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Monday, July 25, 2011

Going, Going .... Gone?

A knowledgeable online group to which I belong called SONGBIRDS* recently discussed the subject of aging voices and whether or not singers with diminished ability should continue as if they were still on top of their game, or slip quietly into retirement. Of course, the deterioration of vocal prowess demonstrated by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald in the latter stages of their illustrious careers were two spectacular examples of a sort of "show must go on" tenacity, but many expressed their dismay upon hearing ragged technique where once there had been flawless, thrilling musicality.

An internationally-famous cabaret singer has admitted to some loss of flexibility saying her voice has remained strong and supple, if a wee bit less confident in her upper register. She states that "with age, one tends to lose a little bit on top and you must therefore invest in your bottom, which stays strong."

This delicately worded description about how one might adjust to the vagaries of aging vocal chords aptly applies to my own experience. I have a substantial investment in my bottom, and have gone so far as to widen various other portions of my anatomy to accomodate the disparities.

I think my own voice has retained its fluidity, but it's been over a year since the tiniest of notes has passed over my larynx so I can't really say with any authority whether my humble skill as a vocalist still exists. My sister will be my most welcome house guest in a few weeks and we like to sing while driving to the grocery store. I'll soon discover if my top is in tact or if my bottom controls the sound.

Speaking of bottoms, you may know that in England, when friends meet in a bar, one might be heard to ask another: "May I top you up?", meaning "Would you like a refill?". My husband loved the phrase when first he heard it, but he startled friends with whom we were sharing dinner one night by asking: "Honey ... May I cover your bottom?"

I'd like to hear how you feel about aging voices. Just click "Comments" below, right there next to the time stamp.


*The detailed description of the Songbirds group is lovingly set forth by one of our most respected senior members, Mr. Tom Pierce. Every word he writes is true.


Chrys Page said...

I came to a show of yours at the Jazz Bakery a few years ago. I had brought a student along with me to basically show her a true jazz artist who can still sing a hellava song even thought she's no Spring chicken. I had brought this same studnet with me to see Jane Monheit, and we were pretty disappointed in her self-conscious stage presence and her unwillingness to reveal her inner self to the audience. Instead Jane was was rather false and stiff. But YOU were fabulous, so natural and real, with an easy style, and we even commented that you brought us in the moment you sat on that chair after your first chorus to "disappear" on stage while the guys took their solos. And you were real with us when we came to your dressing room following your performance. After that night my student was much more willing to get up and join me at my gigs in town and sit in with me.
I raise these issues because as we age as jazz singers, we need to offer something more than a pure silk voice, we need to demonstrate our experience in a song, our love for what we're doing, our connection to the lyric, and our comfort with being up there alone with a few cats playing behind us. I am 71 and I can say that while I have lost a whole step at the top from where I sang 40 years ago, I have also added authenticity and experience to my performance and my inflection is still spot on, not having dropped a beat in 50 years. And my crowd still follows me from club to club, and even town to town.
So yeah, we may not be able to halt the thickening of the cords, but singing jazz is just so much more than a pretty voice, doncha think?
I'll still apy good money to go hear you, or Nancy Wilson, or even the Broadway gals like Elaine Stritch and Barbara Cook. Gimme REAL over cute but plastic any day of the week!
Chrys Page

Sue Auclair said...


I think you either use it or lose it. Keeping the vocal chords exercised makes a huge difference, but long periods of not singing and you lose the stretch! Just like anything else as we age, we must exercise or lose mobility!

Scott Merrell said...

