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Interview: Carol Sloane (Part 4)

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In the summer of 1964, the world turned upside down for singer Carol Sloane. That year her mentor Bob Bonis became the U.S. road manager for two English rock bands: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Her close friendship with Bonis made her a part of the Rolling Stones' entourage during their first tour in June and an eyewitness to an event that all but buried jazz's popularity: the Beatles' appearance in 1965 at Shea Stadium. As Carol notes below, she knew as soon as she heard the sustained hysteria and screaming by 55,000 people that jazz had likely suffered a debilitating blow.

In the late 1960s, nightclub performances followed for Carol, including a relocation to North Carolina. By the late 1970s, Carol faced another crisis: a stormy love affair with pianist Jimmy Rowles. While Rowles taught Carol how to interpret songs rather than just sing them, the relationship nearly cost Carol her life. Exhausted by the stress and uncertainty of jazz performing after attempting suicide, Carol nearly threw in the towel to become a legal secretary. But a call from a North Carolina friend pulled her back into the jazz world, where she has remained interpreting songs ever since.

In Part 4 of my interview series with Carol, the legendary singer talks about escaping the Apollo Theater with the Rolling Stones, getting tossed around by Mick Jagger, watching the Beatles perform in New York, relocating to North Carolina, returning to New York to move in with pianist Jimmy Rowles, attempting suicide, and becoming a booker of jazz acts at a club in Chapel Hill, N.C., in the 1980s:

JazzWax: Was 1964 as big a transition year for jazz as it seems?
Carol Sloane: Oh, yes. You truly got the sense with the British Invasion that something big was happening, something enormous, and that nothing was ever going to be the same for jazz and jazz vocalists.

JW: Was Bob Bonis able to help you during this tricky time?
CS: As much as he could. Bob had been with MCA but had to leave when the government forced the company to dissolve its talent agency so it could acquire Universal Pictures. In 1964, Bob took a job as the first U.S. road manager for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

JW: Did you meet them?
CS: Yes. I met the Rolling Stones during their first U.S. tour in June 1964. When they were in New York, I was with them pretty much wherever they went. To the Stones, I was Bob's “bird," so to speak. I remember I went to the Apollo Theater with them in New York because they wanted to see B.B. King. We came in after the show had started and the lights had gone down. They thought it was the best way to sneak in without being recognized. Of course, the whole town knew they were in New York.

JW: Did you make it to your seats?
CS: Yes, I wound up sitting in a row with Keith Richards on one side and Mick Jagger on the other. Suddenly, word got around the theater that they were there. The audience became so loud that the show stopped. Suddenly I was being pulled from one side to the other as we made it out of there. Everyone was told to just run. At that time they didn't know how to deal with that kind of stuff.

JW: What happened on the street?
CS: We climbed into the waiting limo. There were women hanging on the hood of the car as we pulled away. It was crazy.

JW: Were they nervous about the mobs?
CS:
No, they weren't scared at all. They kind of watched it and commented on the different nut cases. I think after the Beatles went through the same thing earlier in the year, they anticipated it and probably enjoyed it. The madness was part of the whole thing.

JW: What was Jagger like?
CS: Mick was adorable. So was Keith [Richards], Bill [Wyman] and Charlie [Watts]. Brian Jones was on his own planet.

JW: What did you talk about with Mick?
CS: English history. He was fascinated and proud of his country's past. When we arrived back at their suite at the Astor Hotel after the Apollo thing, Keith just grabbed a guitar and started strumming away. Who knows what he might have been writing then.

JW: Did you sing with them?
CS: [Laughs] No. I didn't know any of their songs at that time and they didn't know too many of mine.

JW: Were they curious about you?
CS: Yes. Somewhere Bob Bonis took a picture of them holding my first album cover, Out of this World. I don't know what happened to it. It probably vanished.

JW: So you were with them quite a bit that month.
CS: Yes. It was exciting and exhausting. I remember when they were going home, we took them out to Kennedy Airport. I was standing with the luggage and Bob had their tickets. Suddenly Mick came barreling through the international terminal from the street where the cars and cabs pulled up. He rushed in, picked me and threw me around screaming, “We're goin' home! We're goin' home."

JW: Was Brian Jones a handful?
CS: Absolutely. He was depressed the entire time. He was usually off in a corner weeping. There were a couple of nights when he couldn't even get on stage. He was so troubled.

