THE REVOLVING DOOR TEST:
MEL CARTER CONTINUES
WITH BRAND NEW ALBUM
Interview By Michael McDowell
With the rise to prominence of rock and roll, there came into the picture a small yet highly influential group of remarkably gifted vocalists whose extraordinary range and commanding execution of high drama material earned each of them widespread respect as a “singer’s singer”. Among them are George Jones, Sam Cooke, Lou Christie, Jackie Wilson, Gene Pitney, Roy Hamilton and one time Jay and the Americans front man, David “Jay Black” Blatt.
Most assuredly also an integral part of that vaunted group is Cincinnati, Ohio native and multi-octave vocal virtuoso, Mel Carter. Having developed his skills with Gospel music as a member of the Baptist church, Carter went on to record for Mercury/Philips and Derby. At Derby, he literally interned under the best, as the aforementioned Sam Cooke (who was co-owner of the Derby label) assisted in nurturing Carter’s vision to fruition. Carter’s resultant When A Boy Falls In Love album for Derby was an ideal showcase for his extraordinary vocal versatility, as evidenced therein via his interpretations of We’ll Bless Each Day With Our Love, Why I Call Her Mine and After The Parting The Meeting Is Sweeter.
But it was during his tenure with Imperial Records that Carter’s legacy grew exponentially. In mid-1965, his lavishly arranged and passionately rendered rendition of Karen Chandler’s Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me provided him with his long time signature track (as well as a sterling example of his command of jazz with the Dave Brubeck-flavored flip side, A Sweet Little Girl). Throughout his affiliation with Imperial, Carter recorded a variety of impressive interpretations of much loved classics by such artists as Don Cherry, Paul Anka, Tom Jones and Adam Wade, as well as such instantly memorable tracks as The Richest Man Alive and You’ve Got To Take The Bad With The Good.
In 1966, Carter took on the challenge of interpreting one of the best loved and most intricately structured new compositions of the year. At that time, the gifted actor, vocalist and composer, Adriano Celentano drew considerable acclaim for his sublime social commentary, Il Ragazzo Della Via Gluck. The great Francoise Hardy took note, and turned in a world class reinterpretation of it as La Maison Ou J’ai Grandi.
That summer, Capitol Records’ artist Verdelle Smith refined Il Ragazzo Della Via Gluck to perfection as Tar And Cement. Carter in turn rose to the occasion magnificently, bringing a unique interpretation to Smith’s rendition that featured significant variations in both meter and phrasing.
Following his successful association with Imperial, Carter persevered for a season with Imperial’s affiliate, Liberty Records. He continued to record with such labels as Bell, Amos, Romar, Private Stock and Cream. Carter also performed live regularly, earning considerable acclaim for his show stopping appearance at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in the 1990s.
Following that Greek Theatre appearance, Carter drew attention from supporters backstage that evening for sharing with them his ongoing enthusiasm for opera. While opera was not necessarily viewed as an addition to his own repertoire, it was nonetheless indicative of Carter’s intentions to elevate the standards in what he perceived as an aesthetic decline within the genres in which he had flourished to date.
That ongoing mission statement came to fruition and more than exceeded expectations in the closing weeks of 2015 with the release of his all new CD, Mel Carter Continues. Produced by Carter and recorded at Theta Sound Studios in Burbank, California, Mel Carter Continues is a musically outspoken, superbly arranged and impeccably executed collection of beloved and groundbreaking classics by Annie Laurie, Ivory Joe Hunter, Johnny Ace, the Ink Spots, Little Willie John, Mahalia Jackson and others, combined with captivating, like minded original material which makes it abundantly clear that Carter is both a perfectionist, with a refreshingly outspoken intolerance for mediocrity.
To underscore the point, Carter called upon long time colleague and fellow “singer’s singer”, Lenny Welch to accompany him on the engaging and somewhat ironic Carter original, The Legends Of Rock And Roll.
