Carol Sloane, a superb singer with remarkable pitch who was widely considered to be the last great female big-band and club jazz vocalist to emerge at the dawn of the 1960s, just before the British Invasion swept over the record industry, died on January 23, 2023. She was 85.
Sloaney," as she was known to friends, had Sarah Vaughan's phrasing in the 1960s but also shared the round richness and twinkle of Ella Fitzgerald. With a husky, rich and caressing voice, her delivery came across as though sharing a story with you in confidence. What's more, Carol's interpretive approach with lyrics was simply unmatched. Each song was a personal tale that connected with your heart.
I loved Sloaney—her openness, her honesty and her work ethic. In 2009, just two years into my blog, she asked me to write the liner notes for her 2009 album We'll Meet Again. When she needed to return to New York's Nola Recording Studio for overdubs, she let me tag along. Watching her in action for a few hours, with Jim Czak engineering, was astonishing. Her intonation was perfect and she knew exactly when to come in and how to make the overdubs seamless.
After the session, we all went for drinks. Carol held her own while regaling a a handful of us with amazing road stories, many of them bawdy. Before long, a growing number of musicians at the watering hole left their perches to join our table. What Carol sensed in me, I suppose, was the same that I sensed in her—enormous sensitivity and the ability to share it without shame or camouflage. Carol could be self-absorbed and overly dramatic, but those who knew her understood both traits were deployed to hide lurking insecurity and shyness. Miss you, Sloaney.
In tribute to Carol Sloane and her magical voice, I combined my five-part interview from 2009 below:
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Carol Sloane: I grew up in Smithfield, R.I., just outside of Providence. Everything was fun in those days because we had fewer distractions. At home, we had chores to do and no television. In fact, we didn’t have TV until I was 10 or 12. Instead, kids back then had to use their imaginations more.
JW: Do you have brothers and sisters?
CS: I have a sister, Lois, who’s a year and half younger than me and a lovely singer. She was very sweet when we were growing up. Much of that, I think, had to do with each of us having our own rooms. We were very lucky, and separate space helped a great deal to keep the harmony at home. As a result, we played well together. I remember we played school a lot. I was always the principal [laughs].
JW: Did you and your sister listen to music?
CS: All the time. We had our own little phonographs. Nothing elaborate. They were small. But they meant I could play what I wanted and close my door, and Lois could do the same. So we never really crossed paths with music. She liked more mainstream stuff, like Andre Kostelanetz. I liked Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and anything that appealed to my ear.
JW: Was radio a big deal?
CS: Oh yes, very much so. I was very lucky when I was young. The radio provided me with a voice. I could hear singers and follow what they were doing without distraction. Eventually, of course, there were faces and bodies to go with those voices. But in the early 1950s, radio and records were it. I listened all the time to two local disc jockeys. One focused on rhythm and blues and the other on jazz and singers. These radio guys became my heroes.
JW: How did records play a role?
CS: The R&B guy ran a record store in Providence. I used to go into his store quite a bit as a young teen. He immediately understood me and was protective of my interest in jazz. He’d always say, Did you ever hear this musician or that singer?" I’d say, No." Then he’d hand me a heavy shellac single recording for all of 98 cents and tell me to go into one of the booths to listen to it.
JW: You must have had some collection.
CS: I was always coming home with records. My mother loved them, too. My mother had the advantage of listening to the big bands when she was growing up, when swing was the most popular music genre in the country.
JW: Did you study music or sing in high school?
CS: Not really. I still don’t read music. In high school, I was singing in a church choir before I was singing anywhere else. Most of the choir was made up of members of my family—uncles, aunts and some cousins. The rest of the people in the choir were from the parish.
JW: How did you learn to sing at church?
CS: We were taught step by step, passage by passage. The church organist knew we didn’t know how to read music, so we would learn the parts by listening to her. That was it.
JW: In 1955, when you were 18 years old, you married, Charlie Jefferds, a local disc jockey.
