Vikki Carr rose to fame in the 1960s on a wave of enormously successful easy-listening pop albums. But Carr's exceptional vocal talents and artistry were far too big to be boxed-in to any single genre. In the '70s Carr reinvented herself as a Latin American pop star, recording a series of top-selling Spanish language albums that tapped into her Mexican-American heritage.
In her 50-plus year career Carr has recorded over 50 albums in a myriad of styles. Among her many accomplishments Carr has received four Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award. She's performed for five U.S. presidents as well as the Queen of England. Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald all praised Carr's work as a singer.
Vikki Carr will display her tremendous vocal artistry at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, January 30. When asked what show she'll perform on Saturday, Carr said, 'My career has spanned everything from pop to country to Spanish to Broadway. It's very difficult for me at times. When I came back from touring Mexico I had agents asking me, 'Which show are you going to do? Your English or Spanish show?" I was trying to please everybody and I finally said "at this stage in my career I'm the one that has to be happy.' Because if I'm happy, they're happy.”
I spoke with Carr via phone from her home in San Antonio.
NUVO: You were born Florencia Bisenta de Casillas Martinez Cardona in El Paso, Texas in 1941. What sort of music were you hearing while growing up in El Paso?
Vikki Carr: I was only born there. My father was from Texas and met my mother in California. He said he wanted the first born of his children to be born in Texas. So my mom went to El Paso and the same midwife that delivered my father delivered me. But then we went back to California and I was raised in Southern California.
But at that time my parents were listening to big band, mariachi and bolero music. My father was very strict and I was never allowed to listen to rock and roll on the radio. So I never knew about Elvis Presley and I never heard any of the latest hits.
NUVO: Do you remember when you first decided that you wanted to try to sing?
click to enlarge
Carr: My dad was so strict that I could not go out. I was the oldest of seven children and I came from a very typical Mexican family where the girls really didn't do much. I was told by my dad that I couldn't go out, but anything that had to do with music I could do. So I took every music class that there was! My dad would complain, "You're never at home." But I said, "Dad it's music!" My father wanted to be a professional singer, but he never took the opportunity. I would always hear him as a little child singing with a guitar, all these great old Mexican songs. So I was raised with that music.
He did encourage me to sing. But he threw me out to the cruel, cold world at age 18. I may as well have been 16 with all I knew about life. My mother was irate with him. But I started working in Nevada and at that time and Florencia Bisenta de Casillas Martinez Cardona, or Florence for short, became Vikki Carr. At first I was Carlita, which my father loved because his name was Carlos.
I started working in Nevada with different lounge groups. The music I used to do then was in groups, singing harmony like the Four Freshman, and The Hi-Lo's.
NUVO: Did you know The Four Freshman were founded here in Indianapolis at Butler University?
Carr: Oh, really? I loved the Four Freshman! That great four and five part harmony, aaaaaaaahhhh!
NUVO: You mentioned the moment where you transformed from Florencia to Vikki. I know in the American entertainment industry it's really common for people to Anglicize their names and identity. How did you feel about that, were you resistant to the idea?
Carr: No, hun, at that time that's what people did. Tony Curtis changed his name from - well, I don't recall what it was [Editor's note: Bernard Schwartz]. Now I've been asked by activist groups, or whatever, "If you were so proud of your heritage, then why did you change your name?" I said "I never changed it because I was ashamed of it." It's just what people did in that era.
It was musicians that got me onto the idea. They said you can't be Carlita, you don't look like a Carlita and your singing pop songs. They said we've got to find you a catchy name. They came up with Vikki, and I came up with Carr which comes from my last name Cardona. So Vikki Carr was born. At that time that's what people did.
NUVO: Around 1961you were signed to Liberty Records. One of the first records you cut for Liberty was the Gene Pitney penned song "He's A Rebel" which became a number one hit for The Crystals. I read a story suggesting that producer Phil Spector overheard your recording session of "He's A Rebel" and immediately went to go cut his own version which became The Crystals' famous hit.
Carr: I'm going to tell you the real story. Phil Spector was with Liberty Records. Snuff Garrett who was my producer was also there. Spector left the company and he took that song with him. Snuff and I were recording the song. We took a break and in the studio next to ours we heard "He's A Rebel". Phil had gone in and rushed to record it. It was not even with The Crystals. He used back-up singers who emulated their voices because The Crystals were on tour. Snuff was in a dilemma. He called the president of the company and said, "Look, Phil took my song. He went across the way and recorded it. What should I do?" The president said, "If you think your version is as good, then go ahead and release it."
Because The Crystals already had hits, the disc jockeys here went with The Crystals' version. But my version was a big hit in Australia. I had what is comparable to a gold record over there.
