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Interview: Carol Stevens, Part 1

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Carol Stevens About a year ago, I came across a fascinating album from 1957 by a female vocalist named Carol Stevens. The album was That Satin Doll (Atlantic). What made the album so interesting was that the singer spent a few songs using her voice as an instrument, tonally improvising along to the melody. Her timbre also was terrific—a husky, sexy, hurt sound that seemed to have survived a real-life film noir. And her phrasing curled around melodies like a curious kitty-cat on a sofa. Naturally I had to see if she was reachable.

She was, and I sent along an email, asking why she had recorded only one album, given her lovely first album. Carol emailed back, saying that while she was flattered, she wasn't quite ready to chat. I could respect that and told her to check back when she felt more comfortable. A few months ago, Carol sent another email, saying she had been following JazzWax for some time, loved it and was ready to talk. We struck up an email friendship and a few weeks ago, we spoke by phone.

Carol not only recorded a terrific album in '57 but she also was in a TV pilot in 1959 with Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge and was one of Norman Mailer's wives in the 1960s. More on all of this in the coming days.

In Part 1 of my conversation with Carol, 83, the vocalist talks about her early years and her move to New York...

JazzWax: Where were you born?

Carol Stevens: I was born in Philadelphia on May 21, 1930. We moved to Ardmore in the suburbs when I was very young.

JW: Did your parents love music?

CS: Oh yes. My mother told me I was conceived while she was listening to Cab Calloway. I bask in the joy of knowing that. My parents told me I used to walk around the block at age three singing. When I was 16, an uncle sent me to a voice coach who taught me how to breathe from the diaphragm. Unfortunately he had his hands all over me, which ended my lessons.

JW: When did you start listening to jazz?

CS: On the radio when I was young. I quickly found that I lived for music and literature. I read all the time and knew every lick on every record I owned.

JW: Did you sing in high school?

CS: Yes. I sang How Deep Is the Ocean in a high school play wearing a slinky velvet gown. Everyone looked at my as though I was something different. A day or so later I received a note at the house from someone who had been in the audience. He wanted me to join his non-union band.

JW: Did you?

CS: Yes. It was my first break. We played local country clubs. Lena Horne was my absolute favorite then—I was crazy for her. There was some resemblance and I tried to emulate her. Years later I met her a few times where I had club dresses fitted. I gave her a big hello but she didn’t reciprocate. I still thought she was so beautiful and sexy.

JW: How long were you in the country club band?

CS: Until I graduated from high school a year later in 1948. When I graduated I thought I’d study at the University of Pennsylvania or take home courses. Instead I joined a society band led by trombonist Herbie Collins that played at the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia and other hotels in the chain. I learned quickly how to call key changes—two fingers for B-flat and so on. Most everything I sang was in two or three flats.

JW: Did you enjoy the work?

CS: It was tough. I was expected to behave as they did, which was pretty square. There was no room for phrasing while singing. But I stayed with the band for a couple of years. Herbie decided I would be his woman and I was hung up on him. That was all brand new to me. I looked sophisticated but I really wasn’t.

JW: Where did you work next?

CS: I worked with Bob Kay, another society bandleader who played the fiddle at another hotel in Philadelphia. I was spoiled. I was young and cocky, and Bob was the only guy who hadn’t fallen down for me, which i guess was arresting on some level, We started dating and I married him in 1950. [Photo above of Carol Stevens in the '60s]

JW: Did you love him?

CS: Not really. I fell into that “Let's get married” thing. Back then, if you were a 20-year-old woman, you felt your options were going to dwindle by the year. So I said yes. It was a miserable marriage. He was 15 years older than me and lived with his mother. Just when I couldn’t take it anymore and realized we needed to get a divorce, I discovered I was pregnant. I had David just before we divorced and I had custody.

JW: Your life must have gotten difficult quickly, yes?

CS: After my divorce from Bob I was in a terrible state. I felt I had failed at everything. I just sat around catatonic for a while at my parents house taking care of David. After five years, my mother sensed I was dying on the vine, so she packed my trunk and shipped it to New York, telling me to go up there and make something of myself. She took care of David.

JW: How was New York?

CS: Great. I began hanging out with theatrical people at Jilly’s Saloon. I used to hang around the piano and scat. A friend said that arranger-pianist Phil Moore would flip for me. She called Phil and touted me. I met him at his studio in Carnegie Hall. We talked and I sang a few songs. He asked if I was hungry and we went down to the tavern for dinner.

JW: What happened next?

CS: Phil asked me what I wanted from him. I flipped. I was living just a block away from Carnegie Hall. I told him I wanted to sing. He took care of everything, lining up gigs, sending me off for dance lessons and arranging for an album with Atlantic. Esquire magazine even did a three-page spread on Carnegie Hall and I was in it. [Photo above: Phil Moore on piano and John Levy on bass]

JW: Who did you work with?

CS: I did several gigs with Bill Evans before he became well known. He was with Don Elliott at the time. Bill was great but he didn’t provide a singer with much fire. Phil Moore played funky jazz piano, very groovy. I did a few clubs with Bill outside of New York. One gig was in Princeton, N.J. and was reviewed in a magazine called Escapade. There was a picture of me and bill and some of the guys at the club Bill played a couple of songs, but I didn’t feel any spark. Father O'Connor also did a story on me.

JW: How did the album That Satin Doll come about in February and March 1957 for Atlantic?

CS: When I got there, I was knocked out by the guys on the session. [Editor’s note: Featured on the dates were Nick Travis (tp), Don Elliott (tp,mellophone), Warren Covington (tb) and Eddie Bert (tb), Phil Bodner (eng-hrn,cl), Sol Schlinger (b-cl), Bernie Kaufman (b-cl,fl), Herbie Mann (alto-fl), Romeo Penque (woodwinds), Bobby Rosengarden (vib), Phil Moore (p) and Frank Berry (p), Barry Galbraith (g), Milt Hinton (b), Osie Johnson (d) and Phil Kraus (perc).]

We cut the album in four sessions. I was in awe of the guys. They were generous, convivial and fun to work with, not to mention outstanding. Some of the arrangements by Phil were a surprise, especially Satin Doll.

JW: You had an unusual scatting style, akin in some ways to Sarah Vaughan’s moaning scat style.

CS: I listened a lot to instrumentalists. I loved Bill Harris’ solo on Everywhere. I just loved it. I told Phil I wanted that song on the album. He orchestrated it for me. When I sang it, I became Bill’s trombone. All of my friends in New York thought I should be an actor. Singing to me was always about the story being related through the lyrics.

JW: What happened when That Satin Doll came out?

CS: I received great reviews in Billboard and other publications. They couldn’t have been better.

[Editor’s note: Here’s one of those reviews... “CAROL STEVENS is a deep-purple (D below middle C) jazz singer who wears wicked black sheaths and Vampira makeup, and is visually and musically the most striking of the new girl singers. Her audiovisual analogue would be a bass sax wrapped in a lace nightie. Using a vocabulary of oo's, ee's and ah's, she sings one entire side of her first LP (That Satin Doll; Atlantic) almost completely without words. This could sound like a cat trapped in a rain barrel, but somehow manages not to. In the best of her all-but-wordless songs (the composer, Phil Moore, calls the technique “Woman-as-an-Instrument"), Carol fogs out three minutes of lowdown vowels, then wraps it up with wacky sexiness in a single phrase of explicit English: “Saved it all for you." Titles on the reverse side—Lying in the Hay, Keep on Doin' What You're Doin'—leave little doubt as to what it is all about.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of my interview with Carol along with the full video clip of After Hours, featuring Carol with Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and other greats.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Carol Stevens' That Satin Doll here.


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