CS: I met Charlie through the two deejays I already knew. By associating with them, they introduced me to other radio people. You see, I was so curious about the mechanics of producing a radio show. I wanted to know how it all worked—how they got records on the air and how all of the equipment was operated. Through my curiosity, I became a part of the local radio scene. I always could come into the radio studios and sit quietly and watch the men work.
JW: Were you singing professionally yet?
CS: I had started singing in front of an audience two days a week when I was 14. Mostly the stock arrangements of a dance-band leader named Ed Drew. I sang twice a week at Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet Ballroom in Cranston, a nearby town.
JW: In 1955 you move with Jefferds to Colorado for a year and then to Germany?
CS: Yes, Charlie got drafted and we went to Colorado for his basic training. Then he was stationed in Germany. We lived in Army housing there. I needed to find something to do to keep myself sane. So I began appearing in musical productions on the base.
JW: Do you remember any of them?
CS: Oh, sure. There was a general at the base in Germany, the head honcho on the post. One day he told the special-services guy that he was being transferred, but that before he left he wanted to see his favorite show, Kiss Me Kate. The special-services guy pulled together musicians and amateur singers. But we were pressed for time, so the troupe could only perform the show's first act. It was great fun, and I enjoyed it immensely.
JW: What did you do after the show?
CS: We took the performance and scenery we had made for the first act on the road. We went to other military installations around Germany. Even in the mid-1950s, so much of Germany looked bombed out. We went to Nuremberg, Heidelberg and other places there. It was an interesting trip with the cast, in a little school bus.
JW: What happened when you returned to the States in 1958.
CS: Charlie and I were amicably divorced. We realized we wanted different things out of life. By the time we got back, I was ready to go looking for a job as a professional singer. In Germany, I had been able to experiment as a singer and take advantage of what was available to me. Along the way, I realized that I had something special. Keep in mind, I didn’t just sing with a trio at the officer’s club over there. I wouldn’t have liked that. Since I didn’t like the officers much anyway. I was already bringing jazz into what I was doing.
JW: Where did you work when you returned?
CS: I was singing at a club in New Bedford or Fall River [Mass.]. I can never remember which town the club was in. Anyway, I was singing with a trio on a stage that sat above the bar. I did everything I could to sound like Sarah Vaughan back then. She was always in my head, and so it came out that way. People would be seated around the bar and they were actually listening to me sing rather than talking.
JW: Did you catch a break?
CS: One night, there was this man sitting at the bar. After I finished a set, he introduced himself and gave me his business card. The man said he was Bob Bonis, the road manager for the Les and Larry Elgart Orchestra. He told me the band was working down the road at some amusement park. In those days, bands toured places like that. People would spend the day on rides, and then at night they'd dance away to the popular songs of the day at the park's ballroom.
JW: What did he say?
CS: Bob said the band was looking for a singer and asked if I'd come down and audition. He offered to give me a lift in his car, but I said no. I didn’t know who the heck he was, and he was big, like a football player. I wasn’t about to get into a car with a strange man, no matter how sweet he seemed. Anyone can have a business card. I was pretty bright, even at that young age [laughs].
JW: Did you audition?
CS: Are you kidding? A friend drove me right over and I sang a couple of songs with the band. Afterwards, Larry asked me to join and gave me a couple of weeks to think about it. At that point, the band had divided. Les took the band and had the territory from Chicago to the west. Larry had the band from Chicago to the east. That’s how they split it up fairly. It was impossible for those two to work together at that point. They had completely different personalities, and I think they drove each other nuts. So they went separate ways.
JW: What did you do?
CS: I decided to come to New York and join Larry's orchestra. I was with the band for two years.
JW: Your last name is a stage name, yes?
CS: Yes, but it's my legal last name now. I was born Carol Morvan. I had used Vann as my last name when I sang as a kid. After I joined Larry Elgart’s band, he didn’t like Vann for some reason. Each night he'd introduce me to the audience with a different last name. One day we were sitting in his office, and we were throwing around last names to finalize my identity. Someone said “Sloan.”