JW: June was a tough tour for them.
CS: Yes, I think there had been so much excitement over the Beatles [who had first performed in the U.S. in February 1964]. If I recall, they didn't have a hit here yet on the radio, so they were more of a Beatles follow-up than an established group. But on the heels of the Beatles, they were the next best thing for the kids.

JW: You met the Beatles the following year.
CS: Yes, when they returned in 1965 to play at Shea Stadium. Dear Bob [Bonis] kept telling them I was a great jazz singer, but they were too caught up in their own thing and the fuss being made to notice or care.

JW: How did Bonis manage the mass insanity in 1965?
CS: Bob was built like a football player. He was assigned to stand behind Ringo while other beefy guys stood behind the other members of the group. At concerts, they stood at the base of the stage. The rule was that if fans broke through the barriers set up, the four Beatles were to just drop their instruments and jump off stage. They were told to just do it, that someone would be there to catch them.

JW: Did that ever happen?
CS: Bob told me he had to catch Ringo several times.

JW: Where were you in Shea Stadium?
CS: I was watching in the dugout. There was so much chaos and confusion. There just was no way to control 55,000 people. And then there was this steady primal screech that just woudn't end.

JW: As a jazz singer, was that kind of wide-scale fan adulation for relatively basic music scary?
CS: I got nauseous. I could see the writing on the wall with the Beatles. The kids had been drifting away from jazz for years. But by this concert in 1965, they were completely gone, and I knew they were never coming back. You could see it. You could hear it.

JW: In the years that immediately followed, your recording career got quiet.
CS: A lot of that was due to the Beatles and other rock acts. The record companies just didn't put any promotion behind jazz records any more. And for a singer, it was really hard to get a recording gig. Nevertheless, I still had a great time. In the late 1960s I was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson quite a bit. I also was singing regularly at San Francisco's Hungry I and at Mister Kelly's in Chicago. I was very lucky to have been able to sing at these wonderful venues.

JW: Had the club scene changed?
CS: Sure. For one, the singer now opened for the comic. Ten years earlier, it was the other way around. The comics warmed up the audiences or came on during the musicians' breaks. TV changed all that. During this period I opened for the Smothers Brothers and Jackie Mason. One night a young Richard Pryor did open for me [laughs]. Those were great days.

JW: In 1969 you relocated to North Carolina.
CS:
Yes. I went there because I was sitting around doing nothing worrying about how I was going to pay my bills. In New York, I had to go back to working as a temp secretary. Thank god I could type and take shorthand [laughs]. I was at my wits' end.

JW: Why North Carolina?
CS: One day in 1969 I got a phone call from an agent who said there was a new club in Raleigh [N.C.] that had a jazz policy. I didn't want to go down there. I was certain I was going to have an awful time. But I needed the work. So I went down anyway and wound up having a ball.

JW: What was the name of the cub?
CS: The Frog and Nightgown, but it was known as The Frog. The guy who ran it was a British fellow, a biochemist who played the drums and had always wanted to have a jazz club of his own.

JW: Was The Frog a big deal?
CS: It became one. He started booking Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz and all types of heavy hitters. Of course, no one knew what to make of it. Eventually the place got so popular that he had to move to a larger space. Suddenly the place was jammed. He had Stan Kenton, Count Basie, George Shearing, Monk, everyone. I had a ball.

JW: The work got you back up on your feet.
CS: Yes. I had a secretarial job in the daytime down there, but I'd work at The Frog once every four to six weeks. And when I did, people were eager for the special formats I put together, like the Noel Coward and Cole Porter program. I even did a Beatles program one time. By then I had completely relocated there and abandoned the stresses of the city. The weather was much more moderate and the people were warm and friendly. I was a big fish in a small pond, and I loved it.

JW: When did you come back to New York and why?
CS: In the late 1970s I got a phone call from Sir Roland Hanna in New York. He said that Dee Dee Bridgewater couldn't do a gig at a club that today is no longer around. Roland asked if I'd come up to join the New York Jazz Quartet. Wow, I said, that would be heaven. So I came up to do the run. But when I got there, Roland called to tell me that he wouldn't be there opening night. And neither would bassist George Mraz. I started to grow uneasy. I remember saying, “What? What? What do you mean?" He said he and George had other gigs that night.

