How did the sessions at P.I.R. usually proceed?
Sometimes I would put down a scratch vocal while they did the rhythm tracks and then the arranger would come in and sweeten it with horns and strings and then I would come in and do the true vocal. Sometimes I would stack my own backgrounds and sometimes they were done by ‘The Sweeties’ – or rather they ended up being called ‘The Sweeties’; Barbara Ingram, Carla and Yvette Benson, and I remember Charlene Tilton, she’s still sings. So ‘The Sweeties’ would either put on the backgrounds or I would stack the backgrounds, which I started doing early on. I remember reading on an album jacket, I think it was a Buddy Miles’ LP – that’s when I was recording with Earth Wind & Fire – and I saw on the jacket that all the backgrounds were done by one individual. So I said well, I can do that. So that’s what I did from then on and I loved it because it calls on your musicianship and is very fulfilling.
As a singer, you’ve recorded many fine songs – what’s the key to a good song?
Well, it’s according to how it touches you and how it speaks to you. When you hear it, you know it: you say to yourself, this is my song. I remember when I met Nancy Wilson in Blues Alley and I can’t remember which album had come out but it was the album with ‘Anything For Money’…. That might have been ‘Love Lessons’ and Nancy told me, I was sat in her dressing room: “I have your latest project. I have all your albums” – and she even told me about a tune of mine that she had re-recorded on a Japanese album of hers called ‘I’ll Be a Song.’ She said: “on this last album” – she named the tune – “I know you didn’t choose those songs ’cause they’re not you.” She pummelled me and put a finger in my face and said “don’t you ever let anybody choose your songs for you or encourage you to sing songs that aren’t you.” And I took that to heart. Prior to that, every song was of my choosing and was one that spoke to me and espoused my philosophy and my energy. So never again will I do that. Choosing the songs is a good process for me; it’s cathartic, it’s energising and I always make sure that the song is parallel to my philosophy. I love beautiful melodies and I love happy endings.
After Philadelphia International you moved to Motown and recorded ‘Trust Me.’ How did that come about?
Kenny Gamble brought me into his office and said “we’re going to change to TSOP Records” and he said he was going to downsize the company and he was going to do other things: as you know now, he’s building neighbourhoods and just doing wonderful things. He is creating wonderful communities but he said “I want to know what label you would like to go with.” And I thought, well, Motown really, because it seems to be a family label like this one and that might be a good marriage. So it was actually the president of P.I.R. that negotiated my contract with Motown.
That was quite unique, I imagine.
Very, very. But it wasn’t the situation that I had become accustomed to. There were lovely folks there but it was like an ill-fitting garment.
Had the family vibe gone by the early ’80s then?
Yeah, yeah. Motown had expanded and left Detroit. They were in LA and the whole family vibe I guess, which Martha Reeves and Mary Wilson talked about, was dispersed because they had grown and relocated. Circumstances have just changed things. In fact I recall that there were several tunes that I wanted to record that happened to be Gamble and Huff compositions and my A&R person said to me “why do you want to sing their songs?” I said, well, they’re wonderful songs (laughs). So they said “but you’re on Motown now” and they gave me their catalogue of songs and said look at these. Of course, I grew up on Motown. They said check these and pick some songs from our catalogue. So yes, of course, I obliged and did ‘My Baby Loves Me’ and a couple of others from Motown’s Jobete publishing. But it was difficult for everybody to understand because my allegiance was still to P.I.R.
Legend has it that you made another album for Motown but it was never released. Is that true?
I don’t think so, no. I don’t think I did some extra recordings. But on Philly international, there are a number of unreleased tracks. There are also portions of an album I recorded for Sugar Hill Records, Sylvia Robinson’s label; there were three tunes that I did that Bunny Sigler wrote and produced. That was after Motown. And then I did half an album for Maurice Starr’s label, Boston International. In fact he called it Boston International because he adored Kenny Gamble and he wanted his label to be named like Philly International. I left those labels because the progress of the product and the recording was so slow that my management determined that it just wasn’t productive. But both labels were very gracious and gave me an unconditional release. So there is some stuff in the can.
