Gary James' Interview With Earl "Speedo" Carroll of
They were one of the first '50s groups to use elaborate choreography in their stage presentation. Originally called The Carnations, they changed their name to The Cadillacs. Two hit records, "Gloria" in 1954 and "Speedo" in 1955 made the group famous and forever guaranteed them a place in Rock 'n' Roll history. The Cadillacs, or as they're now known, Speedo And The Cadillacs are still around. We talked with The Cadillacs' lead singer, Earl "Speedo" Carroll, immortalized in the lyric "Everybody calls me Speedo, but my real name is Mr. Earl."
Q - Earl, I knew you were famous when I saw you interviewed on the CBS Evening News a few years back. You were working as a maintenance man at a school.
A - Yes. PS 87, West 78th St. in Manhattan. That's between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue.
Q - I bet you're not working there these days.
A - No. I retired in '05 (2005). But I go by every now and then to see my children.
Q - I was surprised to see that you were working at such a job. Even a group with one hit record can make a career out of music by doing say the cruise ship circuit. Now that you're retired, you must be doing just that.
A - Yeah. Well, you really focus on the engagements, the boat trips or what have you, going out of town.
Q - How much work is there for Speedo and The Cadillacs these days?
A - We do about, I would say off the top of my head, twenty weeks of weekends in a year. Twenty-five, maybe a little more. Our travel takes us all over. I just got back from Barcelona. It gives you room to do quite a bit of traveling.
Q - What kind of venues are you performing in? Theatres?
A - No. In Barcelona, they had like an outdoor tent venue that they set up. Rock-a-billy is going very well over there. Maybe one act from America that do Rock 'n' Roll and Doo Wop basically. It's not a week engagement, it's one engagement. You're out about five days to do this one. But then you got to go over and rehearse the band, one of the Rock-a-billy bands and set up the tunes you're doing. It went over very well.
Q - Do you carry your own band with you or as in the case of Barcelona, does the venue provide you with a band?
A - Sometimes we do, and then sometimes we don't. It all depends on they gotta get paid too, and they're out of town more than one day, so you gotta put that into consideration. It's a lot of things involved, but sometimes you do it with your band, which I enjoy very much because your band already know the tunes and everything. It helps you quite a bit on the rehearsal things you gotta do. But the guys who back you up, the Rock-a-billy guys, they're pretty good too. They catch on fast and they read. It makes it a little easier for you.
Q - Are you the only original member in the group?
A - No, I'm not. There's a gentleman called Robert Phillips, the bass singer; we've been together since the early '50s. We were all high school kids from Manhattan. Born and raised in Harlem. We knew most of the people in the business. A couple of the guys are deceased. We know who to go to, to try and hook 'em up to our thing if we're gonna do something. That's how that went. It was very popular in the '50s for the Rhythm and Blues groups and the school kids out of New York, in Brooklyn, Jersey, what have you. Basically we all knew each other then. We had The Solitaires and The Five Crowns which became The Drifters. Charlie Thomas. And you had The Harptones. We all knew each other. We all rehearsed at a school on Amsterdam Ave. PS 49 on 129th Street and Amsterdam. That school would give us a room to get our act together. So, it was very popular in the '50s for a young man who wanted to be in the business.
Q - Did you work The Paramount Theatre?
A - Oh yes, quite a few (times) in New York and the one in Brooklyn. So, it was the thing in the day. Some of us made it and some of us dropped by the wayside. I'm not gonna get into it. My dream was to headline the Apollo Theatre. I lived in the area and I seen some of the best entertainment in my life right there, at The Apollo. I used to sneak in and go up to the Buzzard's Nest, which was way up high where the lights was. I saw some of the greatest in the world...Sammy Davis, The Dominoes, The Orioles, The Ravens. There were quite a few acts.
Q - Did you see Buddy Holly when he played The Apollo?
A - No, I didn't, but I worked with Buddy Holly on that tour of '56, I think when he got killed with The Big Bopper and all those.
Q - The year would have been 1959.
