Interview: Carol Sloane (Part 2)
No matter how hard singer Carol Sloane worked in the late 1950s, the odds of becoming a nationally known big band singer were against her. Younger audiences no longer found romance in the songs of Tin Pan Alley, and fewer adults were going out to hear music let alone dance. Touring with a big band, even a headliner like Larry Elgart, had its creative benefits but the grueling pace offered little long-term reward. [Photo of Carol Sloane in 1961, The New York Times]
Even in jazz circles, the singing scene had shifted. By the late 1950s, jazz vocalists divided neatly into two categories: if you were an established legend, you recorded mostly pop albums with large, sweeping orchestras. If you were a lesser-known singer, you performed in clubs and recorded economically with a trio or quartet. As an up-and-coming jazz singer, Carol was trapped. The big bands were dying, and club and record dates required buzz and connections.
In Part 2 of my interview series this week with Carol, the legendary singer talks about touring with Elgart in 1958 and 1959, leaving the band in 1960, working briefly as a secretary, meeting Jon Hendricks at a Pittsburgh jazz festival in 1961, winning over the Village Vanguard's Max Gordon, her stunning breakthrough performance in Newport, RI, and the lesson Oscar Peterson taught her when she opened for him at the Vanguard in the fall of 1961:
JazzWax: Was touring with Larry Elgart for two years grueling?
Carol Sloane: Yes. But the way I looked at it, I was learning to improvise as a singer, so dealing with the rigors of the road was part of the bargain. Those were hard Massachusetts. He turned out to be the nicest guy in the world. In fact, he taught me how to drive. Now I'm one of the best drivers [laughs].
JW: How did you keep the guys in the band from making advances?
CS: It wasn't hard. The guys in Larry's band were gentlemen. They didn't mess with the girl singers. It wasn't permitted, and they didn't think about it. They were very sweet and protective of me. I felt very comfortable with them and didn't feel threatened in any way. I wasn't inviting anything, either. Hey, it wasn't as though I was going around with a hip flask of whiskey or something [laughs]. It was a pretty straight band.
JW: Was it disheartening singing with a big band on the road so late in the decade?
CS: It was a great learning experience, but touring with a band wasn't all that much fun by that point. The public wasn't into the scene the way it had been years earlier. And stuff was happening all the time that constantly reminded you that times were tougher.
JW: For instance?
CS: One night I was standing in front of Larry's bandstand, where all his music was sitting. His stand was positioned a little bit away from the front line of the band, and he had placed an open bottle of ginger ale underneath there away from my line of vision. Well, my foot knocked into the bottle during a song, and soda spilled all over the floor. While I was singing some perfectly wonderful ballad, I found I was sloshing around in soda with a pair of expensive new shoes. Band singers didn't get paid that much to begin with, and I was upset that I had ruined them. Larry didn't offer to pay for them.
JW: You were with Elgart for two years, at a time when performing bands were declining in popularity.
CS: You already could see that the audiences were different and enthusiasm was less. The kids were listening to other types of music, adult audiences were smaller and the band wasn't gaining much traction. I was starting to feel that it was a lot of work for not much reward. I also was beginning to realize that touring with a big band was a dead end, career wise.
JW: Before you left Elgart, you recorded a demo and an album with the band.
CS: Actually I made my first recording when I was 14 years old. Two songwriters from Rhode Island wanted to record a demo of their songs [So Long and Strange Power]. They already knew my family, and I had baby sat for one of them. So they took me down to New York in 1953, and we recorded two sides of a single. I was so excited. We did the date on two takes. Guitarist George Barnes and the other players on the session were house musicians at Cadillac Records at the time.
JW: You also recorded with Elgart.
CS: Yes. In 1959 Larry wanted to test out some recording equipment he bought, so he recorded a demo of me at a small studio on the East Side of Manhattan. The musicians included Bill Finegan [pictured] on celeste and Chuck Wayne and Ralph Patt on guitar. In 1959, I also recorded with Larry's band in New York on Easy Goin' Swing, for RCA, as Carol Morvan, before we changed my name to Sloane. But by that point I knew the big band thing was over.
