Monday, January 14, 2013

Mickey Carroll: The Old Tricks Still Work Part I

At 72, singer/performer Mickey Carroll is an “Old Dog.”

To  some of you young pups out there, that may translate to “out-of-date.”

But Carroll wears the title with pride. So much so that he has recorded a song about it.

Entitled “Old Dogs,” the single is a New Orleans-style testament that experience--in his case, decades of experience--doesn’t mean obsolescence. “Now they might be a little slow,” Carroll sings. “But there ain’t much that they don’t know.”

Released in 2011, “Old Dogs” is the title track from a CD of the same name Carroll will release next month.
The song applies to music as much as life for Carroll, a Grammy nominated singer/songwriter/guitarist who once worked with Don Cornelius of Soul Train fame and has penned songs for performers ranging from John Mayall to the Whispers.

A South Jersey native who now resides in Mount Dora, Florida, Carroll caught his first taste of show biz as a dancer on American Bandstand in the pre-Dick Clark days when the show was still being hosted by founder Bob Horn. Carroll then went on to form a doo-wop singing duo with a friend, Billy Harner.

During the 1960’s, Carroll spent time down in New Orleans. The quality of the musicians in the Crescent City made him realize  he'd have to step up his game a little on guitar, his chosen instrument, he recalls with a chuckle.  “I got out there and I realized I’d better woodshed, man,” he says. “These cats play! They’re not just playing blues progressions; they’re playing some really creative stuff.”

But he learned a lot in New Orleans, and some of the styles he absorbed took hold, resurfacing later in works like "Old Dogs."

He met Cornelius one day while playing the Hideaway Lounge in Hollywood, Florida. After hearing Carroll play, Cornelius and Dick Griffey, founder of the rhythm and blues label Solar Records, wanted to make an album with him.

Entitled Mickey Carroll, the recording is believed to be a first—not because of the music it featured—but because of where it was recorded: a 110-foot boat!

The musicians who joined Carroll for the recording—many of whom arrived by seaplane from other gigs—included many of the best in the business at that time: Leon Pendarvis, a keyboardist who later became music director for Saturday Night Live; Chuck Leavell who had performed with the Allman Brothers and would later play with the Rolling Stones; Tim Drummond, a bassist who over his career has worked with Bob Dylan, James Brown, Eric Clapton and Neil Young; and drummer Willie Hall, who would later appear in the Blues Brothers movie with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.

The album was produced by Bob Johnston, who at that time had previously worked with Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

Also on the boat was a young engineer-in-training named Eric Schilling. Carroll would later tap him to work on his 1978 album Love Life, which was nominated for a Grammy.  
In 1984, Carroll  hit another career milestone after a recording by the Whispers of his song “Love Is Where You Find It,” became a gold record.

But the 1980’s also saw Carroll turn his music towards another pursuit: social activism. Partnering with the performing arts organization PACE, he put on shows for the disabled, senior citizens, and others who needed help.

In 2000 he founded Mother J productions, a non-profit based in the Mount Dora area that raised money for art education through concerts and community events. In May, 2005 the organization held a concert for the deaf at a Mt. Dora gymnasium. Later that year, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, the group organized a concert for hurricane victims at a Mount Dora park.

More recently, Carroll organized a free concert to raise money for victims of the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

“People just know when they come to see me that I’m up to something,” Carroll says. “I did a wonderful gig not long ago in an airport. They took a whole airplane hangar like a World War II kind of deal, you know—U.S.O. show, that’s what they were doing—and a big band. And man, it was cookin’! We had a party! And that was for the troops. That was money to help the troops. “

Carroll put together “Old Dogs”—album and single—with help from a roster of musicians headed by saxophonist Charlie DeChant of Hall and Oates fame, who handled the horn arrangements. The project was produced by Howard and Ron Albert, best known for producing “Layla” with Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos.

With over 50 years in the music business, Carroll had a lot to say: so much that we are posting our interview with him in three parts. In the first part he talks about “Old Dogs,” American Bandstand and the early days of rock and roll—and that high seas recording he made with Don Cornelius:

BBP: Well first Carroll tell me a little bit about this song “Old Dogs.”   I’m kind of curious about it, and how it came about.

Carroll: Sure. Well, “Old Dogs “was written by a fellow named Dan Kyle and he played that for me, gosh I guess,  a good three, four years ago at a party at our home.  And I thought, “Oh my, that’s got a little something to it.” You have to realize I’m an old dog, so it kind of fit me perfect. So on my—don’t laugh now—on my 70th birthday, I recorded that puppy. And I was really lucky because I had Howard Albert produce it.  Can I speak about him a second?

