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Archive Interview: Mel Carter (2012)

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Mel Carter has had a terrific career in music from his days in gospel to his discovery by Quincy Jones, his working with Sam Cooke and his many hits like When a Boy Falls in LoveHold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings and Band of Gold.

Carter has recently released a new album called The Other Standards where he covers some "off the beaten path" songs from the 40's, 50's and 60's (along with one original of his own) that were recorded by such greats as Billy EcksteineJulie LondonIvory Joe HunterJo StaffordSonny TilArthur Prysock and a number of others. In doing so, he has revived songs that deserve to be in the upper echelon of what we now call standards and that deserve to be remembered and heard by a new generation.

The other amazing thing about the new album is that, at 69, Mel's voice is as clear and strong as it was during his hitmaking days. It's an instrument that beautifully handles the nuances of the songs he has chosen for the album whether the soft beauty of Haunted Heart or the upbeat fun of Goody, Goody.We had the honor of talking to Mel Carter recently about the new album and his long career.

VVN Music (VVN): One of the things that struck me about the album is that there are a lot of people doing standards albums but they seem to pick from the same 40 to 50 songs and here you've gone out and found some really good music from the 40's, 50's and 60's that you normally don't find on that kind of project.

Mel Carter (MC): My thing was that early on, I had done a lot of Gershwin and Arlan and all the established writers that you hear about all the time and that the people are doing now but there are loads of other songs out there that are standards that people may or may not remember until you sing them and it brings them back.

VVN: I was thinking along the lines of Haunted Heart from the album which is just a really nice song but its not something that I think a lot of people are going to know. It's great to be able to get songs like that back out on record.

MC: That was one of my favorite tunes by Jo Stafford. That was one of the sleeper songs that she had. I always loved that tune.

VVN: What made you decide to go with this concept for the album? Just to get some of these songs out there again or was it a pet project?

MC: More or less, these were songs I grew up with and I admired the artists. I thought there was a whole host of songs that I used to love when I was growing up that I wanted to revisit. I liked the artists and that's why I decided to do this. They are standard tunes so that's why we said The Other Standards.

VVN: There really are so many great songs out there that will be forgotten if people don't record them and bring them back into the public view. That's what I really like and appreciate about the album.

MC: I also like the fact that writers in those days wrote stories. You could hear a record and have a beginning a middle and an ending of a story whereas today it's not so much like that.

VVN: When you started out and throughout your career, who influenced you as far as your style and so forth?

MC: When I first started to sing, I was a kid and, because I sang so high, I was influenced by the female singers like Doris Day, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald...some obscure people you may or may not know like Nancy Wilson, Chubby Newsome, this lady that sang with the Lionel Hampton Band, Ella Johnson, all of those people. The reason that I was so influenced by them is because of the fact that I sang that high.

VVN: Another thing about the album is that you picked a couple of songs from the vocal groups of the 50's and early 60's. As I've always said, beneath what is considered at times to be novelty records in the doo wop genre, there are some really fantastic songs.

MC: One of my favorite groups of all-time was Sonny Til and the Orioles and I've done two things by them, It's Too Soon to Know and Crying in the Chapel. As a matter of fact, Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me was actually done by Sonny Til and the Orioles back in the 50's as a doo wop songs and I didn't know that until a DJ from Florida sent me a copy of the song.

Sonny Til recorded Crying in the Chapel twice, once with the Orioles and again without the Orioles.

It's Too Soon to Know was on my album The Heart and Soul of Mel Carter from a couple of years ago. The writer, Doris Chessler, called me from Florida (she had managed Sonny Til and the Orioles) and complimented me on that version of her song.

VVN: That's a perfect example of great songwriting that came out of the vocal groups/doo wop era that I think is just ripe to be redone.

You included one of your own songs on the album, My Lips Can't Find the Lyrics.

MC: I thought I would stick it in and, hopefully, it would become one of the “other standards.”

VVN: Over the years, have you recorded a lot of your own music?

MC: Not a lot. In the early days, the b-side of the record would be something that we had written.

VVN: You mentioned a number of times on the album the name John Rodby who I assume you've worked with for quite some time.

MC: John is a genius. He has a knack, when we rehearse, of picking up on when I go off in a different direction and putting it into the arrangement. I would later have forgotten what I did and he would have written it down. He's just incredible. An incredible musician and an incredible guy.

VVN: How long have you been working with him?

MC: I've been working with him for six years, I think. Prior to that, I knew his wife, Talya Ferro who did a lot of acting in things like Uptown Saturday Night. We did a duet together on one of her albums and John did the arrangement. That's how we met one another.

Mel in the series The Rifleman
VVN: Speaking of acting, you've done quite a bit throughout your career. Anything coming up?

MC: No. My concentration has really been on the music for the last couple of years.