JW: You left Elgart soon afterward. What did you do?
CS: I took secretarial jobs in New York. I had to do something to pay the bills. I also sang occasionally and remained in touch with Bob Bonis, who also left Larry to work for the Willard Alexander talent agency. Bob liked my voice very much and was a big fan.
JW: What did he do for you?
CS: Soon after I left Larry, Bob booked me into a jazz festival in Pittsburgh in 1960. Virtually all of the acts there were clients of the Willard Alexander agency. I was a complete unknown, of course, so they put me in as the first act on a Friday night. After I sang, I met Jon Hendricks, who was there with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross. Jon was so taken with me that he asked if I'd be willing to sub for Annie Ross when she couldn't make club dates. He asked if I'd be willing to learn enough of the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross material to jump in. I said I wasn't sure but I'd certainly give it a try.
JW: What did you do?
CS: I had all of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross' albums. So when I returned to New York, I'd come home every night from my secretarial job and put on their records. Thank god they had all the lyrics to their songs on the backs of those LPs. By doing this, I learned more and more of their material. I still don't have all of Duke Ellington's Cotton Tail down [laughs], even though I sing it as part of my book. Annie [Ross] tried to fill me in one time on how to do it just right. I tried to learn as much as I could as quickly as possible.
JW: Did you sing with Lambert and Hendricks?
CS: Yes. One day Jon called to say Annie [pictured] wasn't able to sing with the group at a club run, and he asked me to join them at Pep's Lounge in Philadelphia. So I told my boss that I had to leave my secretarial job and that I couldn't even give him two weeks' notice. I really had the fantasy that I was going to become a star.
JW: How did the gig work out?
CS: Great. It was tricky material but I did well. I sang for a week there with them, and Jon was very happy. Afterward, he talked me up with everyone. In April 1961, when Lambert, Hendricks & Ross came to the Village Vanguard in New York, I went down to see them. Jon saw me and asked me to sing a few songs with the group's trioGildo Mahones on piano, Ike Isaacs on bass and Jimmy Wormworth on drums. I can't remember what I sang.
JW: How did you do?
CS: Very well, apparently. When I came off stage, Max Gordon, the club's owner, came up to me and asked if I would like to sing as the opener for Oscar Peterson in October. When he asked, I couldn't believe it. There I was, standing at the Village Vanguard, the cathedral, the most sacred ground in the jazz world. And Max Gordon wanted me to open for Oscar Peterson, of all people.
JW: What did Jon think about Max Gordon's offer?
CS: Jon was overjoyed for me. He then spoke with Sid Bernstein, who in the summer of 1961 was producing Music at Newport. The year before there had been some rioting at the Newport Jazz Festival that had frightened the Newport society. So the community put the Newport Jazz Festival on hold and gave Sid a shot. Jon must have used my upcoming Vanguard gig to have Sid give me a shot.
JW: What did Sid do?
CS: Sid added me to the festival's New Stars of '61 program.
JW: Do you remember the day?
CS: Of course. It was late on a Saturday afternoon. When I looked out into the audience there was hardly anyone there, maybe a few hundred people. The crowd had already left the grounds to change and have dinner before the festival's evening program.
JW: Were you disappointed?
CS: I said to myself, Wow, this isn't really what I expected. I can't make much of an impact in front of such a small audience."
JW: What did you do?
CS: I sang a few songs. But on Little Girl Blue, Gildo Mahones, the pianist, told me he didn't know the chords to the song's opening verse. I said, That's OK, I'll sing it a cappella. When I finished singing the verse alone, Gildo hit the first chord of the chorus, and I was right in tune. Which I fully expected I would be. I had no doubt about that whatsoever.