BBP: Sure, go ahead.

Carroll: Well Howard Albert is from the Ron Albert/ Howard Albert team, from Criteria, which was the largest studio in the country. They also have audio vision now, and those guys have recorded everybody from the Allman Brothers to Barbra Streisand, the Bee Gees and on and on.

BBP: Was he involved with Eric Clapton? Derek and the Dominos?

Carroll: Yes, he was. Yep.  As a matter of fact, your guest on your last interview, Fred Wesley, I’m sure they must have worked with Fred because they worked with James Brown too.  Anyway, he’s an old buddy, and you know I recorded there quite a bit over the years, and he came up here and we recorded that in my backyard. (laughs)

BBP: Wow.

Carroll: And you know, we just hit the line and did our time. The musicians were wonderful; I mean we had Charlie DeChant on there, he’s with Hall and Oates and Orleans and all that. He was more or less the music director for that session. And I mean to tell you we had a party. And I forgot to tell you we invited the whole—I mean we had the mayor, we had the president of the chamber, and the city manager—I mean after all, they weren’t going to call the police to keep the sound down, man! We were covered!

BBP: Right, that’s a good strategy there! A very good strategy. Mickey, what town are we talking about?

Carroll: Ok, I should have said that. This is Mount Dora, Florida, which I guess is maybe 40 miles north of Orlando.  It’s a little diamond in the rough; it’s just the sweetest little town.  Sort of like a Norman Rockwell kind of painting, you know.

BBP: And what do you plan to do with the song?   What are your plans for getting it out?

Carroll: Well, I’ve got to finish this CD that we’re working on.  And I worked hard on trying to get these songs particularly picked out for this thing, so it would fit my age and also cover that New Orleans flavor. That’s where I learned how to play out there.  And the point that I’m trying to make is that you can do this live, you can do this live in the studio, or you can do it live in concert.  Something about live that puts all of the musicians on line, and they really have to dig into the impulsive nature of their vocabulary….I find that to be exciting, especially when you’re playing on the edge like that.

BBP: How did you get these other musicians involved in it?

Carroll: (laughs) Kirk, I’ve been around forever! A lot of these guys I’ve known and met at the studio, like I wrote for Don Cornelius for the Soul Train gang, for the Whispers. I wrote one of their hits called “Love is Where You Find it.”  If you keep on moving through the woods, man, sooner or later you’re going to find gold. But I’ve been lucky. I write sort of in-between jazz and blues and this brings on a challenge for a lot of cats who want to play. So I’ve been really lucky, you know, to have these guys (imitating them) “Hey I want to play this tune. Here, let me sit in. Let me do that.” 

BBP: Now tell me a little bit about how you got involved in music. I mean, when you were a kid, you used to listen to a lot of radio?

Carroll: (laughs) Man, I was there at the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll and big bands started to lose ground and combos came in. And I started listening to Louis Prima and Louis Jordan and Red Prysock and Doo Wop. Actually I wrote for some of these people. You remember Dion?

BBP: Yeah…from the fifties?

Carroll: I’ve written a couple of songs for him. And it was quite a thrill, you know.  And, yes, I’ve been at it since the fifties and just kept on going and I managed to raise a family doing it. I don’t know…I’ve just been blessed buddy, if you really want to know the truth.

BBP: And I understand that you were a dancer on American Bandstand?

Carroll: Oh my God, where did you find that out, Kirk? (laughs)

BBP: Well, I have my sources.

Carroll: I used to live in South Jersey and those days you could just jump on the bus, go over the bridge—which is the Delaware River Bridge—and then then you’re right there. 46th and Market was where Bandstand was; you got on the subway and you’d go there. In the summer I’d dance just about every day—and of course I had to go to school—but sometimes I’d be a bad boy and go over there and dance.

BBP: Did you meet Dick Clark or get a chance to talk to him?

Carroll: Kirk, this was before Dick Clark. A fella had Bandstand originally. His name was Bob Horn, and Bob Horn started Bandstand and it wasn’t quite all over the country, but it was really the roots of rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t think he’s with us anymore (Horn died in 1966). That’s the story. When I went there, it was Bob Horn’s Bandstand.  And I did a little bit of Dick Clark, but by that time I was doing record hops with a guy named Billy Harner, and the name of our do-wop group was Billy and Carroll.