JW: Who came up with it?
CS: It might have been Larry, his wife or me. I can't recall. But when Sloan popped up, I said, That’s it. That is it. Please let’s not go any further. I like Sloan, But let’s add an “e” to the end." I wanted the e" because it was more finished, to my way of thinking. Sloan without the e" looked as though it had been clipped, like it was taken to the vet, you know? [laughs] I saw a lawyer the next day and legally changed my name to Carol Sloane.
JW: Was touring with Larry Elgart for two years grueling?
CS: 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 drives from concert to concert. We didn’t have a bus. That wasn’t Larry’s way. Instead, everyone had separate cars, and he paid for the gas and maintenance. I drove with Bob Bonis, the band’s road manager who had given me his business card back in 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. 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 babysat 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 Manhattan's East Side. The musicians included Bill Finegan 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 wasn’t able to sing with the group at a club run. 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 trio—Gildo 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, 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 types. 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: He invited 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.
JW: Was Oscar supportive?
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 finished 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.
JW: Have you listened to Out of the Blue lately, your first album for Columbia?
CS: I hear it every now and again. I think the album is really truly lovely. I was blessed. Bob Bonis, who had become better than a friend and helped me with my career, introduced me to people like [arranger] Bill Finegan. Bill at first was just a good old friend of Bob's, someone who we went to dinner with. This was before I realized who he was and that I was in the presence of musical genius.
JW: Were you surprised when Finegan agreed to arrange your first album?
CS: I couldn’t believe it. I was startled, and the thought almost frightened me to death.
CS: I thought to myself, Who am I to get Bill Finegan for my album?" Then when I arrived at the studio I was introduced to the band on the date, which really made me nervous. There was Nick Travis and Clark Terry on trumpets on different days, Bob Brookmeyer on trombone, guitarists Barry Galbraith and Jim Hall were there separately, George Duvivier and Art Davis on bass, and others. I couldn't believe it.
JW: Your voice on the album has been compared with Sarah Vaughan's. Did you listen to her often?
CS: Oh yes. She was playing all the time back then on the radio—and not just on jazz programs. Regular deejays who were playing more commercial music played Sarah—and Ella. As a result, Sarah was on every station in the country. Carmen [McRae] not as much. Carmen had a little more edge in her voice, and she didn’t get the same kind of airplay that the others did. But Carmen was a stalwart on the jazz stations.
JW: What did you think when you were compared to Sarah?
CS: I don’t think I came anywhere near her. Sarah had such an enormous vocal instrument. She was blessed with a very wide range. She was a real jazz musician. Even more so than Ella. She really did improvise every time she sang. Years later Jimmy Rowles, the pianist, told me that if you heard Sarah sing a really far out version of a song, it was probably the fourth or fifth take. He said that’s when she really began to dissect the material and explore it and put it together again.
JW: Do you remember recording Out of the Blue?
CS: Sure. Bill [Finegan] walked in kind of late. In fact he had copyists in the corner copying charts. The ink wasn’t dry on the parts they handed out to the musicians. That was his method. He was meticulous but not great with deadlines. He wanted things to be perfect for me and the orchestra. I remember he put an 8-ounce tumbler filled to the rim with straight bourbon on top of the conductor’s stand. I said to myself, Whew, OK, I’m not the only one who’s nervous here." [laughs]
JW: But you already knew Bill and he knew you.
CS: Yes but those occasions were small intimate sessions. On that 1959 demo, Larry [Elgart] had just wanted to get some kind of idea of my range. Larry said to me, We’ll just do some songs. If the range is too high, we’ll take it down." So there was no pressure.
JW: How was your range?
CS: Back then I recorded in a higher key than I do now. Just the other day I was listening to a recording of me singing What's New? The key I chose was so high. When I heard it, I said to myself, My god, that is such a hard song to sing in that key. I could never sing that song that way anymore." But here’s the fun part: That key is the one I had in my key book. Singers keep a key book because they can't remember off the top of their heads which keys work best for different songs. So last March I'm in Florida.