NUVO: As I mentioned the Crystals' version of "He's A Rebel" was a number one hit in the U.S., and your recording failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100. At that time you were young and trying to break out in the U.S., was it disheartening for you to see The Crystals' record take off and surpass your version?
Carr: Not really hun, I was so new into the recording life that I was just happy to be recording. Everything in life happens for a reason and sometimes we don't really understand it.
Although my version was a hit in Australia, at that time I believed I was going to get my walking papers. I did some other cutesy-poo songs with Jerry Naylor [Editor's note: Naylor was lead vocalist for The Crickets after the death of Buddy Holly] and there came a time where the president of Liberty Records Al Bennett came to me and said, "Well, it's obvious you're not going to be a hit single person." I thought "oh my gosh, they're going to let me go." But he said, "We're going to make you an album artist. You're going to be our Tony Bennett." In other words something of class for Liberty Records. That's when I really started to roll.
At that time disc jockeys had so much power. They could really dictate what song was going to become a hit. I was played so much throughout the country that some people think the songs were big hits for me. But they really weren't. Disc jockeys just liked my sound.
NUVO: "He's A Rebel" wasn't the only occurrence in your career where a number one record slipped away from you. Tell us the story behind "Ain't No Mountain High Enough. You and Diana Ross released almost identical versions of the song just a month apart in 1970.
Carr: When I went to Columbia Records the first song I was to record with Dick Glasser producing was "Ain't No Mountain High Enough". Unbeknownst to us, our background singers were the background singers for Diana Ross. They called Berry Gordy and said, "Look, they're going to do a big push with Vikki Carr on Columbia. It's going to be her first single." "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" was one of the first singles Diana Ross had after she left The Supremes. Berry got Diana back into the studio to finish the song. According to the story I heard, and it could be true or not because in this industry you hear all kinds of things, but at that time I was told that Berry Gordy said to Diana Ross if Vikki Carr's record gets on the radio, don't bother to come back. So that wasn't meant to be for me either I guess. [laughs]
But I eventually had my own hit with "It Must Be Him" [Editor's note: "It Must Be Him" reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1967]. Nobody thought it was going to make it because at the time it was peace and love and you had to sing a song that had a message. I remember the Smothers Brothers telling me, "You know, that song doesn't say anything." Well, I was getting standing ovations from my audience! [laughs] So it was reaching somebody.
The promotion guys here told me, "That song is not going to make it because it's not in the groove." I said to myself, how can this be that people are buying tickets to come see me and giving this song a standing ovation and a guy sitting behind a desk is telling me the song isn't going to make it?
I'd had very good success in England prior to "It Must Be Him". So I went to England and the producers of the TV shows said, "Alright Vikki, love, what would you like to promote? What's your big song?" I said this one, "It Must Be Him". They said, "Vikki, love, this song isn't going to make it." Now I was getting ticked off, because here's two countries telling me the song's not going to make it. So I worked that little baby for six weeks straight in England and Scotland. I went home and I got a call a couple weeks later in England telling me the song was on the charts at number 42. I got hysterically happy, happy, happy. Every week it went up on the chart.
Al Bennett, the president of Liberty Records, went to England to see what happened. When he came back he told the promotion people, "We're going to rerelease the song. This time it's going to make it, or heads will roll. Because this kid did it all herself." It was a great lesson for me in my career. Sometimes you have to fight for those things. And when it comes to be, it's such a feeling of satisfaction that what you believe in you can make happen.
NUVO: Having hit singles on the Billboard charts was somewhat of a rare occurrence in your career because as you mentioned Liberty was promoting you as an album artist — not a singles artist. And on those albums you recorded for Liberty there was a great variety of songs, everything from The Beatles to bossa nova. I really appreciate your interpretations of some of those bossa nova classics.
Carr: That's one of my favorite, favorite albums. I was one of the first pop artists to do an album of bossa nova music. I believe the producer on that was Marty Paich. [Editor's note: Carr is referring to her 1967 LP Intimate Excitement] Then in 1969 I had another first when I went to Nashville. I was one of the first pop artists to go to Nashville to record with Nashville musicians. It was a live recording and I was looking for the arrangements like we had in the studios in Hollywood. But they didn't have charts! They just wrote numbers and chords.
click to enlarge
NUVO: I had that on my list to ask you about. Along with your bossa nova work your 1970 LP Nashville By Carr is one of my favorite albums in your catalog. One specific byproduct of that album that I did want to ask you about is your appearance on the Johnny Cash Show in 1970. Johnny Cash is one of my musical heroes and you performed a great version of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" on the show. What was that experience like?
