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Carole Simpson Remembered

Skip Heller By

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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.

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