CS: I was there to perform a series of four or five concerts. Arbors Records and Matt Domber had set them up. Dick Hyman was on piano. At our rehearsal, we were going to do What's New? So I looked in my key book and told Dick what I had written down. But I immediately corrected myself, saying, Oh, no wait, my god that’s way the hell too high." So we took it down. Fine. We go through it in rehearsal and everything's great. But at the performance that night, Dick starts by playing the introduction in the key that I gave him at rehearsal, the one I can no longer do [laughs].
JW: How did you handle that?
CS: I thought to myself, I could stop the show and tell Dick, 'Remember, we changed that.' But that would have been absurd. And I didn’t want to embarrass him. So I went ahead and tried to sing in the much higher key. I wound up laughing. The guys in the band behind me were laughing. Goodness, I had to drop an octave just to get to the higher one.
JW: Your first studio album, Out of the Blue, sounded great.
CS: Part of the album's fine sound was the work of the engineer who Bill [Finegan] got for the date. Bill insisted on this guy. I don’t know if he's mentioned on the album cover or not. This engineer had recorded all of the Juilliard Quartet recordings and had always refused to do pop or jazz sessions. He felt it was beneath him. But when he heard me sing and looked at the song selections, he agreed to do it. Getting him was a big coup for Bill.
JW: In the summer of 1962, you recorded your second album for Columbia, Live at 30th Street.
CS: In New York, 30th Street was the location of Columbia's main recording studio. At my insistence, Mike Berniker of Columbia invited a couple of hundred people to add a live feel to the session. Peter Bogdanovich, who wrote the album's liner notes, was there. He was a freelance journalist at the time. My then-boyfriend was there, too. I remember they set up a table of food but no liquor. It was like a nice little party.
JW: Why did you want a live atmosphere?
CS: To relax me. I had had such a difficult time with the first album. I was so uncomfortable with all of those jazz greats in the band. As you sing on a date like that, you're constantly worried that your performance is being judged by the greatest musicians around. If you have to do a retake, you worry about what they think of you or that you're taking up their time. It's awful, and that kind of stuff hangs over you in a situation like that when you're young. For Live at 30th Street, we just used a quartet featuring Bill Rubenstein on piano, Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar, George Duvivier on bass and Sol Gubin on drums.
JW: Then in 1965, you recorded just four more tracks for Columbia.
CS: Those were singles. They thought I should go in a more commercial direction. They hired someone who had arranged for Jerry Vale and added four or five backup singers to sing the ooo's and ahhh's at different points. Those singles are a hoot. It wasn't the direction in which I wanted to go, but I had no choice. The first two albums didn't sell that well.
JW: Why did the support at Columbia drop off?
CS: Goddard Lieberson, the president of Columbia Records, had produced the cast album for I Can Get It for You Wholesale in 1962. Barbra Streisand was in the show. Goddard signed her almost immediately after the show closed, and her first solo record, The Barbara Streisand Album, came out in 1963. Much of Columbia's energy and efforts shifted to promoting Barbra—and rightly so.
JW: Did you ever meet Streisand?
CS: Several times. The first time I was singing at the Village Vanguard in 1961. One of the waiters came up to me to tell me that there was a young girl in the back who looked kind of weird. He said she doesn't have a purse and she's wearing a T-shirt and her hair is long and stringy. The waiter asked if I wanted to see this girl or should he tell her I'm not available. I went to the back of the club and there was this ordinary looking girl. She said to me, How do you do that?" Do what? You mean singing," I said. Yeah, how do you sing like that?" She said she was just starting out, but she may have been auditioning for the part in Wholesale.
JW: What happened?