JW: Who did Hanna send to sub?
CS: [Laughs] Oh, just Tommy Flanagan [on piano] and Percy Heath [on bass].

JW: Sounds like you had a good run.
CS: I did. One night after the set I was sitting at the bar with George [Mraz]. He said he was going over to Bradley's, the club, after the set. He said Jimmy Rowles was playing piano there. Jimmy, of course, had played for all of the legendary singers. So we went over to the club. There had been some press about me and I had received good reviews. When we got there, Bradley, the owner, asked me to sing with Jimmy.

JW: What did you say?
CS: I said no way, it wouldn't be fair to Jimmy. I said: “I'm sure Jimmy has been bombarded by people who want to sing with him. I just want to put my feet up and listen. At any rate. Jimmy doesn't even know who I am." Bradley pushed and Jimmy agreed. When Jimmy asked what I wanted to sing, I said My Ship in A-flat. So Jimmy played the song's introduction, and I came in. Jimmy said that was the moment he fell in love with me.

JW: What made Rowles sound so good?
CS:
He knew exactly when not to play. He knew how much a singer needed and how much she didn't need. Once he heard me, he knew instinctively that I didn't need a lot of support. I knew where the song was going to go. Even if he didn't play a note I was going to be OK. He did the same thing with Lady Day, Carmen and Sarah. He knew those singers. When he had a new singer, he didn't know how much playing she needed. He told me that from the time I started singing at Bradley's, he knew I was going to be OK.

JW: How long did you two live together?
CS: Three years. The relationship had its moments. Jimmy had certain qualities that were charming and beguiling. But he was an alcoholic and it was impossible to change him. It was the second time I had lived with an alcoholic. He was always surrounded by drink--his buddies Zoot [Sims, pictured] and Al [Cohn] were knocking back scotches all the time. He was all set up to go on drinking and smoking unfiltered cigarettes. Just to get him on his feet in the morning I had to bring him a double vodka and tonic. He had a few more, and by the time he was ready to leave the apartment, he was in good shape.

JW: How did you manage?
CS: It was very, very hard. I said more than once if I had had a gun in the house I would be doing time.

JW: That sounds terrible.
CS: It got so bad that I tried to take my own life.

JW: Carol, my god.
CS: Jimmy had bought a huge bottle of Dalmane, to relieve his insomnia. I took the entire bottle. The next thing I knew Tommy Flanagan's wife Diana was standing over me. I was rushed to St. Vincent's Hospital and had my stomach pumped.

JW: How did Diana Flanagan wind up there?
CS: Jimmy had called her. As far as Jimmy was concerned, he was just going to sit there and watch me go.

JW: You didn't stay with him after that, did you?
CS: No. Jimmy had to go back to California for a period, and while he was gone I left.

JW: Why were you with him?
CS: It was a tough period for me. I was in my early 40s and had begun questioning everything about my career and my ability. Jimmy was a legendary pianist, the guy who had accompanied everyone. In the beginning he made me feel great. But little by little, things got worse and worse.

JW: Where did you go?
CS: This was 1981. I went up to Boston and stayed with a friend for a while. I was all set to take a full-time job as a legal secretary. Then a friend called from Chapel Hill, N.C., and asked me to come down and book jazz acts for his club. So off I went. It was a big, spectacular opening, with Barbara Cook. I booked all my friends--Jackie and Roy, Shearing, Carmen, Helen Merrill and others. Occasionally I sang.

JW: Getting back to Jimmy, what did you learn from him?
CS: I learned how to sing. By listening to him play, I learned how to become an interpreter of songs rather than just a singer--someone who just relies on the beauty of her voice.

JW: Come on, Carol, you could sing way before you met Rowles.
CS: Yes, but Jimmy taught me how to read the lyric. He taught me how to project the sentiment of a song, which I hadn't been doing. I had been singing. Lovely voice. People were impressed with the fact that I was in tune. But I hadn't been interpreting songs until way late in my career. I was just singing.

Tomorrow, Carol reflects on her six-decade career, talks openly about her life-long struggle with stage fright, meeting Ella Fitzgerald and what's coming next.

More Carol Sloane: Keep up with Carol by visiting her blog, SloaneView, here.


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