Carole Simpson Remembered


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As news of Donald Byrd's passing was leaking out slowly, jazz educator Keith Pawlak sent me a note on Facebook asking if I had heard that pianist/vocalist Carole Simpson had passed away.

Her name is barely known except to a few collectors who specialize in female singers of the Eisenhower era. She was during that period almost an archetype—a gorgeous, glamourous blonde with an intimate singing style not far from June Christy and a pianistic approach that borrowed most heavily from George Shearing and Erroll Garner. Her first album, All About Carole (Capitol) was an all-standards affair that featured her in both small group and "with strings" settings. Jim Hall played some great guitar on it, beautifully as always, and the brilliant Lennie Niehaus wrote the string arrangements.

It's an irresistible record, too. Her reading of "You Make Me Feel So Young" defies gravity in a mischievous way, sparked by a vocal that plays with time in a manner that suggests Carole was a fan of Anita O'Day. Taken as a whole, All About Carole was a box of musical truffles. Why it didn't launch her into a major career, I can't say. It was her only major label effort and it failed to make a dent. Her next album, cut and released two years later, was Singin' And Swingin', on the ironically named Tops label.

Tops Records was a budget house whose releases capitalized on either stars on the past or whichever musical trend was in bloom at a given moment, whether it be exotica, calypso, Latin dance music, or anything else.

Carole's record featured her in a program of songs written by TV personality (and sometime jazz pianist) Steve Allen. She sings but doesn't play piano. Oddly enough, it includes what is likely her best recorded moment—a vocal take of the theme from the film Bell, Book, and Candle. Allen wrote a lyric for the melody, and Carole brought it home knowingly, even flirtingly.

I first heard these records in 1997. A collector I knew played her for me, and I was immediately bowled over. He showed me the cover of All About Carole, and something about it and her reached out for me, and I decided I had to find her so we could do some music together.

She wasn't very easy to find, either. Nobody in my circles knew or knew of her, not in any meaningful way. She had last been spotted playing at a country club in LA's west side. Those kinds of tidbits are hardly leads, but I kept my ears open, and finally I hit paydirt. I was speaking to local pianist/songwriter Howlett Smith, and he not only knew her, but was preparing to put out of CD of her more recent trio recordings. He gave me her number, which was a 310 number, which put her on the west side.

I had some gigs coming up at a Japanese restaurant in Downey (just south of LA and a bit inland), playing restaurant jazz, light duty, standards. I called her, introduced myself, and asked would she be interested in playing.

"I would," she said, "but I warn you. I don't know what you're expecting, but I'm not a young chick."

Thus began a wonderful and close friendship. But she never would reveal her age nor how many times she'd been married. My best guess is she was born about 1928, judging from what very little about that stuff she'd reveal. She told me she'd started as the girl singer in Billy May's band around 1950 but never recorded. She was at least friendly with West Coast jazz stalwarts like bassist Carson Smith and trumpeter Chet Baker. I would imagine she and Chet would have cast more than a passing glance at each other. They were both so attractive then.

Apparently, motherhood took her out of the full-time club work world, and her musical life revolved more around playing in churches and directing choirs. In that community, she was Carolyn Stafford.

(Her last husband was Billy Stafford, a drummer who had played for a time with Benny Goodman. I only met him once, and he told me horrible things about Benny's table manners.)

The Carole that I met circa 1999 was still striking. Thin but not gaunt, perfectly coiffed grey hair, and poise out to here, she radiated a certain Old Hollywood poise that brought to mind Lauren Bacall. She looked richer than she was. She arrived for the job in a dark blue convertible with the top down, looking like a starlet. She was wearing a mink. To play for seventy-five dollars at a restaurant in Downey.

When we sat down to play, she told me she didn't sing anymore. A stroke had affected her ability to sing in tune (her diction was perfect), so she stuck to playing now. That was fine, I told her.