CS: She introduced herself, and we chatted about singing for a while, and I wished her well. The next thing I knew, Columbia signed her. Many months later, I was invited to a cocktail party where Barbra was the guest of honor. She arrived and was completely made over. She really looked great. We sat down in a corner and started yapping like two old friends. She eventually waved goodbye, and I didn't see her again until years later, when I was getting my hair done at Revlon in New York.
JW: What happened?
CS: She came in, and my hairdresser said she was making a big fuss. He urged me to go over to see her, but I didn't want to invade her space, especially if she was upset about something. So I sent over a note. A minute later the note came back with a note from her on the flip side asking me to come over.
JW: How was she?
CW: When I went over, Barbra was sitting in a chair with foil in her hair and both arms extended while her nails were being done and someone else was giving her a pedicure. She was absolutely charming and adorable.
JW: So Streisand's meteoric rise really knocked the wind out of female jazz singers' sails at this time.
CS: I'm sure. When I started a year or so earlier, Columbia had just begun a new stars" series. The original cover of Out of the Blue had a star on it, as part of that program. Columbia's guys out in the field would go from radio station to radio station pushing new albums. I went on a radio tour for my first album. I was met at airports and wined and dined. It was a big deal. But after signing Barbra, Columbia decided they were really going to lay hard on stations for her. This meant there was less energy and enthusiasm left for jazz singers. Which, of course, made complete sense given Barbra's enormous talent.
JW: In 1962, George Wein invited you to sing at the Newport Jazz Festival, which was revived after 1961.
CS: Yes, I was singing there with Bill Rubenstein on piano. I had just finished the first chorus of a ballad, Willow Weep for Me, when I stepped back to let the pianist have at it. That's when I heard this tenor saxophone playing.
JW: You weren't working with a tenor in your group?
CS: No, just a trio. So I turn around and there’s Coleman Hawkins. He wasn’t supposed to be there but he just appeared on stage playing. I don’t know why or how. I didn't see him afterward and I have no idea why he decided to come out when he did. Obviously, no one would have told him what to do. I think he was just backstage with his horn and wanted to play or he liked the song or the way I was singing it.
JW: Did Hawkins ever tell you why he came out?
CS: No. I saw him many years later, when I sang at the Village Vanguard during a New Year's Eve gig. Coleman was there and so were Phil Woods, Bobby Brookmeyer and Thelonious Monk. I was singing there with a trio. Hawk was very sweet to me. He said he remembered coming out on stage to play.
JW: A similar incident happened in December of 1963, didn't it?
CS: [Laughs]. Yes, I was working this gig at a little club called Kings and Queens in Pawtucket, R.I. I was asked by the manager to sing for the weekend. The club was going to be packed with chums from my school days. Mike Renzi was going to play piano for me along with other guys who were gigging around Providence at the time. Well, I got to the club and the owner says to me, Oh, by the way, I have Ben Webster coming in from New York for the weekend.”
JW: What did you think?
CS: I froze in my tracks. I said to him, Are you certain it's the Ben Webster." Yep, that's who it was. So I decided I'd better sing a lot of Ellington music that weekend. I also pulled out my Ella Fitzgerald voice.
JW: How was Ben?
CS: Out of his noodle. The whole weekend. He was really drinking hard. But for me, it was incredible. I was singing with Ben Webster, and when I wasn't, I was standing there listening to a legend play a solo. I knew I wasn’t impressing anyone that weekend, especially Ben.
JW: How was it for him?
CS: He was having fun because he was playing songs that he loved. And I was having fun because I was singing songs I loved. I wanted to stop and say to the audience, “Forget about me singing. Look who’s here with me.”
JW: What happened afterward?
CS: Bob [Bonis] and I drove him all the way back to New York. Later I found out a bunch of lawyers had recorded the session.
JW: What did Ben say in the car about your singing?
CS: Nothing. He snored all the way home in the car. Bob tried to pry some information out of him. Bob was much more knowledgeable about the Ellington Orchestra. I mean, you have a legend in the car, so you want to pry him open and hear some stories. But Ben just passed out.
JW: Did Webster offer any encouragement on stage?