Carr: When I did Johnny's show at the Grand Ole Opry building I remember we were sitting and talking and Johnny said to me, "You know Kris wrote that song for me." I said "Johnny why didn't you record it?" And you know why he didn't? Because of the line "wishing Lord that I was stoned". Because he had that drug problem. But to me it was just a song and I was interpreting a story. It didn't mean I was getting stoned or anything. I loved that song. Then later Johnny recorded the song and he had a big hit with it. [laughs] But that's fine. It gives us something to talk about all these years later.
NUVO: On the topic of television I should mention that you also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dean Martin Show, and The Carol Burnett Show among many others. But one of the most interesting accomplishments to me was that you were the first woman to regularly guest-host The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Carr: That was incredible. This was when the show was in New York and Johnny's brother was directing it. I had an incredible coup for that. They asked me who I wanted as my guest. I said I'd like to have Danny Kaye. They balked and laughed and said, "He'll never do it. Johnny has asked him time and time again and he wouldn't do it." But I had just come back from Vietnam in 1967. I went to Vietnam with Danny for two weeks and we traveled all over. We played for audiences anywhere from a couple hundred to 10,000 soldiers. So I called Danny and said "I'm going to host The Tonight Show and I'd like you to be a guest. I told the Tonight Show people and they said you wouldn't do it." He said, "Oh, they said that? Well, you and I are going to show them blood is thicker than water." So he came on and that was my coup.
Then the next two times I hosted the Tonight Show it was in L.A. When I look back I think to myself, "Jiminy Christmas girl, you've done some pretty incredible things in your life and career."
NUVO: One song I have to ask you about is "Overcrowded Dreams" from your 1973 album Live At The Greek Theatre. The song addresses issues of discrimination facing Mexican-Americans in the United States. How did your recording of that song come about?
Carr: Oh my gosh, yes! It was written by a comedian… oh, what the heck was his name? I can't remember. [Editor's note: Sandy Baron] It's interesting because I was never really like an activist, but that song really hit a lot of people personally. The background singers on "Overcrowded Dreams" said, "You know, we don't feel comfortable singing the backgrounds." You know where they're singing, "Hey Chicano"? But I thought it had an incredible message and if you were to do it now it would probably be more relevant with everything going on. Especially with the immigration thing.
NUVO: Do you have any thoughts on the demonization of immigrants that's happening right now in the United States?
Carr: I was raised by my father with the golden rule that you do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I try to think and think, "what would I do if I was in Guatemala or Honduras and the drug cartel was coming around and taking the kids? Would I leave to try to protect my family?" If the only option I had was to come in illegally, then yes I probably would do it.
Everybody is so paranoid right now. All you have to do is listen to some of the presidential candidates and what they're saying. Everybody is in fear. It's very scary because we don't know what's going to happen. But they are human beings and if they go back, what's going to happen? I've worked in all those countries and it's very difficult to try to help everybody. Our country is scared right now and fear causes people to do things that aren't so good. For me I've never seen our country like this. I've traveled all over the world as a goodwill ambassador and I treated people they way I'd want to be treated, whether I spoke the language or not.
NUVO: Throughout your time at Liberty Records you recorded a handful of Spanish language songs, but you released your first full LP of Spanish language music on Columbia in 1973 with the album Vikki Carr En Español. At this point, I believe you've recorded over a dozen Spanish language albums, you've collaborated with iconic Latin American musicians like Vicente Fernández and you've established yourself as a major Latin pop recording artist. During your time at Liberty Records in the '60s had you been longing to move towards recording more Spanish language material?
Carr: It all came about by my audience. When I would sing "Cuando Calienta El Sol" or "Granada" my audience would ask me, and I'm talking about my Anglo audience, "Why don't you do an album all in Spanish? The music is so beautiful." I'd ask them "aren't you going to be confused if you don't know what I'm singing about?" And they said, "No, when you sing we understand everything." That's when I realized that music is the universal language.
I'm so proud of that album Vikki Carr En Español. It had beautiful arrangements by Bob Florence. Every single one of those songs were in a way covers of artists in Mexico and South America. But they became new hits when Vikki Carr came in and sang them in the same way a pop song would've been sung in the States. I phrased my singing like I did in English.
NUVO: Finally, what can we expect from your show at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, January 30?
Carr: We're going to be doing music that's about love and lifting your spirits. Music has the power to do that. I want people to sing along with me. We're going to be doing the oldies. We're going to be doing tributes to people who've been important to my life throughout my career like Nat King Cole, Sinatra and Presley. And along with it will be the anecdotes.
My career has spanned everything from pop to country to Spanish to Broadway. It's very difficult for me at times. When I came back from touring Mexico I had agents asking me "which show are you going to do? Your English or Spanish show?" I was trying to please everybody and I finally said "at this stage in my career I'm the one that has to be happy." Because if I'm happy, they're happy.