“Ironic” in that neither artist made their mark directly in rock and roll. While Welch had proven himself most adept within the genre (to wit, the track Mama Don’t Hit That Boy on his landmark 1963 Since I Fell For You album for Archie Bleyer’s Cadence label), both he and Carter are nonetheless at home with the rich, high drama standards of such greats as the aforementioned Ivory Joe Hunter and Johnny Ace, each of whom also were able to flourish in both balladry and uptempo material. The fact that The Legends Of Rock And Roll makes its point with lush orchestration solidifies Carter’s (and Welch’s) clarion call for unity amongst the protagonists of the various sub genres.
Welch most definitely shares Carter’s perspective.
“I think his CD is fantastic”, said Welch.
“Everything about it is great. Mel's voice is great. He picked some of the best songs, and the arrangements are the best ever.”
Indeed, Mel Carter Continues is irrefutable proof that Carter remains one of the most supremely gifted artists in all of music. Blitz Magazine concurred, with Mel Carter Continues ranked as one of the three best new releases of 2015 in the annual Blitz Awards.
“I am so happy that he asked me to be a part of it”, said Welch.
“He is my friend and always will be. I have nothing but respect for one of the best singers ever, my friend Mel Carter!”
Duly enthusiastic about the project, Mel Carter recently shared with Blitz his insights into the creative process behind Mel Carter Continues, as well as some of the highlights of his long and most impressive career.
BLITZ: You initially recorded for Mercury and Philips in 1961-1962, and released an acclaimed duet single with Clydie King for Philips. In 1963, you signed with SAR Records' affiliate Derby label, which was co-owned by Sam Cooke. At Derby, you released three singles and an album that indicated both a shift in musical direction and seemingly greater attention to the intrinsic details of the recording process. Given that Cooke had a long standing reputation as a perfectionist, did his perspective impact you as such in the recording studio?
CARTER: Yes, his impact for the details in the music and arrangements was amazing to me. I think most of the session I was on cloud twenty-four! Funny, I remembered another connection with Sam through Bumps Blackwell.
I was signed to Mercury Records by Quincy Jones and had a single out, I Need You So. The Clydie King duet came after. I will try and find my 45 of the tune and see what the date is. I'm not sure but I think it is on the label. I do believe it was before the duet.
BLITZ: You moved to the Imperial label in 1964, just prior to Sam Cooke's tragic passing. What prompted you to join forces with Imperial?
CARTER: Sam had an option to pick up my contract for another year. Eddie Ray, who was the head of Imperial Records, had expressed an interest in having me at his label.
Zelda, who ran the office at SAR/Derby records, and I had a talk with Sam and J.W. (Alexander), Sam's partner, about getting out of the contract. Sam said that he would not stand in the way of my career and wished me all the best. He was that kind of a guy.
BLITZ: During your affiliation with Imperial Records, you made your mark in a most substantial way with covers of Karen Chandler's Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me and Don Cherry's Band Of Gold. Both featured lavish arrangements, even more so than did the original versions.
But you really demonstrated considerable ambition in 1966 by taking on the challenge of covering Adriano Celentano's Il Ragazzo Della Via Gluck. Francoise Hardy highlighted the high drama of the original when she interpreted it as La Maison Ou J'ai Grandi. Arguably, Verdelle Smith did the same thing when she brought the piece to the next level as Tar And Cement.
Given the intrinsic challenges of such a composition, including minors, key changes, a formata that included a slight decrescendo and the like, you went for the only remaining viable option, which was to reinvent the piece and in a sense return to the unlikely optimism (at least in terms of delivery) of Celentano's original. What prompted you to take on such a challenging piece?
CARTER: Actually, it wasn't me who picked the song. In those days, the A&R department would pick the songs. At that time, I guess they thought I could sing anything!
All the hits I had in the beginning at Imperial were cover songs that had been hits some years earlier. They called me the bring back alive kid at the label!
BLITZ: While backstage after a performance at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, you engaged in a spirited discussion about opera. Was that a new or recurring passion in your musical mission statement?
CARTER: I enjoy opera, having met some leading tenors who thought that with more study, I could possibly be working on stage with them. Ha, ha, ha!.