BBP:  Tell me a little about that. Did you guys tour?

Carroll: Yeah, we did record hops with Fabian, Frankie Avalon, you know?  Running all around; no money, honey.  But boy did we have fun! The girls loved us! And we’d sign autographs, and I’d go back to school. Most of the people who played our stuff were on black radio stations.  We did a lot of their dances, and, man you talk about musicians! I just jumped into the rainbow (laughs) in those days and Billy was right there with me. We’ve since then, of course…we’ve seen each other, but we’re not—he’s still up there in South Jersey, I’m down here in Florida, and—he can  have South Jersey (laughs)!  There’s two things you have to do there: box and sing. And maybe dance.

BBP: Well now you get to be on that show “Jersey Shore.” Well, that’s a different part of Jersey, I guess.

Carroll: Oh yeah…oh jeez! Please!

BBP: I’m curious, you said you were on “Bandstand,” you must have met a lot of the pioneers of rock back in those days..

Carroll: Oh man, I’ve got some beautiful stories about that. You know, when you’re a kid, especially when rock and roll first started… the jazz…. you had to wait until late to hear it on the radio. But they started playing rock and roll—especially “Bandstand—“early, so you could catch it when you got home from school or whatever.  And watching that grow and doing record hops and meeting the people that you’re asking me about—like Bill Haley and the Comets (sighs) God—you know those cats knew how to play!  But most of all, they knew how to record. They knew how to record, which they would get separation in those days with just two tracks on that band.  If you listen to a Bill Haley recording, or some of the early rock ‘n’ roll stuff, you’re listening to two tracks, man, sometimes four—nothing like today—and those guys would cook.

BBP: Explain that in a little more detail though, because I’m not sure I understand the technology.  When you say “separation,” what exactly do you mean by that?

Carroll: Well, you know, engineers in those days had the mike fixed in such a way, because they only got one pass. Let’s say Count Basie and Frank Sinatra, they went into the studio and did that.  They didn’t do like double-up tracks, and, you know, in the early days that big band was recorded, and those engineers had to mike that properly.  They had to know how, by nature, those instruments sounded. And that spilled over into early rock ‘n’ roll with some of those recordings, because you couldn’t just pile tracks on top of one another forever or even tune them up! If a singer was out of tune they had to do a whole new take. And I mean everybody, you know.

BBP: You know Bobby Parker, he’s a blues guitarist who lives in this area, but I guess he must have run across some of the same people you did.  But he said they were recording a group playing, and that they actually put the drum set on an elevator so they could get the right sound or the right reverberations. ..

Carroll: Sure, they would have singers sing in bathrooms, there was all kinds of experimentation  on. They didn’t want the drums to leak into all of the other instruments sometimes.  I could see maybe why they would put them in an elevator shaft, you know. Whatever.  I mean they had all kinds of experimentations they were making, especially out when Sun Records started, they had been known for their echo, you know.  And man, if you wanted that sound, you had to go there and record. In Philly there was a place called Reco Art. Actually John Coltrane of all people was early rock ‘n’ roll. He was running around Philly playing early rock ‘n’ roll.  I don’t want to ruin anybody’s dreams (laughing), but this guy was walking on bars. In those days the horn player would come out in front of the band and start walking on the bar and the people would go nuts. Your horn players, they were kings, man, and there wasn’t as much guitar as there was sax back then.

BBP: That’s very interesting. Did you ever run across John Coltrane?

Carroll: Oh, no! Jeez, are you kidding? You asked me about it, I’ll tell you. I went to Birdland before it closed, you know, in New York. That was a magnificent experience. Got downstairs, you know, they had a real short fellow that used to MC the show….And what a night, man. I’m sitting there watching ‘Trane, I’m watching Elvin Jones, I mean...McCoy Tyner,  I mean these cats were playing in front of me and it was just too good (laughs).  There were no recordings and tracks there, baby, they hit it. I mean it was just…rippin,’ you know. And then on top of that, Bill Cosby got up, and set up a few jokes, you know?

BBP: Wow, Bill Cosby? That early? In the fifties?

Carroll: No, that wasn’t in the fifties. I’m sorry buddy, that was during the 1964 World’s Fair.

BBP: Oh, yeah, right, in New York City.

Carroll: Right. That was kind of like when those jazz clubs were—I don’ t know—they were sort of struggling.

BBP: Right. I guess they were sort of on the wane at that time. You play guitar, right? You’re a guitarist?