CS: He smiled. That was enough for me. He smiled. When he came off stage, he went straight to the bar.
JW: While you're singing, you're listening hard to Ben, yes?
CS: Every note. And as a singer, I couldn't believe how great he sounded and how good I felt.
JW: Was 1964 as big a transition year for jazz as it seems?
CS: Oh, yes. You truly got the sense with the British Invasion that something big was happening, something enormous, and that nothing was ever going to be the same for jazz and jazz vocalists.
JW: Was Bob Bonis able to help you during this tricky time?
CS: As much as he could. Bob had been with MCA but had to leave when the government forced the company to dissolve its talent agency so it could acquire Universal Pictures. In 1964, Bob took a job as the first U.S. road manager for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
JW: Did you meet them?
CS: Yes. I met the Rolling Stones during their first U.S. tour in June 1964. When they were in New York, I was with them pretty much wherever they went. To the Stones, I was Bob's bird," so to speak. I remember I went to the Apollo Theater with them in New York because they wanted to see B.B. King. We came in after the show had started and the lights had gone down. They thought it was the best way to sneak in without being recognized. Of course, the whole town knew they were in New York.
JW: Did you make it to your seats?
CS: Yes, I wound up sitting in a row with Keith Richards on one side and Mick Jagger on the other. Suddenly, word got around the theater that they were there. The audience became so loud that the show stopped. Suddenly I was being pulled from one side to the other as we made it out of there. Everyone was told to just run. At that time they didn’t know how to deal with that kind of stuff.
JW: What happened on the street?
CS: We climbed into the waiting limo. There were women hanging on the hood of the car as we pulled away. It was crazy.
JW: Were they nervous about the mobs?
CS: No, they weren't scared at all. They kind of watched it and commented on the different nut cases. I think after the Beatles went through the same thing earlier in the year, they anticipated it and probably enjoyed it. The madness was part of the whole thing.
JW: What was Jagger like?
CS: Mick was adorable. So was Keith [Richards], Bill [Wyman] and Charlie [Watts]. Brian Jones was on his own planet.
JW: What did you talk about with Mick?
CS: English history. He was fascinated and proud of his country’s past. When we arrived back at their suite at the Astor Hotel after the Apollo thing, Keith just grabbed a guitar and started strumming away. Who knows what he might have been writing then.
JW: Did you sing with them?
CS: [Laughs] No. I didn't know any of their songs at that time and they didn't know too many of mine.
JW: Were they curious about you?
CS: Yes. Somewhere Bob Bonis took a picture of them holding my first album cover, Out of this World. I don’t know what happened to it. It probably vanished.
JW: So you were with them quite a bit that month.
CS: Yes. It was exciting and exhausting. I remember when they were going home, we took them out to Kennedy Airport. I was standing with the luggage and Bob had their tickets. Suddenly Mick came barreling through the international terminal from the street where the cars and cabs pulled up. He rushed in, picked me and threw me around screaming, We're goin' home! We're goin' home."
JW: Was Brian Jones a handful?
CS: Absolutely. He was depressed the entire time. He was usually off in a corner weeping. There were a couple of nights when he couldn't even get on stage. He was so troubled.
JW: June was a tough tour for them.
CS: Yes, I think there had been so much excitement over the Beatles [who had first performed in the U.S. in February 1964]. If I recall, they didn't have a hit here yet on the radio, so they were more of a Beatles follow-up than an established group. But on the heels of the Beatles, they were the next best thing for the kids.
JW: You met the Beatles the following year.
CS: Yes, when they returned in 1965 to play at Shea Stadium. Dear Bob [Bonis] kept telling them I was a great jazz singer, but they were too caught up in their own thing and the fuss being made to notice or care.
JW: How did Bonis manage the mass insanity in 1965?
CS: Bob was built like a football player. He was assigned to stand behind Ringo while other beefy guys stood behind the other members of the group. At concerts, they stood at the base of the stage. The rule was that if fans broke through the barriers set up, the four Beatles were to just drop their instruments and jump off stage. They were told to just do it, that someone would be there to catch them.
