Carol Sloane is easily the finest jazz singer of the post-jazz era. After getting her start in 1958 with the Larry Elgart Orchestra, Carol experienced a series of Cinderella breaks just as rock was beginning to yank the commercial rug out from under jazz. Had Carol been born five years earlier, she surely would be as well known today as Carmen McRae, Chris Connor and other headline singers who emerged during the rock-free early 1950s.
When you listen to Carol's ballad recordings, what hits you immediately is how much she sounds like Sarah Vaughan [pictured] in the 1960s. On swingers, she has the round richness and twinkle of Ella Fitzgerald. Carol's voice has always been husky, rich and caressing, and her delivery comes across as though she's sharing a story with you in confidence. What's more, Carol's interpretive approach with lyrics is simply unmatched. Each song becomes a personal tale that connects with your heart. It's impossible not to be moved by a Carol Sloane recording.
In Part 1 of my five-part interview with Carol, 72, the legendary singer talks about growing up in Rhode Island, her first marriage, being hired by Larry Elgart in 1958, and why she changed her last name to "Sloane."
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Carol Sloane: I grew up in Smithfield, Rhode Island, 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, was because we each had 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 also 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 the big bands were the most popular music in the country.
JW: Were you studying music or singing 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 years old. Mostly the stock arrangements of a dance bandleader named Ed Drew. I sang twice a week at Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet Ballroom in Cranston, a nearby town. [Pictured: Carol Sloane in 1951]
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, and 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 [pictured] 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. [Pictured, from left: Larry and Les Elgart]
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 the 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.
Tomorrow, Carol talks about touring with the Elgart band, meeting Jon Hendricks while appearing at a Pennsylvania jazz festival, being asked to open for Oscar Peterson at the Village Vanguard, learning the Lambert Hendricks & Ross book of songs, winning a spot at the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival, and the big break during her performance on stage.
JazzWax tracks: I'll be posting about many of Carol Sloane's albums in the coming days. But perhaps the best introductory CD is Carol Sloane: Ballad Essentials, a compilation of Carol's ballad work from the mid-1990s for Concord Records. I think this album best captures what's extraordinary about Carol's voice, her phrasing and story-telling qualities. It's available as a CD here.
JazzWax clip: Here's an audio clip of Carol singing Something to Live For, from the 1990 album The Real Thing, with Phil Woods (alto sax), Mike Renzi (piano), Rufus Reid (bass) and Grady Tate (drums). Listen as she commands attention by teasing out every nuance in the song's melody line. And dig the sound of Phil Woods' alto sax pressed up against her voice...