A - I'm terrible with dates. I know it was on an Irving Feld tour. They had The Big Bopper, Paul Anka, Little Willie John. He had a big thing called "Fever" in those days. The Clovers were on it, The Cadillacs and quite a few other artists.
Q - Did you get to spend some time with Buddy Holly?
A - Well, we talked backstage. We worked up in this place in Iowa. They had a little club. We worked that spot. Paul Anka was wearing the big white buck shoes. He was very talented then. Fabian came on. It was a several months tour, but they used different name acts for headlining. Everly Brothers. It was a wonderful time.
Q - You probably saw Ritchie Valens too?
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - You had two hits on the chart - "Gloria" in '54 and "Speedo" in '55. And then what? Did anything else chart?
A - We had a few. "Peekaboo" came up. That did very well. "Girlfriend" did very well. We had quite a few after that. Nothing that was as big as "Speedo" or "Gloria". "Gloria" was our first recording on the Jubilee label and "I Wonder Why" was the first recording. We had several. We've been recording ever since. Nothing that made the charts, but made a little recognition for us. We've been singing and recording ever since '52. One time I left and went with The Coasters. I stayed with them over twenty years. They asked me, could I get The Cadillacs back together for a Subaru commercial. We did that and that was very successful. Ran a year. It did very well. And we've been back together ever since.
Q - Esther Navarro was who to you?
A - She was a personal manager. She was at one of the biggest agencies in New York, which was Shore Artists. A guy named Lover Patterson introduced her to us. She liked what she seen, what she heard. She in turn became our business manager. She was hooking up with different people, like the dancers who taught us our choreography, Charlie Atkins and Honey Cole. They were tap dancers. They played in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. They were doing quite a few movies. He kind of took us under his wing. We used to rehearse at the old Ed Sullivan Theatre. He sharpened us up and got us ready for stage. He was a great dancer. Atkins and Cole were working all over the world.
Q - It is true that Esther named the group The Cadillacs?
A - Well, not exactly. We were calling ourselves The Carnations. We used to wear lapels in our jackets. She wasn't thrilled with the name. She said "We have to go back to the woodshed and come back with a name better than The Carnations." So we did. In those days, most groups had the bird names; The Flamingos, The Cardinals. So, we didn't go for birds. We were trying to move over to flowers. That didn't work. One of the guys said "What's the best car America has to offer?" We said "Cadillac." Light bulbs went off and we said you can't get much classier than that, The Cadillacs. So, we went to The Cadillacs.
Q - I wonder what would have happened if you went with the name Beatles.
A - Wow! Wouldn't that have been coincidence. Those guys in those days were really looking like Beatles with the long hair and different expressions. I believe that was just meant to be with them guys The Beatles. They were great. They were very talented. They had a sound. They were listening to American music.
Q - Did you ever cross paths with The Beatles?
A - Yes. The first time they came to America. We were working in a place called The Peppermint Lounge in Miami on 79th Street Crossway and those guys came in to see us. I was in The Coasters in those days. They admired The Coasters' music, "Charlie Brown", "Yakety-Yak". They decided to come over to the club to see the group. By them coming over to the club to see us, they brought five hundred people that were following them. (laughs) So it was good for the club and it was good for us. They really enjoyed it and said how much they'd been following The Coasters music and how much they really were enthused by The Coasters.
Q - Were they really able to watch your show, or did their fans get in their way?
A - They had a little area when they come in where they put 'em at, where the public really couldn't get to 'em. I mean, they probably could get to 'em if they want, but they were away from the normal audience. They said how much they enjoyed it.
Q - This line: "Everybody calls me Speedo, but my real name is Mr. Earl." Did Esther Navarro come up with that? That's absolutely brilliant.
A - Esther Navarro was not a writer. She was a dynamite business person. She knew a lot of people in the business that could help you, but she was really not a writer. We would come to her with a tune and she would write...change a line or so that we had already. In those times we didn't know anything about copywriting or publishing. We were performers. We were really dedicated to get on that stage and perform. We just didn't know anything about the background of music. Hip-Hop kids of today go to school and they know what they're doing. They learn the ins and outs of the business, which indicates that we didn't do that.
