Carol Sloane’s debut recording for Contemporary marks the belated return of a great American singer to a domestic label after more than a decade. It’s not that Sloane has been inactive. She has had seven albums released in Japan, where she conducted three successful tours in the early 1980s; she has programmed radio shows in North Carolina and Boston; and she has performed in jazz clubs on both coasts. When producer Helen Keane caught her during a 1988 run in San Francisco, however, Carol Sloane’s career took the much-deserved upswing that has produced Love You Madly.
As is evident to anyone who’s heard her climb inside a song and take it for a ride, singing came naturally to Carol Sloane. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, she grew up surrounded by music. “The whole family had good ears and a great love of music,” she remembers. “Music was around me all the time. It was in the movies we loved. All the radio shows had live orchestras. My father brought home swing era big band records. And the local church choir was comprised mostly of family.”
An uncle on her mother’s side was the only professional musician, playing piano and saxophone, and he landed 14-year-old Carol her first job with Ed Drew’s dance band in 1951. But Carol was just beginning to find her musical home. “There was a distinction made between popular music, performed by mainly white artists—people like Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Teresa Brewer—and black music. When I discovered jazz, I knew it would be my life’s exploration.” Carl Henry, a Providence disc jockey and record store owner, and the legendary Al “Jazzbeau” Collins, whose late-night show on WNEW in New York could be picked up in southern New England, provided Carol with advanced courses in jazz education.
Although she cites Clooney and Sinatra as important models, Sloane says “There were three major influences—Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae. When I first heard Sarah Vaughan and understood she was using her voice and her brain to change the melody I realized I had to challenge myself to take similar risks. I felt that Ella and Sarah were beyond anybody’s grasp—that it would be impossible to emulate their styles. So, it was really Carmen McRae who set me straight and still does. From Carmen one learns the basic lessons: pacing, invention, and above all, concentration.”
Sloane’s ship came in during the early 1960s. She had traveled to Germany in 1955, singing musical comedy, and toured for two years, from 1958 to 1960, with the Larry Elgart Orchestra. Jon Hendricks heard Sloane at the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival and, in 1960, invited her to substitute for Annie Ross in the famed vocal trio with Dave Lambert. A gig at the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival resulted in her recording contract with Columbia Records, and her first two albums, Out of the Blue and Live at 30th Street.
During this period, some reviewers referred to Sloane as a “jazz-influenced pop singer.” “My own feeling is that there are very few white jazz singers. Jazz singing comes from a connection with the black sense of music. Every time I sing, I pay my respects to the black singers who came before me. I try to get that same inner focus on a song that Carmen gets, to get inside that song. People ask me, how can you remember lyrics? The answer is that you only know one song at a time. When you’re singing that song, you don’t know any other songs. It took me a long time to get the inner connection with a tune.”
And when she did, she dedicated herself to the compositions of the songwriters whom she considers “the poets of our time,” such as Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Alec Wilder, Rodgers and Hart, and Duke Ellington. “It’s a little like the person who dedicates himself to playing Shakespearean roles. Somebody’s always going to try to play King Lear better than Olivier.” Beyond Lennon and McCartney or Paul Simon, Sloane is less than enthusiastic about “contemporary” songwriters. “I don’t think romance is part of the atmosphere anymore,” she says. “It’s a shame. And I haven’t heard a new song as well constructed or as challenging to a singer as ‘Lush Life.’”
Sloane’s profile remained high in the early 1960s on the nightclub circuit, where she often shared bills with the new wave of stand-up comics, including Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and Lenny Bruce. During one San Francisco gig at the Hungry i in San Francisco, Richard Pryor was her opening act. She also found work on radio, with Arthur Godfrey, and television, on the Tonight Show. “I was known as ‘the queen of first fifteen’ on the Carson show,” she recalls. During the quarter hour from 11:15 to 11:30, when the show broadcast to a limited number of affiliates, she would sing a song or two and chat with Ed McMahon and Skitch Henderson, often returning to sing a ballad at the end of the program.
But the Sixties were less than ideal for jazz singers, and in 1969, Sloane took a leave from New York City. “I just looked around and felt as if New York itself was chewing away at my feet,” she says. She moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where, she explains, “I lived a different life, among sweet, wonderful people, and I spent good, productive years there, even though the rest of the world didn’t know about it.” In 1977, she moved back to New York, living for a time with pianist Jimmy Rowles, from whom she absorbed many more important lessons about singing. “Jimmy taught me to sing with lots of space. It’s very effective.”
Sloane returned to North Carolina in 1981, helping a friend book jazz into his Chapel Hill supper club and doing a regular show on public radio. In 1986 she was called to a club in Boston and eventually married the operator. “He’s the most wonderful man in the world,” she says. “He’s very knowledgeable about jazz, Fifties r&b, and classical music, so he understands precisely why music is so important to me. I have returned to southern New England where I was born, and it’s all happened in the fiftieth year of my life. I’m developing another awareness of what I can do. I feel I’ve been on a very long journey and now in midlife everything has come full circle.” With the release of Love You Madly, even more listeners will be developing a new awareness of what magic Carol Sloane can do with a song.