Carroll: Yeah.

BBP: You mentioned that, during that time—when you started out—horns were kind of a big thing, as opposed to guitars…

Carroll: ...Yeah…

BBP: What made you go into guitars?

Carroll: I was purely thinking below the belt (laughs). The girls all liked it.  And Elvis came along, and I went nuts. I thought “Oh, I’m going to do that.” And picked up the guitar, and—oh my God, we didn’t have any teachers, nobody knew about rock ‘n’ roll, they didn’t know what to do about blues—I’d tell them what I’m listening to on the radio and they’d look at me like I was from another planet.  And Chuck Berry, forget it, he was just starting out. All that stuff.  Bo Diddley. These were the cats that just started coming along in rock ‘n’ roll, put it out front for you, you know. So that’s what inspired me to play.

BBP: Hmm. And also I know you kind of lived through the changes that rock went through, what was going on in the 50’s to the late 60’s. I guess, Jimi Hendrix, the Stones...

Carroll: Oh yeah, well that’s way up there.  I had left Philly and went to Florida, played there, and then put a little band together, a little trio: Hammond organ, drums and myself on guitar. We decided we’re heading for New Orleans. And I got out there and I realized I’d better woodshed, man, these cats play! They’re not just playing blues progressions they’re playing some really creative stuff!  You know things that kind of like spill into gospel as well as jazz and blues, you know.  And I loved the concept of how they played in different time, like funk marches, and things that I hadn’t heard.  And they were very exciting. What really knocked me out is they were joyful and levitating. They made you feel real good. Even a funeral, man. You know, you would feel that levitation and that way about that. There’s something special out there, that’s all I can tell you.

BBP: Now you’re talking about the New Orleans musicians?

Carroll: That’s where I wound up after leaving Philly. Spending a little time in Florida, I headed out to there, and I think maybe that’s where I had to sit down with my axe and figure out “Man, this does more than what I’m doing, you know, I’d better (practice) if I want to learn to play”—and it’s 24 hour kind of thing. You can go out after you play in those days, and hear somebody else play at one o’clock, two and three in the morning. (laughs)

BBP: In New Orleans.

Carroll: in New Orleans. In those days, yes.

BBP: Wow. So you were kind of intimidated by what you were hearing around you?

Carroll: Oh, are you kidding me? I didn’t make the first round! I was knocked out of the ring! I just was looking at these guys and saying “How do you do that?” I was playing rock ‘n’ roll as I knew it—50’s rock—but that wasn’t what was happening in New Orleans.  They had a whole new way of dealing with things, and they wanted to tell you about blues and jazz, you know.  And they were kind. They’d share what they knew with you. And just—you’d find cats like sitting in a diner in a restaurant, having something to eat or coffee “Hey  come on over here and sit down, man. Don’t you play at so-and-so’s?” Gunga Din is where I was playing, you wanna believe that name? (laughs)

BBP: Sounds like a place I’m sorry I never got to see…

Carroll: Oh, man, I tell you what: I wouldn’t change a note of any of this. All the way back to Fabian and Frankie Avalon.  It was just one wonderful roller-coaster ride, and all of the things that went with it. And of course my father, he was going to have a heart attack, you know. He didn’t think I was going to make a living.  I don’t know how I did, to tell you the honest truth.  I’ve just been lucky and kept on going.

BBP: You mentioned your father. What did he do for a living?

Carroll: He was a painting contractor.  He’d just hand me a brush and tell me “off we go.” And he’d laugh and I’d say “Man, I’m not doing this.” (laughs) And he’d tell me to “keep painting and shut up.”

BBP: Did he want you to follow in the business?

Carroll: He watched me, uh—God bless, him, he’s passed on—but he did watch me hit a few bells.  I started working with people who are disabled and I fell in love with it, in Miami, and next thing you know I’m doing veteran’s hospitals and things for Down’s Syndrome and things like that. And all of a sudden I’ve got a pretty good following. I play somewhere and they’d all show up in wheelchairs or be shuttled in by buses, or what have you.  The Today Show got a load of this and they came down to—Coconut Grove is where I was living at that point in time—followed me around to all of these facilities and I was on The Today Show doing that. So I kind of tied that in with my thinking in music. There is a way to express your art other than just dance floor. Dance floor’s fun, but there’s other exploits that you want to take yourself on, an adventure, and creativity is wide open. It’s freedom. You know, you can express many different things, and when I started doing that, I realized “well this audience here, is pretty darn cool, man! I’m going to lay it out right here.” I did. I moved to Mount Dora, which is where I’m at, started a company called Mother J Productions, and heck, we raised all kinds of money for folks: in Haiti, when they had that problem; Katrina, we raised money there; got money for the uninsured here in Lake County; there’s no end.  Actually I got some award; I won three arts and humanities awards for all this stuff. Not bad for an old dog, right?