JW: What was the audience response?
CS: When I came off stage, about a dozen people who had been in the audience surrounded me. It turned out that those people were all the top jazz critics, including John Wilson, George Simon and others. There also was a producer from Columbia Records there named Mike Berniker.
JW: What did the critics say?
CS: They were all saying, My god, where did you come from?" They were blown away that I had performed the verse a cappella. There was so much excitement that Sid put me on the festival's final night's concert to repeat what I had done, this time in front of thousands of people. When the critics' articles came out, the headlines were all about this unknown singer who sang Little Girl Blue a cappella and amazed everyone.
JW: Did you have a shot at becoming Lambert, Hendricks & Sloane?
CS: Oh god no. it was too hard. They expected me to do some scatting, and I won't do it because I'm not good at it. I feel like I'm making a fool of myself, and I try to avoid that as much as possible.
JW: Did Jon ever ask you to join the group?
CS: Oh, no, never. I was never considered a replacement for Annie [Ross]. I was just a stand in for her. In 1962, when the group made a European tour, Annie had some visa problems. So when she couldn't get clearance to re-enter the U.S., Jon and Dave asked Yolande Bavan, who was in London and knew their entire book very well. She had been following them faithfully.
JW: So 1961 was quite a year for Carol Sloane.
CS: It was amazing. I sang in Pittsburgh, which led to signing for Jon at the Vanguard, which led to Max asking me to open for Oscar, followed by my appearance in Newport and sudden press coverage.Max [Gordon] certainly reaped the benefit of booking me early [laughs]. Max got a double whammy there: By October, everyone wanted to hear Oscar Peterson, and now they also wanted to hear what all the fuss was about with this girl singer.
CS: More than supportive. Oscar provided me with a very valuable lesson. While I was singing at the Vanguard, he picked up on something I wasn't doing. Or rather, something I was over-doing. I was so taken with the fact that I was a jazz singer at the Village Vanguard, I started going overboard, jazzing up standards.
JW: What did Oscar think?
CS: Oscar would watch my set from a dark banquette off to the side and each time would ask out loud for me to sing Kurt Weill's My Ship. I'd jazz up the song, and when I'd finish I'd look at Oscar for his reaction. Each time I sang it, Oscar was expressionless. For a week he'd shout out the same request, and each time I'd work harder to make a jazz impression. And each time I'd get the same stony reaction.
JW: What happened?
CS: I finally grew exhausted trying to embellish the song. So one night I just sang it straight. When I finished, Oscar was grinning and applauding. I finally got Oscar's message: A great song doesn't need to be jazzed up. You just have to sing it straight. I've carried Oscar's lesson with me ever since.
JW: Did anything happen with Berniker from Columbia Records?
CS: Yes. Bob Bonis took his card and followed up, asking for a record date. Soon after my two weeks at the Vanguard, Mike Berniker called and I recorded my first solo singing album.
Tomorrow, Carol talks about her debut recording date for Columbia featuring Bill Finegan's arrangements, the similarity between her voice and Sarah Vaughan's, recording with Ben Webster in 1963, and the day Coleman Hawkins surprised her by coming out on stage and playing while she sang at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1963.
JazzWax tracks: Carol's first single was recorded for Cadillac Records when she was 14 years old. So Long backed by Strange Power isn't available on CD and is extremely rare. Her 1959 demo recorded by Larry Elgart, with Bill Finegan on celeste can be found on Early Hours, a Japanese import CD issued in 1987. Carol also appeared on Larry Elgart's 1960 release, Easy Goin' Swing. It's available only on LP. (Big thanks to reader Kurt Kolstad, who let me hear The Lady Is a Tramp, a punchy, swinging arrangement with fabulous phrasing by Carol.)
Carol Sloane's blog: In addition to being a magnificent singer, Carol is a fabulous writer and raconteur. You can keep up with Carol's activities and great jazz stories here, at SloaneView.