Q - You were on the ground floor of the music business. No one ever thought you could make a career out of being in a Pop vocal group.
A - That's right. Nobody did, even the people that was highly involved. They didn't have any idea this would last through '09. (2009) This is the only American music that's lasted this long. You've got Hip-Hop. You've got Disco. But it didn't last but for a certain time. The Doo-Wop, Rock 'n' Roll street singing music with the American people, this will be around for another hundred years. I thought it was over several years ago, but it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Everybody loves it, even the kids. They know more about the Doo-Wop and Rock 'n' Roll than people who are really into it.
Q - Did you ever meet Elvis?
A - We were in Vegas. They had a big show in the lounge. I remember we had The Platters, The Cadillacs and quite a few acts on there. He was playing the big room. He come through the kitchen one time and come in and saw us backstage and said hello and told us how much he admired the songs that we'd done in our era. The Coasters and The Platters. I even recall him saying that he got most of his steps from Bo Diddley. He said he used to love that man Bo Diddley, the way he would move onstage and he copied some of Bo Diddley things. He was a big fan of Bo Diddley's and the way he moved onstage with his guitar and he captured some of those moves himself. He was a wonderful person. Very lovable person. Nice person. He wasn't nasty at all. He was a gentleman and we talked for awhile. Then it was show time. (laughs)
Q - Where was Elvis performing at the time?
A - It was at the Hilton in Las Vegas.
Q - You guys used to wear some pretty flashy clothes onstage.
A - We still do.
Q - Where did you get them made?
A - At that time it was a tailor downtown called F. and F. Clothes. They started making those uniforms. We told The Temptations and they were going there. Everybody started going to F. and F. There was a tailor called Dave who used to make the clothes. That's a tradition of ours also, fast-steppin', sharp dressin' Cadillacs. (laughs)
Q - Did you design the clothes?
A - Well, we would pick out the material and basically he would make suits or sports outfits and a few personal clothes. We used to get our top coats made from Dave. He became very famous in New York. I don't even know if they're still alive. I haven't heard anything from Dave in quite a few years.
Q - When did you go to work at this school as a maintenance guy?
A - 1982.
Q - Up until then were you and The Cadillacs getting steady work?
A - Well, we were getting weekend things when I couldn't get out of school. But if I really needed to go and it was something big, I would sit down with my boss and we would work out something. We were working pretty much after we got back together, and did that Subaru commercial.
Q - So, you didn't mind working a regular job
A - No. It was beautiful. They'd see me working at the Apollo Theatre, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo with Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, The Four Tops and they would see their Earl onstage with these different performers and couldn't wait to get back to school to ask me "I saw you last night with Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby." There was a host of 'em. It was a two day shooting... Liza Minelli. They then said they couldn't believe their Earl and say "What the hell are you doing here with a mop?"
Q - Right.
A - The kids just couldn't understand the relation between the two guys, custodian in the day and so called star in the evening. I would tell 'em, I love you very much. I love the job. I love the kids. That's why I'm here. I love to perform. I was doing that before I got the job. One of the reasons I got the job was the custodian remembered my music, "Speedo". It was slow in the summertime so they asked me if I wanted to give this a shot, if it's not beneath you. I said no, I would love to try it. I did try it and I enjoyed what I did, keeping the school clean. I had all the TV stations coming by doing interviews. I did The Barbara Walters Show from the school.
Q - Before the interviews, people probably didn't know what happened to you.
A - That's right.
Q - What kind of a school was that?
A - An elementary school. It went up to 6th grade. Then they cut one of those and it went up to 5 grades. I still get mail from the kids. They're doctors, lawyers, what have you, running America and they stay in touch with me.
Q - Did you ever sing in the hallway?
A - I used to do graduation every year for the kids.
Q - As you were mopping the floors, were you singing?
A - They've got me on film doing that, The Barbara Walters Show. The show was a hit. It was one of the biggest of the year.
Q - Would you sing when the cameras weren't' on you?
A - I might sing out a tune every now and then. They'd catch me doing a song and the kids would join right in, if they hear me.