Duke Ellington once said that when Johnny Hodges played a solo, he could hear the listeners’ sighs. I can relate. That’s the way I felt when Carol Sloane sang a ballad. Her intensity, her reading of the lyric, the intimacy of her performance—I’d listen, and I’d sigh. I doubt I was the only one, because Sloane was long a favorite among connoisseurs of fine jazz singing. Why she wasn’t better known will always be a mystery to me.
Carol Sloane (nee Carol Morvan) was born in Providence, RI, on March 5, 1937, and raised in nearby Smithfield. She moved to New York in 1958 and split the next 28 years between that city and Raleigh, NC. She moved to Stoneham, in suburban Boston, in 1986, and resided there until her death on Jan 23, 2023.
Sloane started her professional career in 1951, at age 14, singing with Ed Drew’s dance band around Providence for nine dollars a night. She wasn’t Carol Sloane yet, though. She sang as Carol Vann, and even recorded a pop tune in that name in 1953, the obscure “So Long,” on Cadillac Records. But jazz was always on her mind. She learned by listening to late-night radio, to Jazzbo Collins on WNEW in New York, and Norm Nathan on Boston’s WHDH. The next day she’d take her nine dollars to the record shop. Providence deejay Carl Henry, behind the counter, got to know the teenager, and when she’d walk through the door, he’d be ready for her: “Have you listened to Art Tatum? Have you listened to Ben Webster?” She’d buy the records, learn the tunes, scat the horn solos.
Singing with Larry Elgart
In 1958, Sloane caught on with a name band, the orchestra of Larry Elgart. That’s when she moved to New York, working by day as a legal secretary. (She also found shorthand useful for capturing song lyrics.) Her daily walk to work took her past the showroom of W. & J. Sloane Furniture. She and Elgart thought it sounded right, and that’s how Carol Vann became Carol Sloane.
The Elgart Orchestra wasn’t a jazz band, but it had much more of a jazz feel than Ed Drew’s. Bill Finegan (of Sauter-Finegan) and Wayne Andre wrote the arrangements. Sloane recorded with the Elgart band, but you’ve got to hunt for the albums; I’ve included one link at the end of this post. Cellist Finegan also arranged a small-group session for Sloane in 1959 that finally saw the light of day in 1987.
Sloane crossed paths with Jon Hendricks in Pittsburgh. Impressed by her vocal range, he asked if she could fill in for Annie Ross if the need arose. It arose in 1960, about the time that Sloane left Elgart, when Hendricks summoned her to a Philadelphia club. It went well even though Sloane took the stage without benefit of rehearsal. Sloane worked with LH&R as needed for about a year.
Then Came Newport
Sloane arrived on the national scene with a bang at Newport in 1961. Carol sang at the Saturday afternoon New Voices in Jazz session, and she was so new, her name didn’t even appear in the festival program. But Carol amazed and delighted both the crowd and the critics with her a capella verse to “Little Girl Blue,” and she walked away with an offer to open for Oscar Peterson at the Village Vanguard, and a contract with Columbia Records.
Her first Columbia album, Out of the Blue, was in the shops when Carol Sloane returned to Newport in 1962. This time, her name was in the program, singing with Coleman Hawkins. Author/photographer Burt Goldblatt, in his Newport Jazz Festival: The Illustrated History, singled out their rendition of “Willow Weep for Me” for special praise.
Sloane made another notable festival appearance at Monterey in 1964, when she had the unenviable task of following the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Down Beat’s Don DeMicheal, himself a musician as well as an exacting critic, wrote:
Even though the Ellington crew was not at its most stunning, it is still difficult to follow, particularly before a huge Saturday night crowd, and more particularly if one is a relatively unheralded young singer backed by only a rhythm section, but Carol Sloane pulled it off with consummate ease … Miss Sloane’s fur-lined voice is compelling, but it is the way she takes chances with the melody and meter that makes her an outstanding performer. She has fine control and excellent intonation, best displayed in her unaccompanied verse of “Little Girl Blue;” this tune was the emotional high-point of her set.
DeMicheal, in just a few sentences, nails what made Carol Sloane such a good jazz singer.
Not everyone agreed. A wire service reviewer said of Sloane: “a very agreeable pseudo Ella Fitzgerald sound, but not an artist of Monterey caliber.” Well, at least he got one thing right. Fitzgerald was a major influence on Sloane, especially in the early years. Ella is alleged to have said, upon meeting Sloane for the first time, “You’re the one who sings like me!”
