Interview: Carol Sloane (Part 5)


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Few jazz singers had as tough a time coming up through the ranks as Carol Sloane. Most singers who are top of mind emerged when jazz was America's pop music and plenty of opportunities existed for vocalists to record and connect with the public. But just as Carol's career began to flower in the early 1960s, jazz singing as a genre suffered several devastating blows. By 1965, jazz was rapidly being replaced by new forms of popular music, and female jazz vocalists found themselves dwarfed by a new generation of female rock vocalists.

That's where Carol's pain comes from. When she sings on albums, especially on ballads, you hear sorrow, depth and meaning. Unlike many jazz vocalists, Carol's dues and blues originate in the creative setbacks she suffered at the hands of shifting music tastes, club closings, self-doubt, watching rock acts succeed beyond their wildest dreams, dysfunctional personal relationships, and a haunted sense of purpose.

In Part 5 of my interview with Carol, the legendary singer talks about learning to become an interpreter of songs, meeting Ella Fitzgerald for the first time, struggling with stage fright, the tenor saxophonists who have her sound, and why record companies were in such a hurry to throw jazz under the bus in the early 1960s.

JazzWax: So pianist Jimmy Rowles, through his playing, taught you a great deal about your voice.
Carol Sloane: Yes, that's right. And I didn't even realize it at the time. I had always admired Jimmy's playing but the more I listened to him play behind me, the more it became clear that having a beautiful voice wasn't the top priority. Blossom Dearie [pictured] is a perfect example. She had a tiny voice. Lady Day didn't have a beautiful voice toward the end of her life. But it was extraordinary. She'd sing, and you'd be so moved. You'd listen to her and start to cry. Sarah also had a wonderful instrument.

JW: Did you ever meet Sarah?
CS: I never did, and I hated that I missed meeting her in person. We spoke on the phone once. My mother liked to crochet. She made hundreds of these bootie things that you'd put over socks in the winter to stay warm. I had at least 50 pairs. Jimmy had given a pair to Sarah, and when she called to thank me, we spoke about them and other things. She was lovely.

JW: Did you meet Ella?
CS: Yes, in the early 1960s. Ella was always accused of not being able to read a lyric. Well, bull-lone-y. I went to see her, and she could go very deep on a song. I'll never forget it. I was in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s to hear her sing. Oscar Peterson suggested I go. Everyone was there. Oscar was there with his trio. Ella had her trio. And the Duke Ellington Orchestra was there. That was the concert.

JW: Where were you?
CS: I was sitting in a small area for the musicians. Not backstage but in an area off to the side.

JW: Who was there?
CS: I was sitting with Johnny Hodges [pictured] and some of the guys from the Ellington band. They had all come out from behind the stage to hear Ella. That impressed me terribly. Musicians when I was coming up had a certain disdain for singers and jazz singers. Phil Woods was a champion but he hated girl singers. And I totally understand why.

JW: Why did jazz musicians feel this way?
CS: Too many singers thought they were so hip and cool. But in truth, they were such bores, mostly because they were all style and technique rather than emotional commitment. Many vocalists couldn't make it even though they thought they could.

JW: So you're sitting with the Ellington band?
CS: Yes. Here were these great musicians who could have been backstage having a smoke or drinking a pop. Instead they were sitting out front listening to a singer. Ella sang, How Long Has This Been Going On. By the time she finished, we were all weeping. That's because she was interpreting, not just singing.

JW: Did you get to meet Ella?
CS: Yes. Afterward, Oscar introduced me to her backstage. She said to me [imitating Ella's speaking voice perfectly], “Ohhh, I've heard of you. You're the one they say sounds like me." [laughs] Holy cow, I almost fainted.

JW: What did you say to her?
CS: I said, “Well, they tell me that but I don't think I do." Ella smiled, looked at me for a moment and said, “That's OK. I'm glad." She was so sweet. Eventually I got to travel with her when Jimmy [Rowles] played piano for her.

JW: Ella had terrible stage fright, didn't she?
CS: Yes, most singers do. Ella had her demons. The first night Jimmy [Rowles] played for her was in Atlantic City. I went down and was backstage with her. This was a big jazz concert, with Dizzy [Gillespie] and others. She was pacing back and forth. I was standing beside her as she prepared to be introduced to go on stage.

JW: What was she doing?
CS: She was pacing and wringing her hands and saying, “I'm so nervous I'm so nervous." I said, “God, Ella, don't worry, Jimmy will never let you down. You've got nothing to worry about." She said, “I know." She had had Tommy [Flanagan] playing for her for over 15 years. So all of a sudden, she had a new guy at the keyboard. They had rehearsed together, but she still was behaving as though the world was going to come to an end.

JW: Are singers nervous because they're afraid of forgetting the words to songs?
CS: No, but that happens, too. It's mostly stage fright. As for forgetting words, it happens to everyone, even Ella. She famously forgot the words to Mack the Knife--but who can remember the words to that thing anyway?

JW: How do you remember all those lyrics?
CS: It's very simple, my dear. When we're singing a song, it's the only song in the world. There are no other songs. That's the only song there is. By thinking that way, it's very hard to forget the words because you've blocked everything else out.

