Carol Covell: The Lady Sings for You
by Cesca Janece Waterfield
She's a familiar figure in the local jazz scene, performing regularly with a revolving band, and sitting in with groups and soloists. Here I will not segue into a description of Carol Covell's good looks or the exotic gowns she wears to perform. So often, profiles on women artists focus unduly on their appearances. Can you describe Wynton's physique when he picks up that horn? Does anybody remember what Monk wore with Coltrane at Carnegie Hall in '57? Not likely. So as I drove to meet Carol for this interview, I thought back to the first time I met her, and decided to open with that anecdote. But standing before the statuesque beauty, I forgot it. And after an hour talking with her, I realized Carol Covell's beauty isn't even the most appealing feature of her personable charisma. It may be this: Although she's entertained thousands in the sixteen years she's lived in Richmond, she makes each person who sees her feel like he's the honored guest in an audience of one.
Talk about an honored guest: When Carol was born in Stamford, Connecticut, the first of two children, her grandmother stopped working to care for her, since Carol's mother worked two jobs. "I was not a latch key kid," Carol makes clear. "There was always someone there for me when I got home. I had a good strong family. I felt as privileged as the Waltons. I didn't feel like there was anything I was missing." Her parents divorced when she was three, but reunited ten years later. She was educated in private schools, and sang in church. "A lot of records were played in our house," Carol says. "My brother liked rock and roll. My mother had a lot of Ella Fitzgerald. My mother loved church music. Gospel led me to where these [jazz] people were, because a lot of them started in the church."
She credits her childhood choir director, the late Richard Amaker, with strengthening her chops even today. "He helped get me ready for what I'm doing now. He taught me how we should sing in the choir. We did a lot of singing acapella."
After completing high school, Carol enrolled in a secretarial program that housed students from different disciplines. The night of graduation, students celebrated with what Carol calls a "sipping party." One of the "sippers" was Ken Covell, who lived down the hall as a music teacher in an associated program. A percussionist specializing in Latin music, he had already played with Carlos Santana. "Music is something that we had in common," Carol says. They began dating and married a year later. The newlyweds performed occasionally, in a duo circulating Connecticut piano bars. "I was doing Carole King back then," she says.
When Ken's former company established a location in Richmond sixteen years ago, it sent twenty five families to the area. "I felt like I should get my bonnet on and get in the covered wagon and venture down here," Carol jokes. But a real adventure awaited her, in the form of an afternoon TV movie biopic.
"When I saw Diana Ross do 'Lady Sings the Blues,' it made Billie's music a little bit more cheery," Carol admits. "Diana Ross brought a lightness to it." While Carol admits, "A sad song has its place," her own blithe outlook prefers upbeat to downbeat.
But glitter got her. Carol confesses, "When I saw her dresses, I said, 'I can do that.' My original thought was, 'I want my own big band. Evening gown, the gloves up to here, a nice light on you. That's what a jazz singer is supposed to do."
As she worked a temp secretarial job, she began singing part time. When the job was eliminated, she intensified her pursuit of a music career. "I started learning songs, building up a repertoire. My first band was VCU music students. As they got busy in school, I had to move on to more seasoned musicians. On my nights off, I would go and listen to other people and build up a pool of musicians," she says.
She grasped any opportunity to sing. On vacation, she surprised a cruise ship dining room when she befriended the pianist and sat in with him during the midnight buffet. She sang at the famed Lenox Lounge, when a friend arranged for her to sit in with the house band on the night before Thanksgiving. She sang in Europe, traveling Spain with Ken.
And she studied her sisters. "I love so many of the women who've been singing, the divas, as they call them," Carol says. "They all had something to say. They were all good influences."
Yet in spite of her admiration for "divas," there's no star behavior from Carol. "I'm sort of an accent for each restaurant I play. It's all about the restaurant. It's not a concert. I want them to be able to talk over me, to listen, to come and go. It's all about keeping people happy. A vocalist is a storyteller. You've got to believe in what you're doing. You've got to pull people in. An audience can always tell a phony. You're like an actor. You've got to think about something that can take you to that moment. If you're a feeling person, you can just pull it. It's emotion. Emotion has many hats. I'm earthy, I'm jealous. But I'm a feeling kind of person. That's why I love people."
She currently performs around Richmond once or twice weekly. She emphasizes, "God is in charge. He's over it all." Still, she looks forward to several goals, including helping to cultivate a live dinner music scene in Richmond. "I believe in live music while people are dining," she says. "That's all I saw in New York. It can happen here. It's just a matter of time."
She dreams of singing with Diana Krall. Somewhere a young girl dreams of singing with Carol Covell. Not long ago, she has visited a school to talk to students about finding their passion. "I looked at them and I saw me. It was just so cool. You don't realize how you're affecting people until you're put in that position."
Okay, I'll say it! Carol Covell is a stunner. In one of her signature sultry gowns, the woman is a knockout. She works out three times a week, and says, "I believe in taking care of yourself."
Mostly, Carol Covell looks forward to meeting you. "I love to know who's in my audience," she says. "The audience just holds so much intrigue, and I never find that out until I investigate it. I've talked to people who come out after a hard day's work and they just want to relax, have a glass of wine, and just forget about everything. People have told me they love the sound of my voice and that it's very therapeutic. That's what I want to hear. I want to know that I'm on the right page. It's a journey, and I'm enjoying the journey because I've met a lot of good people."