She started playing. She never said what she was going to play or in what key she'd be playing it. She would leap full-throttle into one tune after the next, and she knew more tunes than anyone I can think of this side of Sonny Rollins. She was a geyser. Phrases burst out of the piano under her hands, and she rarely repeated herself. I held on for dear life, quite a few times playing tunes I half know. I've got a pretty good catalog of tunes at my fingertips, but very few people born after 1940 or so have heard "Lullabye In Rhythm," "As Long As I Live," or several dozen other Carole staples. I did okay, but she took me to school.

For a good many years after that, we played regularly together, at least every couple of months. It was like having a favorite aunt who could play great jazz piano, and we did a variety of jobs— restaurants, Christmas parties, New Years Eve's, clubs. When I was called in to do some cues for a Flintstones TV movie, I called her in for a Shearing-style version of the theme (which also included punk rock legend DJ Bonebrake on vibes). Every gig she took, she played the same way, in her same style. And she charmed everyone in every room she ever worked.

She was old-school. She didn't care for Bill Evans or Horace Silver.

"Too modern. Too bebop for me. I like a melody," she'd say. I doubt she learned anything written after 1962. Come to think of it, the most recently-composed tune I ever heard her play was Ahmad Jamal's "Night Mist Blues." She never knew the title of it. My favorite Carole memory is personal more than musical. Our gigs were always the type that had me in at least a jacket and tie, if not a tuxedo. During those years, I generally carried a nylon wallet, of which Carole hated the sight.

"That wallet is terrible. It looks like it's falling apart!" We were playing a job on or around my birthday in 2001 or so, somewhere out by the airport. How she knew it was my birthday, I have no idea. But she gave me a box. In it, a gorgeous black wallet, very soft leather. I was blown away. I transferred all my cash and cards to it at once. She was thrilled not only that I liked it, but that I would now carry a "real wallet."

The next day, when I tried to deposit the check from the gig at an ATM, my bank card didn't work. Within a half hour, I had ascertained that none of my cards worked. What the hell?

As it turns out, the wallet Carole gave me was not leather but rather eelskin, which retains a charge and erased all my cards.

As she got older, she played fewer jazz jobs and I saw her less frequently. The last time we saw each other was March 15, 2009. She was playing in Hollywood at a tiny place at Sunset and Gower and called to ask would I come. I said sure. When I got there, she was sitting. Upon seeing me, she stood, with some effort, and hugged me weakly. She said she was so happy to see me. Apparently, her bassist hadn't shown up, did I have my guitar, could I play. My date and I ran over to my apartment in North Hollywood and I got my guitar and hurried back. By the time I walked back in, the bassist was there, so it became a trio. Carole was still playing well, but without force. The air was clearly out of the balloon, but the spirit made do, happily if haltingly.

At the end of the set, I set next to her. She squeezed my hand and thanked me for still wanting to play with her. I said of course I still wanted to, that I still loved her. Which I did.

"I still love you and your playing so much," she said, "and I feel terrible that I haven't been able to remember your name all night." We spoke a few times after that, but she didn't really remember me and I could tell. The least I'd heard until shortly ago, she'd left town to live with a daughter.

It was Reno where she ended up, and she died there of natural causes on January 25, 2013. There was no obit in the Los Angeles Times, nor was there a big musical tribute at the Musicians Union building just down the street from the big round Capitol Tower where she made her great record. There was a mention on a website that was—true to her style—very light on biographical data. It did mention she passed while under hospice care, which made me sad. It meant she was in her last days no longer the glamorous older woman who drove a convertible, and that's how I know she would hope to be remembered.

Every city has its wonderful musicians who may or may not have recorded even as they piled decades of great playing one on top of the other, and Carol Simpson was certainly that. While she never achieved the fame of her fifties peers, she was one of the people who helped shape the town's identity during one of its most fertile periods. She was a fantastic pianist and singer, a formidable music professional of the first water, and a lovely, wonderful friend. Also, she was the hippest woman I ever met.

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