Here is Part II of our interview with Mickey Carroll. In it, he talks more about Don Cornelius; “Love is Where You Find it,” the song he wrote for the Whispers and about the role race played in the music world of the 1950’s, when he started out. He also talks about his own efforts to use music as a tool for creating a better world.
As we started this segment, Carroll talked about his Grammy-nominated album Love Life:
Carroll: Love Life is me and Eric Schilling. I recorded that in Miami in Coconut Grove. Coconut Grove is a studio there that Bill Szymczyk owned. Bill Szymczyk produced B.B. King and the Eagles, and Eric worked for him and I met Eric when I did my RCA album. And then of course Eric and I went into that studio in Miami, in Coconut Grove, and we recorded Love Life, and the funny part about that is that Love Life was nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist. But it was kind of a jazz thing, you know, and nobody knew where to play it. You know, they were just starting out in those days with smooth jazz stations, and that’s what it leaned into a little bit, you know. So I was kind of a day late and a dollar short on that. We did sell out what we pressed up so that was an indication that people did like it. And “People Love Life” comes from that, the song I mentioned to you earlier.
Carroll: Yeah, I’m on three different little labels. One is Bendera; it’s an Asian company, it’s Korean, excuse me. And of course they license to put it out, and they were nice to me and gave me a nice advance and they loved the album. And it’s out now. And I understand it’s doing pretty good.
BBP: Oh, that’s great. What made you decide to re-release it?
Carroll: Um (laughs) they offered me money.
BBP: This company did…
Carroll: Yes, that would be Bendera. Isn’t it funny Kirk what happens when people say “I’ll give you a check? “
BBP: Yeah, that moves things, it really does. (laughs)
Carroll: Well yeah, they got it out, and we’re okay with it. And I also have it out on Vision Records. And I told them, “You know it’s already out on Vision.” And they said “That’s okay, we want to put it out.” They did! And now, as I understand it, Vision is all over the world. There’s no question about that, they’re distributed by Orchard, which is on the Internet. That’s probably the largest distributor, and they just went to all the Asian countries and I do believe to even China.
BBP: So wait a minute, you have this record on two different companies that are distributing it at the same time?
Carroll: Can you believe that, man? Love Life, the album you mentioned, is on two different companies. Yes it is.
BBP: And there’s no legal wrangling over things?
Carroll: No, I told them, there’s no secret about it. I wouldn’t be telling you. They didn’t mind at all. They wanted to put it out and it’s out.
BBP: Oh wow, that must be a first.
Carroll: (laughs) Well, the recording at sea was a first, Kirk.
BBP: Well this is a new first with this album, right?
Carroll: Hey, let no song be served until its time.
BBP: Wow, I guess that’s quite an accomplishment.
Carroll: I didn’t set out to do it. I think it’s funny, and I enjoyed telling people about it when they ask me. You know…you’re right, I think it is a first. And Vision has been good to me, Howard and Ron Albert Studio in Miami. And they are really—they’re friends. I’m just a lucky guy that way: I’ve got buddies in the business that still think I’m hot stuff, so they’re going to go and spend their dime and do what they do.
BBP: That’s good. That’s great….
Carroll: But Kirk, I’m getting old, man!
BBP: Well, it’s better than sitting around and being bored doing nothing…
Carroll: I know. That’s not for me. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but with “Old Dogs” in the back yard there, I’ve got a little claw-foot tub up on my deck. If you look at the video, you’ll see it. And I sit out there in that tub, man, and I have a nice glass of Scotch and I say my prayers and I’m good with God and everybody. (laughs)
BBP: I guess you do! You have two different companies putting out your record, that’s quite an accomplishment. I’m pretty amazed by that. Well, I was curious: the first time you said that Don Cornelius heard you in Miami at the Hideaway, was that the first time you met him?
Carroll: That was the first time. He and Griffey were looking for some kind of new talent, and I believe they had gone to the islands, if I remember correctly. And they came to Miami after that, and they had their ladies with them and their staff, some of them from Soul Train. They were just absolutely wonderful people. I couldn’t have been treated any better, buddy, I mean to tell you. They put me up at the Beverly Hills Hotel, you want to believe this? I had a cottage, not a room. Isn’t that something, man? And a limo would pick me up, and I’d go to dinner with these guys and they were showing off the town and Holy Canolee, I went to one they called the Canteen or the Cafeteria or something there—near where The Johnny Carson Show was—and sitting in there was Marlon Brando, and what the hell—another cat—Ed McMahon, and just all of these celebrities. I’m sitting in there; I’m going “Oh My God, I’m from Camden, New Jersey. Here I am here, having a hamburger.”
BBP: “Pinch me, pinch me. Make sure it’s real…”
Carroll: I got a big kick out of that. And then they—they were just sweet. They really did roll out the carpet. God bless ‘em, man. They thought I was going to set the world on fire, you know. I’m pretty sure they were looking to spill over into the pop market, you know, from R&B. And they noticed I had a little something that connected with them that might spill over into that. So that would be my guess.
BBP: And you were involved with Soul Train in some capacity, right?
Carroll: Not on a production level, but I did write for Soul Train Gang’s first album. Did “I Can Do It All Night,” which is a little dance floor thing, a little funky thing. And I wrote of course for Griffey’s—I guess that was his top group—the Whispers. I wrote their title cut called “Love is Where You Find It.” And hey man, it worked out! And I made a few bucks too!
BBP: Yeah, that always helps.
Carroll: Oh, of course. Are you kidding me? These are the arts. You’ve got to do that. There’s no way to avoid that. I mean even at this place in time, I’m doing things like that too. I actually have to keep it down a little bit, because my wife goes “are you getting paid?” (laughs)
BBP: Don Cornelius. Over the years did you stay in touch with him?
Carroll: Yeah, as a matter of fact I talked to him about a year prior to his death. And I was amazed at that. I had no idea that he had that in him. He was a very internal guy, very powerful personality. Internalized, I don’t think he shared everything he was thinking. And he was also premeditated, you know. He’d be thinking about a couple of things while he was talking to you, you know. But it wasn’t disturbing. It was just the way he was.
BBP: He was a promoter, he was a business person.
Carroll: There you go. And he wasn’t stupid, man. He was smart. What those guys did was an amazing thing for their generation at that point in time. They really did build some stairway.
BBP: So you were shocked when you heard that he had committed suicide, that he had been ill?
Carroll: Oh, yeah. That’s so sad. All I can do is guess that he was suffering, I would imagine, and he didn’t want to deal with it.
BBP: Yeah. That’s probably what led to that. You also mentioned that you were one of the few white acts during that time. What was the racial situation like when you started out in the fifties? I mean I’ve heard stories. …
Carroll: I always have to step back a little bit. Because when I went to high school, I was being played on black radio, as well as doing—there was a show called “The Mitch Thomas Show” which was a black dance show, sort of an answer to “Bandstand.” And I’d come back to school and those kids wanted my autograph, all the black kids. I broke right through the barrier there, and I realized at that point in time that music—the arts in general, not just music—can do it. It can do it. Kirk, it can do a lot of stuff. You always think about God creating the world in seven days, well there’s the word: create. And I truly believe that when you’re creating, you are close to your Creator. That’s a prime example of it. That let me know that everybody’s on a playing field, that we’re all even when we chose that. Sports and music, it does that. You don’t have a choice. You’ve got to answer up and do it, or not. And I learned that about music and I fell in love with that aspect as well. That was quite a place in time in the fifties. And I would do the record hops and things and they would love the music and sign autographs and do all that. And I can remember thinking then, they just play wonderful. I would do some of them live with a band. And I thought “these guys are just” and you know they were jazzers.