JW: Did that ever happen?
CS: Bob told me he had to catch Ringo several times.
JW: Where were you in Shea Stadium?
CS: I was watching in the dugout. There was so much chaos and confusion. There just was no way to control 55,000 people. And then there was this steady primal screech that just woudn't end.
JW: As a jazz singer, was that kind of wide-scale fan adulation for relatively basic music scary?
CS: I got nauseous. I could see the writing on the wall with the Beatles. The kids had been drifting away from jazz for years. But by this concert in 1965, they were completely gone, and I knew they were never coming back. You could see it. You could hear it.
JW: In the years that immediately followed, your recording career got quiet.
CS: A lot of that was due to the Beatles and other rock acts. The record companies just didn't put any promotion behind jazz records anymore. And for a singer, it was really hard to get a recording gig. Nevertheless, I still had a great time. In the late 1960s I was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson quite a bit. I also was singing regularly at San Francisco's Hungry I and at Mister Kelly's in Chicago. I was very lucky to have been able to sing at these wonderful venues.
JW: Had the club scene changed?
CS: Sure. For one, the singer now opened for the comic. Ten years earlier, it was the other way around. The comics warmed up the audiences or came on during the musicians' breaks. TV changed all that. During this period I opened for the Smothers Brothers and Jackie Mason. One night a young Richard Pryor did open for me [laughs]. Those were great days.
JW: In 1969 you relocated to North Carolina.
CS: Yes. I went there because I was sitting around doing nothing except worrying about how I was going to pay my bills. In New York, I had to go back to working as a temp secretary. Thank god I could type and take shorthand [laughs]. I was at my wits' end.
JW: Why North Carolina?
CS: One day in 1969 I got a phone call from an agent who said there was a new club in Raleigh [N.C.] that had a jazz policy. I didn’t want to go down there. I was certain I was going to have an awful time. But I needed the work. So I went down anyway and wound up having a ball.
JW: What was the name of the cub?
CS: The Frog and Nightgown, but it was known as The Frog. The guy who ran it was a British fellow, a biochemist who played the drums and had always wanted to have a jazz club of his own.
JW: Was The Frog a big deal?
CS: It became one. He started booking Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz and all types of heavy hitters. Of course, no one knew what to make of it. Eventually the place got so popular that he had to move to a larger space. Suddenly the place was jammed. He had Stan Kenton, Count Basie, George Shearing, Monk, everyone. I had a ball.
JW: The work got you back up on your feet.
CS: Yes. I had a secretarial job in the daytime down there, but I'd work at The Frog once every four to six weeks. And when I did, people were eager for the special formats I put together, like the Noel Coward and Cole Porter program. I even did a Beatles program one time. By then I had completely relocated there and abandoned the stresses of the city. The weather was much more moderate and the people were warm and friendly. I was a big fish in a small pond, and I loved it.
JW: When did you come back to New York and why?
CS: In the late 1970s I got a phone call from Sir Roland Hanna in New York. He said that Dee Dee Bridgewater couldn’t do a gig at a club that is no longer around. Roland asked if I'd come up to join the New York Jazz Quartet. Wow, I said, that would be heaven. So I came up to do the run. But when I got there, Roland called to tell me that he wouldn't be there opening night. And neither would bassist George Mraz. I started to grow uneasy. I remember saying, What? What? What do you mean?" He said he and George had other gigs that night.
JW: Who did Hanna send to sub?
CS: [Laughs] Oh, just Tommy Flanagan [on piano] and Percy Heath [on bass].
JW: Sounds like you had a good run.
CS: I did. One night after the set I was sitting at the bar with George [Mraz]. He said he was going over to Bradley's, the club, after the set. He said Jimmy Rowles was playing piano there. Jimmy, of course, had played for all the legendary singers. So we went over to the club. There had been some press about me and I had received good reviews. When we got there, Bradley, the owner, asked me to sing with Jimmy.
