Carol Stevens, the Forgotten Jazz Singer

That Satin Doll - Carol Stevens - Atlantic 1256

THAT SATIN DOLL / ELLINGTON: In a Mellotone.1 Satin Doll.2 MOORE: Saved it All For You.1,3 Mood for You. 2,3 Lurelei [F.H.C.].2,3 Tender as a Rose.2,3 HARRIS: Everywhere.2 BROONZY-GREEN: Romance in the Dark.2 ROBERTS-NOHAIN: Lying in the Hay.1 BERLIN: I’m Playing With Fire.2 KALMAR-RUBY: Keep On Doin’ What You’re Doin’.2 GORDON-WARREN: At Last 2 / Carol Stevens, voc; 1Nick Travis, tpt; 2Warren Covington, 1Eddie Bert, tb; 1Herbie Mann, a-fl; 1Sol Schlinger, bs-cl; 2Romeo Penque, ob/bsn/E-hn; 1Phil Bodner, cl/E-hn; 2Bernard Kaufman, bs-cl/fl; 2Bobby Rosengerger, vib; 2Don Elliott, mel; Frank Berry, 3Phil Moore, pno; Barry Galbraith, gtr; Milt Hinton, bs; Osie Johnson, dm; 1Phil Kraus, perc / Atlantic 8122-79667-6, also available for free streaming on Spotify or YouTube beginning HERE

This is the sad story of a great jazz singer whose career went nowhere, much to her chagrin and disappointment and a ton of hard work. Carol Stevens grew up as a jazz buff who memorized all the great jazz solos on all of the records she heard, particularly by the Ellington and Woody Herman bands, developed a rich-voiced scat singing style of her own, and then hit Philadelphia, only to discover that the quote for female jazz singers was all filled up.

Frustrated, she joined a society orchestra led by Herbie Collins in the Warwick Hotel, singing vanilla pop music. She hated it but made good money. She was tall, lean, and attractive-looking in a non-conventionally-pretty way. Tired of being hit on by Collins, she jumped to another society band led by violinist Bob Kay. She married Kay in 1950. He lived with his mother and the marriage was rocky. In 1955 she intended to file for divorce, but discovered that she was pregnant, so she stayed for a while longer. As she told Marc Myers of Jazz Wax in a rare late-in-life interview (from which I’ve gleaned most of the info above), “I looked sophisticated but I really wasn’t.”[1]

In 1956 she moved to New York, and things got better. She hung out at Jilly’s Saloon where she would sing occasionally; veteran jazz pianist and composer Phil Moore heard her and “flipped.” She met Moore for lunch and he offered her help, which she accepted. She worked with Bill Evans when he was still an unknown pianist with Don Elliott. Moore set up gigs for her, paid for dancing lessons, and set up this one-and-only recording session for Atlantic in 1957. It got great reviews, but still her career hit a wall. She was now competing with the best of the best female jazz singers: Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Julie London, Caterina Valente and a host of others. In 1959, guitarist Barry Galbraith and bassist Milt Hinton, both of whom had played in her album, took part in a TV show pilot called After Hours, hosted by Make-Believe Ballroom Time host William B. Williams, and they suggested that Carol come in near the end of the all-star set (which included trumpeter Roy Eldridge and tenor saxist Coleman Hawkins) to sing a couple of sings with them. It was a great idea; she did; but the pilot wasn’t picked up and thus never aired. Another piece of bad luck.

Stevens slowly faded from view despite singing at clubs in New York and New England where she performed with Jimmy Giuffre and others. According to Stevens in her interview with Myers, Nesuhi Ertegun wanted her to make other albums but Phil Moore, who was acting as her agent, turned it down, telling her to wait for “better deals from others” that never came. Carol did voice-overs for ads to make money: Score Hair Crème, Breck shampoo, Rheingold beer and Harvey’s Bristol Cream, some of them with the MJQ and Toots Thielemans.

The Atlantic album disappeared from the catalog, but after being reissued on a Japanese Atlantic CD, it suddenly caught people’s attention. And small wonder, because Stevens had a truly unique voice. She combined the warmth of Sarah Vaughan, the intimacy of Julie London and the scat-singing ability of Anita O’Day into her own unique style. For the most part, she avoids the lyrics of the songs, even famous ones like Satin Doll, to phrase and scat like a jazz horn. There’s not a bad track on the entire album, short though it is (barely over a half-hour); one interesting feature is that, with all the famous jazz names backing her on this disc, they only get spot solos and fills to play. This was clearly Carol Stevens’ showcase, but unfortunately there weren’t enough hip jazz musicians to make it a best-seller. The majority of “pop jazz” listeners wanted something more accessible, something closer to Sarah Vaughan’s Broken-Hearted Melody and less arty, and this Carol would not give them. She may have been alone, broke, and somewhat vulnerable, but she had her musical integrity and wasn’t going to give up doing what she did best.

During the taping of After Hours, Roy Eldridge told her that loved her voice and wanted to make some records with her. “Look what I did for Anita,” he said, but Stevens wasn’t comfortable with being a scat singer. She married Norman Mailer and moved to New England with him, which is where she sang most of her later gigs.

Her sultry contralto voice still grabs the discerning listener, but even better is the way she used her voice like a jazz horn. Her phrasing and sense of jazz “time” were superb, and in the After Hours pilot she fits in perfectly with the assembled jazz stars singing Taking a Chance on Love and Just You, Just Me (trading scat licks with Eldridge in the latter). Ironically, Stevens told Myers that she hated the latter performance, which was completely impromptu, encouraged by Eldridge. She didn’t think of herself as a scat singer.

There’s not much more to the Carol Stevens story than that. Her appearance on After Hours was her last shot at jazz stardom, and it came to nothing. A very sad story, really, and one that could be used as a yardstick to judge how much worse women in the arts were treated then than now. Had Carol Stevens slept her way to the top or had a superpowered agent, she would undoubtedly have gotten further, but unfortunately she had her integrity.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

[1] https://www.jazzwax.com/2014/01/interview-carol-stevens-part-1.html

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