stories. But Ben just passed out.

JW: Did Webster offer any encouragement on stage?
CS: He smiled. That was enough for me. He smiled. When he came off stage, he went straight to the bar.

JW: While you're singing, you're listening hard to Ben, yes?
CS: Every note. And as a singer, I couldn't believe how great he sounded and how good I felt.

Tomorrow, Carol talks about dramatic changes in the music landscape in 1964, befriending the Rolling Stones during the group's first tour, becoming part of Mick Jager's entourage, watching the Beatles perform in 1965 from the dugout at Shea Stadium, the dread she felt watching the British Invasion unfold and what it meant for jazz, and meeting pianist and love interest Jimmy Rowles in the late 1970s.

JazzWax tracks: Carol's albums for Columba, Out of the Blue and Live at 30th Street, are out of print on CD in the U.S. and cost upward of $50 from independent sellers or import labels. Her singles for Columbia are not available on CD. Carol's 1963 recording with Ben Webster at the Kings and Queens club in Pawtucket, RI, is available only on vinyl (Honey Dew Records) and it is extremely rare.


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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