JW: What did you say?
CS: I said no way, it wouldn't be fair to Jimmy. I said: I’m sure Jimmy has been bombarded by people who want to sing with him. I just want to put my feet up and listen. At any rate. Jimmy doesn’t even know who I am." Bradley pushed and Jimmy agreed. When Jimmy asked what I wanted to sing, I said My Ship in A-flat. So Jimmy played the song's introduction, and I came in. Jimmy said that was the moment he fell in love with me.
JW: What made Rowles sound so good?
CS: He knew exactly when not to play. He knew how much a singer needed and how much she didn’t need. Once he heard me, he knew instinctively that I didn’t need a lot of support. I knew where the song was going to go. Even if he didn’t play a note I was going to be OK. He did the same thing with Lady Day, Carmen and Sarah. He knew those singers. When he had a new singer, he didn’t know how much playing she needed. He told me that from the time I started singing at Bradley's, he knew I was going to be OK.
JW: How long did you two live together?
CS: Three years. The relationship had its moments. Jimmy had certain qualities that were charming and beguiling. But he was an alcoholic and it was impossible to change him. It was the second time I had lived with an alcoholic. He was always surrounded by drink—his buddies Zoot [Sims] and Al [Cohn] were knocking back scotches all the time. He was all set up to go on drinking and smoking unfiltered cigarettes. Just to get him on his feet in the morning I had to bring him a double vodka and tonic. He had a few more, and by the time he was ready to leave the apartment, he was in good shape.
JW: How did you manage?
CS: It was very, very hard. I said more than once if I had had a gun in the house I would be doing time.
JW: That sounds terrible.
CS: It got so bad that I tried to take my own life.
JW: Carol, my god.
CS: Jimmy had bought a huge bottle of Dalmane, to relieve his insomnia. I took the entire bottle. The next thing I knew Tommy Flanagan's wife Diana was standing over me. I was rushed to St. Vincent's Hospital and had my stomach pumped.
JW: How did Diana Flanagan wind up there?
CS: Jimmy had called her. As far as Jimmy was concerned, he was just going to sit there and watch me go.
JW: You didn't stay with him after that, did you?
CS: No. Jimmy had to go back to California for a period, and while he was gone I left.
JW: Why were you with him?
CS: It was a tough period for me. I was in my early 40s and had begun questioning everything about my career and my ability. Jimmy was a legendary pianist, the guy who had accompanied everyone. In the beginning he made me feel great. But little by little, things got worse and worse.
JW: Where did you go?
CS: This was 1981. I went up to Boston and stayed with a friend for a while. I was all set to take a full-time job as a legal secretary. Then a friend called from Chapel Hill, N.C., and asked me to come down and book jazz acts for his club. So off I went. It was a big, spectacular opening, with Barbara Cook. I booked all my friends—Jackie and Roy, Shearing, Carmen, Helen Merrill and others. Occasionally I sang.
JW: Getting back to Jimmy, what did you learn from him?
CS: I learned how to sing. By listening to him play, I learned how to become an interpreter of songs rather than just a singer—someone who just relies on the beauty of her voice.
JW: Come on, Carol, you could sing way before you met Rowles.
CS: Yes, but Jimmy taught me how to read the lyric. He taught me how to project the sentiment of a song, which I hadn’t been doing. I had been singing. Lovely voice. People were impressed with the fact that I was in tune. But I hadn't been interpreting songs until way late in my career. I was just singing.
JW: So Rowles, through his playing, taught you a great deal about your voice.
CS: 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 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 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'd 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 anymore. 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, and you tell yourself that you’ll eventually calm down and relax a bit. And you do relax—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 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 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.
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, 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: The Beatles?
CS: 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 in 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.
Sloane: A Jazz Singer, a documentary on Carol Sloane, is in the works. To speed it along, donate what you can. Here's a clip...
This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2024. All rights reserved.