BBP: I remember talking to African-American musicians at the time and some of them were telling me really harrowing stories about touring the south and getting pulled over by the police…
Carroll: Oh yeah, well they were outside of...Oh, man, yeah, I know. I know that, and I know that’s true. But from my perspective, I can only tell you what happened with me, and you remember I’m white….but at the same time I always wondered at certain events, how I would be treated. Because I would be the only..well Billy as well…the only white guys there. And nothing happened that bad, buddy, or I’d tell you. Everything went smooth, they just loved the music.
BBP: Do you think, as time went on, did that ever change? Through the sixties, the seventies and the eighties, I mean…
Carroll: I thought so. I used to go to a club to hear people play because most of the music I liked was, like I say, blues or R&B, and I would go to a club there called the Sir John in Liberty City in Miami, which is now..you know, you don’t do that now. ..so that’s a strong indication that the days that I knew, I’m not saying they were innocent or perfect, but it wasn’t as violent as now. There weren’t the weapons that they have now. Have you heard “Song from my Son?” It’s a song that has maybe 102 or 103 thousand views on YouTube. It’s about the subject that we’re talking about, about kids and weapons and, you know, the change that’s taken place.
BBP: A lot of this is very disturbing to you, it sounds like.
Carroll: Oh, man, come on. They’re kids. I don’t care what color. They’re all kids. And the attitude, the thing’s changed, quite a bit. I wish I could tell you what’s causing it, only thing I could dip into is education—I know they’re programs and things to help out and all that, so I would say that there needs to be, it’s always communication. And you know what, I did a show here—wait ‘til you hear this—I did a show here in Mount Dora that was called “Mother J,” that’s where the Mother J Productions comes from, I did a show and I wrote the town into it, Kirk. I wrote the police chief, the fire chief…everybody… the Center for the Arts, I wrote them all into it. They all had something to do with that play. And that created an atmosphere of harmony because they call it East Town, which is the black area here, and it’s really Mount Dora, and I kind of got pissed at that. “What do you call that East Town for? What are we doing with this?” And I went over there and I recruited my kids from school and things from school and we were all on the stage, everybody was up there together. And we did a play and guess what? They stood in line to get in, buddy! There should be a movie about this. Because we hit a home run with that. And on top of that, we raised money. Out in the lobby you had all kinds of different-colored people associating and saying “hi.” Well guess what does that? The arts! The idea, for example, when I did my show, I talked to the art teacher at the high school and all of the kids created the posters for the show. They had posters they created for Mother J. Mother J, the story of Mother J is that she had found an old church in the city…she got an old church in the ghetto—let’s put it that way—and she decided—she’s a blues singer—she decided that she’s not in love with playing those clubs as much anymore. She wanted to do something with a higher call, so she decides to take that church over and work with kids in the neighborhood, so that opened up different songs for me. It’s where “Song For My Son” comes from, and she’s singing—Jacqueline Jones played Mother J in this, she’s a blues singer here, kind of a blues diva in the Orlando area. She played the part and she played it well. I mean it was just cookin’. And of course, the kids don’t know, they don’t know entirely what they’re listening to. They know it had a beat and it was danceable and it was high energy and she was selling the audience, so they felt good to be in the play. Then we had at the art center afterwards, we hung up their art and all the art had to do with was—oh—spirituality; what do you think of God? What about cultural diversity, what do you think of your parents, personal things? But at the same time they got to express themselves. And guess what happened? This is just too good, okay? Not only did they have their art hanging up—it wasn’t judged, they all got an award, for doing it—but meanwhile, the people in the town fell in love with this, and I proposed to them that they build an archway in the park and have the kids do the same thing with tiles. But this time I wanted seniors involved, so we had seniors and kids down there doing tiles that have to do with—oh—spirituality and giving back. The archway is called the “Unity in the Community Archway.” And guess what? I got an award. I got an arts and humanities award for that particular project.
BBP: When did you do this? How long ago?
Carroll: Oh, let’s see. I’d say a good eight years ago. Maybe eight years, nine years. And that, I’m sure you’d find on the Internet. If you looked at my website you might find it.