There was television, too. Between February 1963 and March 1966, Sloane made 14 guest appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. And although her second album, Live at 30th Street, came out in 1963, a 1965 Columbia session remains unissued.
Carol Sloane made her Boston-area debut in June 1964, on the supper club circuit, with a stop at the Monticello in Framingham. In May 1966, she worked at the Jazz Workshop for the first time, with Ray Santisi’s house trio. Sloane didn’t remember it, but she remembered her next one, in February 1967, with Bob Brookmeyer. She told me, “The Jazz Workshop was a small room, cozy, nothing about it really stands out in my mind. The sound was good. I wasn’t the star, Bob was, and I got up to sing a few songs. They probably used my name in the advertising, but Bob was the feature. Ray Santisi played piano, and we had Charlie Mariano on alto.” As to why that week was memorable, she recalled: “I got back to my room one night and turned on the television, and they had just arrested Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler. He was in handcuffs. It was a huge story, nationwide, horrible.” (He was taken into custody February 25.)
There was one more gig in Boston, at Paul’s Mall in November 1968, but by then her career had stalled. The rockers were calling the shots. There wasn’t much work, she had no recording contract, and the Tonight Show stopped calling. A club gig in Raleigh NC the following year worked out so well that Sloane ended up relocating to that city, taking a secretarial day job and singing when she could.
Things picked up in the late 1970s. Still popular in Japan, she started recording regularly for Japanese labels. In May 1976, Sloane made her first Boston appearance in eight years at Sandy Berman’s Jazz Revival. Berman was also bringing in saxophonist Flip Phillips the same month. Neither were sure things at the box office. But the usually verbose Berman simply said, “We’re willing to gamble with them because they’re worthy of being presented.” Sloane drew well enough to be invited back three more times, once with trumpeter Art Farmer, which she particularly enjoyed.
Carol Sloane was back on the Boston map, and that October, she sang at the Merry-Go-Round at the Copley Plaza Hotel, infamous for its revolving stage. It wasn’t her favorite room. She told me, “That place was very strange. First, that merry-go-round was making noise while it moved. You’d be singing a ballad and it would be making noise, “urr-urr-urr.” And the movement was very disconcerting. You’d be singing with your eyes closed, and then when you’d open them again, you’d be looking at something completely different.”
This phase of Sloane’s Boston adventures concluded with a half-dozen weekends at Lulu White’s in 1978. Then she was off the local scene again.
Up on the Roof
By the early 1980s, Sloane had fallen on hard times—hard to the point where the bank repossessed her car. Desperate for work, she called George Wein, and the impresario invited her to Newport in 1981, the year he brought the jazz festival back from exile. It was a homecoming for both. Later she contacted Buck Spurr, who managed the Starlight Roof, a club in Boston’s Kenmore Square. Spurr brought her to Boston for a weekend in November 1984 to sing with Vicki Von Eps’s trio. It was a success. There were more engagements, and more successes, and a deepening relationship between Sloane and Spurr. Two years after Sloane’s first visit to the Starlight Roof, the pair married there, on November 30, 1986. Judge Paul Garrity, the celebrated “Sludge Judge” who ordered the cleanup of Boston harbor, performed the service. Fred Taylor served as best man, deejay Tony Cennamo gave away the bride, and Ray Santisi played the bridal march.
The marriage brought Sloane home to New England to stay. In the coming decades, she worked often at the local clubs Regattabar and Scullers, and chronicled her continuing excellence as a singer on a dozen albums recorded by Contemporary, Concord, and HighNote.
Her final public performance was in North Carolina in October 2019. A Birdland date the following March was canceled by the covid lockdown. Health matters forced her into retirement a few months later. However, she sang at Birdland in September 2019, and that performance was recorded and released by Club 44 Records in April 2022. It is Sloane’s final recording. But the true summa to her sixty-year career is Michael Lippert’s documentary, Sloane: A Jazz Singer. Read about it and watch the trailer here. It’s well worth your time.
To the music. First up is Sloane with Larry Elgart’s orchestra, singing “The Lady Is a Tramp,” from 1960’s Easy Goin’ Swing.
Sloane’s performance of “Little Girl Blue” at Newport put her on the map. But here is a later version, recorded live in 1982, accompanied by guitarist Joe Puma.
Carol Sloane recorded six albums for Concord in the 1990s. Here is the title track to 1993’s Sweet and Slow, with Frank Wess contributing the tenor sax solo.