I've also been writing a Broadway-type show called The Balladeers. I want to get a lot of the balladeers, the singers from my era, together and we form a supergroup. There are production numbers and people are able to go in and out of the show using the same production numbers. What makes it new is that they bring their hit records in to become part of the show.

VVN: Any timeline as far as production?

MC: No, I'm still writing. There are a lot of people who like the idea. I've got commitments from a lot of the artists but you know what it is to raise the money for the backing.

VVN: How about touring? Do you have any plans in that direction?

MC: There have been some requests from three or four different promoters to come out the latter part of the summer and early fall. We want to come out and do a lot of material from this album and the Heart and Soul album as well as the regular songs.

VVN: Do you have a regular band that you tour with?

MC: No, usually the people from the other end supply the musicians or, when I go out self-contained, John would come out as the musical conductor.

VVN: I've read that, as a hobby, you collect African art and you had talked about going over to Africa. Did that trip ever come together?

MC: It hasn't come together yet. I've talked about it two or three times, but it's just getting on that flight for that long, long trip but I'm very big with the African art. Most of my apartment, everything in there is the art.

VVN: Back when you started, you were involved with a couple of the great names between Quincy Jones and Sam Cooke.

MC: Quincy discovered me at Mercury Records. He was the A&R man. He discovered me when I was working with Bessie Griffin and the Gospel Pearls. We had done a show called Portrait in Bronze and had been on the Ed Sullivan Show and somehow made my way to Mercury Records. My first hit record that he had done in 1957 was I Need You So and on the other side was When I Grow Too Old to Dream.

We continued to work together. I had done a number of his movie themes. One in particular was called Banning with Robert Wagner. He played a golfer. It was a murder mystery and his now wife played in it, Jill St. John.

VVN: Then, in the late-50's or early-60's, you went over with Sam Cooke's label.

MC: Actually, I had known Sam when we were on the road singing gospel. I was a part of the group called the Robert Anderson Singers and Sam, of course, was with the Soul Stirrers. We used to travel around in those gospel packages.

Then I lived in Chicago when I first moved west and the first company I was with was Doris Day's. In those day's, you had to go in the office and sing live and she happened to be at her office that day and heard me. I was signed to Arwin Records and I had a hit record on their label called I'm Coming Home.

After my contract was up, I went to Sam and became his protege. The first record I had with him was When a Boy Falls in Love. The way I got the record was that I was the only one on the label who could sing as many words to a phrase as he could and I sounded like him.

VVN: When you go back over your career, if you had to pick a label, how would you classify your music?

MC: I would say pop-jazz and the reason I would say that is because back in the day when you had a record, you had to cross it over from the R&B department and charts to move it up. That's what was so fantastic about When a Boy Falls in Love. It was the first pop record from a black owned company and a black star, who was on another major label, to break through the English Invasion. That particular record was historic within itself.

When a Boy Falls in Love was the first pop record on Sam's label. Her created Derby Records for his pop label. The parent body was Sar Records. He created the label for that particular record.

VVN: And then you broke through a number of more times with songs like My Heart Sings and Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me.

MC: By that time, we were on Imperial and Liberty Records. Their basic thing was doing crossover records.

VVN: Did you work with one particular producer at Imperial?

MC: It was Phil Schaff of the Schaff Brothers. Phil brought the Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me song to me. When we first did it, I hated the song because I had to be directed to sing on the beat, but little did I know.

VVN: As artists get older, a lot of times the voice starts to fail and then there are artists like a Tony Bennett or you where your voices are as strong today as they were forty years ago. Is there anything you have done in particular to help you preserve your voice?

MC: I would say it's a gift from God and I think he allows me to have it for as long as I have. I don't abuse myself. I try to stay active. Stay healthy. Try to eat healthy. Do my vocal exercises. It's like an athlete. You have to stay in training.

I can sing about 90% of the songs in the same keys. I still sing Hold Me, Thrill Me in the same key. I still sing When a Boy Falls in Love in the same key. Those are high songs.

VVN: When did you start your CSP Records?

MC: In 1984. I had come back from Japan at the beginning of the CD craze. At first it was created to transfer the albums I had done onto CD. Then, Ernie Ferrell, who was a huge promotion guy, suggested I start recording and doing things on my own. I think we've done eight different projects on the label.

We received a Grammy nomination for a gospel record that I had called Willing from 1984. That's become a bit of a collector's item.

VVN: You said that you released some of your earlier work on it, also?

MC: Capitol/EMI has has The Best of on theirs but this label was created so I could transfer the albums to CD but I didn't do that.

VVN: Are there new artists today that particularly impress you?

MC: I like that kid, Bruno Mars and I like Katy Perry's music. Corinne Bailey Rae and I like that lady that won all the awards last year, Adele.

VVN: Where is the new album available?

MC: CD Baby has it and all of their electronic distribution. iTunes and Amazon and all the other electronic distribution sites or you can come to my site, If you go there and make a request, we can autograph the CD but only if you make the request because we have to take the wrapping off of it.