BBP: Well, you know earlier you brought up the Whispers, and actually they were one of my favorite groups when I was coming along. “Olivia Lost and Turned Out,” I used to love that song. Tell me a little bit on your association with them, how you met them. They’re twins in that group, right?
Carroll: Yes, they’re twins. I didn’t hang with The Whispers, I just knew them, met them a few times through Dick Griffey. And they showed up at the boat, they came out to the boat when I recorded on the ship, I mean. And that was my first introduction to The Whispers. They didn’t have any hits or anything, yet. And there was something about them: they had class. You know there was something about them, you just got the feeling that they were on the way to something. And then on top of that, they were surrounded by some serious company. So they got done what they wanted to do. I could tell they wanted to be in that place in time where they were, and have that class act, you know. And deliver those romantic pieces that they had. And you know, they got a little funky too, so you had fun with them, you know. And, you know as people, I really didn’t spend time hanging. We had dinner together at Fisherman’s Wharf, with Griffey. He picked up the tab.
BBP: That’s incredible.
Carroll: I neglected to say, when you asked me about “Old Dogs,” I neglected to tell you that “Growing Bolder,” which is a marvelous show, I mean, you’ve got to dig it, you’ve got to check it out. They cover all kinds of different stories in regard to what people are achieving at a certain age. And they liked “Old Dogs,” and they came by the house and they shot a whole story on me. Man, it just took off! I’m talking about the L.A. Times, The Chicago Tribune, Eye in the Sky, the Orlando Sentinel. I mean it just spread all over the place. All the TV galleries picked it up. So that means if they need to use it, they have it.
BBP: Let me ask you, I know you’ve written songs for other people, and I was just curious: when you write a song for somebody, how do you go about doing it? What’s your approach?
Carroll: You know, it’s a labor of love, and it’s not for me. I’m talking about for me; everybody’s different. I’m not a prolific writer; I’m not one of these guys that say “Hey, I’ve written 350 songs this year, you know.” I… to me, it’s so personal that it’s painful to try to get it done the way I want. And of course, if it’s not accepted in a way that people would buy it…that of course is not something you want. What you really have to want is, did you achieve what’s in you? Did you say what you want to say? And to me that’s hard. It’s not like starting out with the drum track and paying attention to the drum, which I’ve done. But at my age now, it’s quite an undertaking.
BBP: But when you write the song, do you have it in mind for a particular person?
Carroll: Oh, gosh. I wish I could say yeah. I just feel what I need to say and I go after it. I don’t think about a person or a radio station or anything. I just “I want to do this. I want to say this.” Of course if it gets wings like “Love is Where You Find it,” (which) to me is a Brazilian jazz piece, I wrote it kind of like a bossanova. (singing) Ba-bo-da-do-da-do-din-da. You notice on the end that one of the Whispers is scatting? (laughs)
BBP: Right! Yeah!
Carroll: He picked it up. He went, “okay, let’s lead it into jazz a little bit.” And I really thought that was cool.
BBP: Well, they were good at it. That’s one thing about them I remember. A lot of their songs sounded like that. But did you hear that tendency in them to do that and you just decided to play off of it?
Carroll: Um, I guess—you know, I did get to hear them work a little bit in L.A., but I didn’t stay for the whole session and I just kind of heard a little bit. But it wasn’t something I could say I knew their whole groove, but when I heard them sing, I thought “Oh my, these cats, they’re able to stretch out here a little bit.” It had nothing to do with me writing a tune, I was just out there and they were doing a session. That’s it…”Love is Where You Find It,” I actually did that live, with a big band. I had the university jazz band—well not all of it, but most of it—Miami University, and man, it was cooking! And I was lucky enough to get video of that, and this is way back in the day! These guys shot it. And of course, we’re all sitting around the studio going, “Man, look at this!” So we sent it off to Dick Griffey, because I already knew Dick and had recorded for those guys, and they said “Yeah baby, we’re going to record this!” (laughs). It was a hell of a demo to send somebody, I can tell you that!