JW: That's it?
CS: You choose songs because you love them. Have I forgotten lyrics? Of course. Maybe you're tired or distracted by something or someone in the audience.

JW: What do you when you forget lyrics?
CS: If you're lucky, it happens at the very top of a song. In which case you can stop and start again. Carmen did it once at a concert being recorded live in Japan. She stopped everybody and said. “Don't put that on the tape." I actually have that tape. The album that was issued, of course, doesn't have that glitch, where she lost her way at the beginning of a verse.

JW: Does it happen with you?
CS: Every now and again. It shouldn't happen often, though. If it does, you either have to refocus your brain and get back to where you're supposed to be and concentrate and do your job--or you give yourself a cheat sheet. I don't ever record without all of the lyrics in front of me, even if it's a song that I know.

JW: In the past, were you nervous before going out on stage?
CS: Always. Are you kidding? To the point of being ill. Not any more. No.

JW: Most people don't realize how much pressure performers and entertainers are under and the stage anxiety they suffer.
CS: It's awful. I used to have performance anxiety dreams. I'd go to sleep and have nightmares about having to go out and sing. It can't be helped. It's something deep in your brain.

JW: What do you do to deal with it?
CS: You smile, straighten up your posture and, even if you're terrified, you tell yourself that you'll eventually calm down and relax a bit. And you do--once you start singing.

JW: Which jazz musician comes closest to capturing your sound?
CS: That's an interesting question. It's always a saxophone that I feel most compatible with. I think players like Frank Wess [pictured] or Eric Alexander. I love the tenor. I feel most comfortable with it. That's where my voice is. When I warm up, I put on Luciano Pavarotti records and sing with him. That's my range.

JW: If you close your eyes, which song means the most to you?
CS: Little Girl Blue. That a cappella moment at Newport in 1961 was amazing. Also, it's a song that I've been singing for a long time. Gildo [Mahones, the pianist] said in a hushed voice to me on stage that afternoon, “I don't know the verse." I said, “That's OK. Just give me a chord and I'll sing it. You'll know when I get to the chorus." I was just a dumb kid [laughs]. I did that just because I did it. I wasn't showing off.

JW: But that's still pretty gutsy stuff to do on stage.
CS: It wasn't gutsy to me, you see. I said to myself, “I'll be OK as long as I can hear my own voice. I'll use my own voice to keep me in tune."

JW: What's coming next from Carol Sloane?
CS: I'm working on the theme for a new album, because Dearest Duke [pictured] turned out to be such a pleasure. It's such a lovely album. I had serious thoughts about doing Dearest Bing. But the more I get into the material, the more disappointed I am.

JW: Why?
CS: It doesn't have a lot of muscle. I like songs with muscle--like Spring Is Here, Autumn in New York and so on. Also, many of Bing's songs were meant for a man to sing to a woman, which is another obstacle for me. I'm now turning to another theme, which isn't a tribute to anybody. I wish I could tell you about it, but if I did and you printed it, all the singers would jump on it.

JW: When you were coming up, did you ever wish you had been born five years earlier?
CS: I sure did. Many times I've wondered about that. Chris [Connor], June [Christy, pictured], Anita [O'Day]--all of the women who came out of the bands were established and set, career-wise, by the time the 1960s rolled around. Just when I was making a positive impression on the music world, the whole scene changed.

JW: What was the big inhibitor?
CS: The Beatles. They changed everything for me and others. Not them personally, but how their instant success changed the marketplace and record companies and tastes.

JW: What was the group's staggering success like from your perspective at the time?
CS: They couldn't get arrested. When Brian Epstein, their manager, came over to the U.S. and tried to sell them, all the record companies said, “Beatles? What's a Beatle?" They all passed. Brian had to beg Alan Livingston, the president of Capitol Records, three times. Finally Alan gave them a shot. Then they became huge so fast that they scared all of the other record executives to death. The top guys all realized they had made a terrible, terrible mistake not signing them.

JW: So the American record industry's oversight had a backlash?
CS: Enormous. All the top executives told their a&r guys, “Sign up any act that walks through the door and looks like the Beatles." Most of these executives had no clue about why kids were responding to this music the way they were. All they knew is that they missed the boat and had to make up for lost time.

JW: How did this affect jazz?
CS: The big impact was that the American songbook, as we had known it, went into limbo and no longer had the same value.

JW: You've been an amazing survivor over time.
CS: My career has slowed down somewhat lately. It's wonderful to listen to the young women today who are getting the work and recognition. It's interesting to see what direction they're going to go in. The music business is so different today than when I was coming up. It's also interesting to see what record companies are telling us are jazz singers. It's a far cry from what I thought a jazz singer was.

JW: Why is that?
CS: Because most record companies don't know what jazz is anymore. They're all run by kids who don't know.

JW: What's your favorite Carol Sloane album?
CS: I have two. One is Love you Madly , with Art Farmer and Clifford Jordan. Sir Richard Rodney Bennett's arrangements are above superb. But I screwed up on there, mistakes only I can hear [laughs]. I think I was trying too hard. And Dearest Duke, of course. Which has the fewest mistakes.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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