BLITZ: Your most recent release, Mel Carter Continues is an astounding testimony to both your creative vision and your formidable capabilities as a composer and vocalist. Interestingly enough, the album begins with your interpretation of Judy Holliday and Sydney Chaplin's Just In Time, which opens with such unlikely observations as, "I was resting comfortably face down in the gutter", "There's no hope for him, my dearest friends would mutter" and "I was something dragged in by the cat". While the subsequent lyrics of course take on a more positive approach, could those opening lines possibly suggest an undercurrent of the dichotomy that has persisted with regards to the ongoing dissimilarity of purpose between the gifted artist and the mainstream media for the past half century or so?
CARTER: I don't know. There will always be that faction that as music changes, the mainstream media has to be on top of things. So the gifted artist will suffer for lack of visibility, but not creativity.
BLITZ: Your original composition, The Way Out Is The Way In, which was written in tandem with Alex Gerber, seems to take that perspective a step further. While chronicling a romantic interlude on the surface, the notion that staying the course will inevitably lead to a return to the starting point in a journey nonetheless persists. What were your inspirations in drawing such a conclusion?
CARTER: The lyrics were written by my then writing partner, Alex Gerber Jr. My thoughts were that of a man who loves so much that his love can hold and be strong, even when it is challenged by her leaving and returning. The changes of the loss of love is not on his part, but hers.
BLITZ: With your interpretation of Johnny Ace's late 1954 signature track, Pledging My Love, you stayed fairly faithful to Ace's original rendition. But in taking on the Mahalia Jackson/Laurie London Gospel classic, He's Got The Whole World In His Hands, you seem to be emphasizing the Philippians 4:12-13 attributes that are indigenous to the lyrics, which those earlier renditions only alluded to as part of the overall message. Your thoughts?
CARTER: I'm able to give an emotional feeling to the lyrics of this song. because of my religious up bringing in the Baptist church, and singing with Robert Anderson and Raymond Raspberry.
BLITZ: You salute several of the absolute masters with your renditions of Ivory Joe Hunter's signature track, Since I Met You Baby (which you, interestingly enough, interpreted with an Atlantic-era Ray Charles-like arrangement), as well as the Ink Spots' If I Didn't Care, plus Little Willie John's Let Them Talk and Talk To Me.
You mentioned in the sleeve notes that you had met John early on in your career. Your musical visions were very much in solidarity, as evidenced by his own unique interpretation of Paul Whiteman's Sleep. What insights did he share with you during that encounter?
CARTER: I met Little Willie John in Cincinnati, Ohio as a teenager. I was a fan, just being happy to be in his company. There was no discussion of any music. Just me being a big fan!
BLITZ: There is a trilogy of tracks on Mel Carter Continues that seem to define the overall mission statement of the project. One is your decidedly unique take on Annie Laurie's DeLuxe Records single, It Hurts To Be In Love. While Laurie's 1957 original emphasized rich vocal harmonies, you nonetheless carried the song as a solo vocal, augmented by the lavish big band arrangements that have highlighted much of your earlier work.
CARTER: Somewhat. I look for a song that has a great story and a fantastic melody. My mission is to paint you a picture and you feel the emotion of the song that has a beginning, a middle and ending. The fact that you like my writing and the Annie Laurie tune is just too much!
BLITZ: To that effect, the mainstream media at one time was nearly the only available outlet for musical developments. Yet it has long ceased to be a force of consequence, due in part to its overall insistence upon placating the lowest common denominator. However, in recent years, the various outlets available through the internet have enabled many a veteran artist such as yourself to both flourish and maintain creative autonomy. One prominent musician even observed that, from his perspective, that the current era is, "The best time to be in a career in music". Would you concur?
CARTER: It is a good time for performers young and not so young to get their music out there to be heard. But I will say this: you still need the finances that the mainstream media has in order to compete on a larger scale. We still need to be seen and heard. That makes a big difference between all of us.
I will continue to make music and give you the highest quality of my creative ability for as long as I'm truly able. Thank you for listening and responding and getting what I'm doing. Mel Carter Continues!