BBP: Now I understand at one point you recorded a song with Don Cornelius on a boat? Is that true?

Carroll: (laughs) Yeah, man! You know, I’ve had such a unique career. I did the first album at sea, on a 110-foot ship. You ready for that?  All the people that have managed me or had anything to do with promoting my music have all been African-Americans.  That’s where I fit best. I’m probably the only white artist that Cornelius managed. When we did that ship, it was not just him, it was Don Cornelius and Dick Griffey. Dick Griffey was huge in the concert business as well as owning Solar records. He was pretty much over the top, man. He had made it big time.  And those two cats, man, they just put me right where I needed to be out there, and let me give you an idea of who was on that session. This is what’s cool. Leon Pendarvis was one of the keyboard players and he’s the musical director for Saturday Night Live nowadays. Chuck Leavell, who is a piano player for the Rolling Stones. Willie Hall, who is one of the Blues Brothers in the movie. Willie played drums. And Tim Drummond, who was Bob Dylan’s bass player. So you could tell by this staff of people, it was all top of the line. And Cornelius and Griffey did not spare a dime. They laid it all out there; I don’t know what they paid for that, but can you imagine staffing a ship? And moving an entire recording studio onto the bow of the ship for a week?

BBP: Wow, that’s incredible. What was the song that you recorded?

Carroll: I did a whole album out there. Bob Johnston really was the producer. The executive producers were Don Cornelius and Dick Griffey, but the producer was Bob Johnston and Johnston produced Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. And there’s no end to it—Johnny Cash—so he was pretty much the top dog as far as that goes, and off we went. And we did a whole album...maybe ten tunes, maybe eleven tunes, and most of that stuff was kind of bluesy…you know, what they call “Americana” now? It’s kind of a mixture of stuff? Americana music. Well that’s probably the category it would fall into now. Back then, I had a little trouble; they didn’t know what it was.  That was a problem (laughs).

BBP: Whose idea was it to do it on a boat?  I mean, how did that come about and—tell me how the whole thing happened.
Carroll: Okay. I’m playing a place called the Hideaway—what a metaphor for this story—and here comes Cornelius and Griffey and they come in and they go “Oh my God, Man are you recording any of that stuff? Let’s do it!” Now it’s started: “Okay now, who do you want to produce you?”  I said “Well, I sure would like Quincy Jones. He’s out there in LA with you guys, you know.” And they said that they could, but there’s another producer that’s hot, you know, and had a couple of hits out, and Quincy was doing what he did with Michael Jackson at that point in time. He was kind of in-between.

BBP: Where were you when they met you?

Carroll: When they saw me play, Griffey and Cornelius, I was in Florida, in Hollywood, Florida at the Hideaway Lounge.  They asked me about producers as it went on.  Not that night, but later on we decided to record. And they asked me about producers, and of course Quincy Jones was my favorite, but—Jeez I still kick myself over not going that direction—but they had said Bob Johnston was hot and that he might understand what I’m doing. Because he was doing some, oh, you know, he did a variety of things from Johnny Cash to Paul Simon, you know.  So you could tell that they were thinking about those routes. Anyway, Bob Johnston got the gig, and he was quite—he had all the gold records. He was quite a big deal at that point in time.  And that’s how that happened. And Johnston came up with the idea of doing it on a ship. And he wanted to do it off the coast of Catalina.  Man, the kind of money they must have spent in those days! Can you imagine, these guys are landing in the water…seaplanes! Coming from gigs, man! Get out of here! Yeah, it was Hollywood, you know. It was like being in a movie or something.

BBP: You mean Catalina off the coast of California?

Carroll: Yeah. Catalina Island.  Off the coast of Catalina Island.

BBP: Wow. That’s incredible.
Be sure to catch the next installment, when Carroll talks about the song he wrote for the Whispers.





  1. Cool interview with the great 'Old Dog' - Mickey Carroll!

    1. thanks for commenting! Don't forget to check out parts 2 and 3 when they come out. Mickey had a lot to say!