I started to respond to the aging singers thread on Songbirds, but discarded it. I've found tht my musical tastes are for the most part, not shared on that group. The straw may have been broken when Abbey Lincoln passed away and no one even bothered to comment, except to say that her voice was ravaged...but I digress. I find that the truly great master singers are worth listening to at any stage of their careers. One of the few examples where I think a singer should have stopped was in the case of the great Billy Eckstine. If a singer's vibrato is that out of control, it's time to stop. I heard Sinatra give a disastrous performance in April 1994, and I thought it was over for him. A friend of mine told me that he was in great voice a few nights later, which I found hard to believe, and shortly thereafter, I heard a tape of the concert, and it was true. I went to hear him again in November at what was rumored to be (and turned out to be) his final US engagement), and he sang his heart out. I wouuld not have missed that for the world. It was one of the great musical experiences I've witnessed. Some listeners live in the past and expected to hear Ella as she sounded in the 50's in 1990. Of course a singer has to either sing in lower keys as they get older, or they adjust by singing in their middle register and avoid hitting the high notes. Ella still sounded beautiful in her middle register in the last years, but did shreik the high notes when she attempted How High The Moon. What one has to admire about Ella is that she still gave it her all (one who rides the tiger never gets off). Aretha Franklin is still one of the most magnificent singers of all time, but she can not soar like she did when she was in her twenties...but she's still Aretha, and no one can come close to her. Aged singers have a lifetime of musical knowledge. I find the interpretations of an experienced master are deeper and convey a level of emotion that most younger singers can not convey.

Connie Ciampanelli - RI said...

Listening many times to over twenty of your albums in my possession, from "Carol Sings" to "We'll Meet Again," it's obvious that your voice had changed, gotten deeper with the years. A non-musician, but lover of music, I hear the changed but the voice is still as lovely as ever.

With some artists, as you mention, the changes can be startling. I find it painful to listen to Sinatra's last recordings, especially if I've recently listened to the Gordon Jenkins sessions. But who am I to say, "You should stop now." If singing still brings the singer and the listeners joy, sing on! The memory of the early days will live on always in the heart.

I hope you continue to record, and hope, too, to hear you live again. My husband and I have seen you perform many times. You are incomparable.

Warm Regards,
Connie Ciampanelli
North Providence RI

LJS said...

Hi Carol -

You'll always sound great to us.

Larry Sasso, Jr.
Your Smithfield Magazine

Random Thoughts said...

I agree with most of what has been said above. Yes, voices change over time and, in many caes, they deteriorate. Whether a performer can adapt depends on several things, including an honest acknowledgment that things have changed and recognition that selection of material might have to accomodate the changes.

There are a number of cases where the changes, adverse from a vocal purity point of view, when combined with proper selection of material and recognition of the changes, can produce a far better singer. In my mind, Carmen McRae transformed perfectly. I loved her early Decca and Kapp recordings because her voice was pure, gorgeous. As her voice declined, her experience and ability to understand the lyrics increased and she was able to adapt those plusses to her music. In the end, even with a much more limited vocal abilities, Carmen became a vastly superior singer.

Others have failed to adapt. It's all about understanding limitations and adopting material suitable to one's age and abilities.

I love Ella in her early years, but could not bear to listen to her in her later, Pablo years. I don't think Ella was able to transform. There are many others in her category.

As for Carol, I think she's still got it. She gets it as well.

Irving Greines

John Brady said...

Beautifully phrased, Carol, as always. Toward the end, Sinatra stayed on the stage too long -- like Willie Mays lingering in the outfield -- but his late-inning recordings were still quite listenable. I even like his "duets" work. If you have access to his unreleased solo recordings for the duets albums (not the engineered ones), he still has that tone and vibrato, though not the power or extension of the early years. Sinatra knew that a performance was an evening, while a recording was forever. I don't think Ella made this distinction and most of her late recordings are hard on the ears. Which is to's situational. While some singers have extended careers and listeners, others lose both in the late years. I think the actor Michael Caine had it about right when he said, "You don't retire. The business retires you."

John McHugh said...


I caught you at the Benny Goodman show at Iridium a year or so ago. If anything, I think that you were in better voice then than you were when I used to hear you regularly in Durham many years ago. Voices change as they age, but there is much more to singing than vocal brilliance. As long as you feel comfortable singing, I will feel comfortable listening.
Don't give up performing yet.

John McHugh