In the ’90s you also recorded an album devoted to Van McCoy songs.
Right. ‘Carne Sings McCoy.’
Did you know Van McCoy?
I met Van one time in DC. The ‘Event Of The Year’ was a birthday party that he used to give every year for his grandmother. Let’s see, I think she might have reached a hundred, and somebody took me to one of the parties and it was there that I got to meet Van McCoy. But it was ’95 when I recorded ‘Carne Meets McCoy.’ It was the year that I met Van’s sister – called Maddie Taylor – who was the president and CEO of Van McCoy Music. She grew up in Atlanta. We talked on the phone for a couple of hours ‘cos we knew all the same folks and it was just instant simpatico. And she’s still my sister today and she advised me to listen to a lot of Van’s catalogue. There was one song, ‘Speak Softly,’ that I got out of the catalogue ‘cos there are thousands of songs in his catalogue.
He was very prolific.
A very prolific writer. In fact, Duke Ellington told me he was aware of over 5000 songs that he had written. I had no idea but I interviewed him a lot when I was with him because he was just so willing to share experiences and knowledge.
You have a large repertoire of songs but is there one particular song that you treasure over the others?
Well, I guess since every performance I have to do ‘Don’t Let It Go to Your Head’ maybe that’s special (laughs). My audiences love that song so much, even in Japan they sing along. They are so knowledgeable there. Actually I remember when Doug and I were together they did Japanese pressings of ‘Infant Eyes,’ ‘Spirit Of The New Land’ and ‘Revelation’ and they had sleeves over the jackets in Japanese. So the Japanese have been into my music since the very beginning and recently, in the last five or six years, there are CDs that are released in Japan with sleeves in Japanese, the Black Jazz releases. So the Japanese understand; they get it, so I really don’t have to fashion the shows or sets for them. Of course, I speak to them in Japanese (Jean starts saying some Japanese words).
You seem to have a facility for language, don’t you?
I love that and I think it has to do with studying Russian, ’cause it’s such a difficult language.
How did you come to study Russian in the first place?
I was on an experimental scholastic program at high school and our choices of language were Russian and Japanese. Nikita Khrushchev was the premiere of the USSR at that time so my dad and I thought – well actually, my dad thought (laughs) – that Khrushchev was such a power worldwide that perhaps it would be to my advantage to study Russian. And then I studied it in college as well. I also love the Romance languages because of the opera arias. When ever I had to sing Italian arias, German lieder or French art songs I would audit that language class so that I would get my accents proper and learn pronunciations and be authentic like the great divas; like Dame Joan Sutherland and Leontyne Price and that crowd of folks.
What have been the biggest highlights in your career?
Oh dear, that’s a hard one (laughs). That’s a loaded question. I guess I’ll have to say the experience with Duke Ellington is at the top of the pyramid. Recording with Earth, Wind & Fire because that was clearly the beginning of my recording career and also, standing on a box that was made for me in the choir stand when I was four years old and leading the choir songs and singing solos at church is definitely up there. And I guess going with Gamble and Huff as my first solo label would have to be in that list. There are so many. It’s like choosing your favourite child! (laughs).
You mentioned earlier about your going into the recording studio later. This is for unintended album project?
It’s for a couple of albums and Doug Carn and I are going to record as well.
I believe you’ve started to play together again, is that right?
Yes, we have. We’ve been doing some performances and in fact, we were at Ronnie Scott’s last year and we’re looking forward to returning.
So what about the new recordings? When you think they might come out?
Oh boy, I have no idea. Let’s see, it’s not quite the middle of the year yet so I’m suggesting by the end of the year… maybe, or the last quarter. It’s difficult for me to put a timeframe on it.
Read Part One of our interview with JEAN CARNE here: