Her big hit was "It Must be Him". It went to number three on the Billboard charts, sold over 1 million copies and earned a Gold album, not to mention three Grammy Award nominations. Dean Martin called her "The Best girl singer in the business." She received a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame in 1981. She's performed for five, count them, five Presidents Of The United States; Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton. Who are we talking about? Florencia Bisenta de Casillas Martinez Cardonna, that's who. You know her as Vikki Carr.
Q - Vikki, I was watching Jay Leno on October 7 (2013). Here's what he said in his monologue: "It was reported that Speaker Of The House John Boehner spent all weekend by the phone waiting for the President to call. (This was during the Debt Crisis Shutdown). What is this, 1965? We have something called cell phones now" then he starts singing "I hope it's him. It must be him".
A - (Laughs). "It Must Be Him".
Q - Then he says "That is actually an obscure song from 1967."
A - Thanks a lot!
Q - Now I understand why Jimmy Fallon is taking over The Tonight Show next year (2014). Your management should contact Jay Leno and have you come on the show to sing that song.
A - That sounds great! It would be great before he leaves. I think he should have me on the show.
Q - If not now, when?
A - Exactamundo. Thank you!
Q - In a nation of over 300 million people, I'm probably the only one that caught Jay Leno making that remark.
A - Probably. (Laughs).
Q - Dean Martin once called you "The best girl singer in the business." Not the best singer, but the best girl singer. Looking at that statement or endorsement through today's eyes, that's a sexist statement, isn't it?
A - Well, I took it really as a complement. I think if you are talking about the males, he's putting himself there and Sinatra. I think I was raised in a time when everything wasn't or had to be so politically correct. It seems we lost our sense of humor. Everybody has to watch what they say because you don't want to offend anybody. I feel that maybe with some certain things, yes, it is true, but my gosh, it's just overkill as far as I'm concerned. But that's my personal feeling. I was raised at a time where we loved Amos and Andy. We loved Rochester with Jack Benny. Those were characters that we loved. Now on the other hand, being Mexican American, I didn't care for the way that the Mexican American was always portrayed. Nine times out of ten they were not Mexican, they were Anglos trying to be Mexican banditos. Everything was killing with an accent. Does that make me a hypocrite, being Mexican American, that they don't stop to think of those of us here can speak English? Yet my grandfather could not speak English. My dad used to have me help him on pronunciation and I was slapped by a nun for speaking Spanish in a class. So, I could relate there. I love those characters that I had mentioned to you before. I never thought they were anything less than I was. It was just a part of my growing up and they were part of the background we were raised with on TV at that time. Seeing Treasures Of Sierra Madre used to bother me. It really did. I would tell my dad as a kid, "But, we don't talk that way. What's wrong?"
Q - What did he tell you?
A - He said, "Don't worry about it. Just be the best you can be." That's what I've tried to do in my life and in my career. Don't sing unless you really mean what you are singing because your audience will know. Sing with your heart.
Q - Elvis also like your singing. When you'd go to see him perform, he would introduce you and ask you to stand up in the audience? Did you get to know Elvis Presley?
A - Yes.
Q - You did?!
A - Oh, yes. (Laughs)
Q - What kind of a guy was he?
A - He was wonderful to me. I was 34 when I met him. You had to realize that my father, being Mexican American, was very, very strict. He never allowed us to hear rock 'n roll or anything on the radio. Anything that had to do with music was the Big Band era with the records they had and / or the ranchera Mexican American music and the Mexican artists. So, when I would hear about Elvis, Elvis, Elvis, I could not relate to the hysteria. Okay, I was in Vegas and I was engaged to this doctor that took care of Elvis when he was in Vegas. He really tried to get him off a lot of the drugs that the doctor in Memphis gave him. Elvis to me was probably one of the most insecure persons, who never left the hotel. My fiancé at the time told me "Elvis wants to meet you." I said, "Oh, yeah. Right!" He said, "No. Really. He and the Colonel, they want you to go to the show." This was when he was at the Hilton. When he first returned to the scene and I think what was related to me that he did this mainly because a Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck had come over from Britain and were getting to be the stars. He came back. So, we went to the show, but my attitude Gary was I sat there with my arms crossed in the King's booth where we were sitting, with an attitude like "Show me!" And then the music started, "2001: A Space Odyssey". Did you ever see his shows?
Q - I did. I saw him in July 1976 at the Ononadaga County War Memorial in Syracuse New York.
A - Wow! Hhe came out and I was looking at the show, obviously as a fellow performer the overall look of the show, the staging, the lighting and I was so impressed. Then his singers came out , The Sweet Inspirations. They were incredible. So, then he came out in his white suit. I noticed his stance and I'm thinking to myself, he standing up there in a karate stance, very sure of himself. Plant yourself well and the way his fingers would kind of bend. Of course now everybody's going crazy and I'm looking around and going, "Wow!" Then towards the end of the show he says, "Now I'd like to introduce one of the greatest singers in the country, because she sings from her gut" and I'm looking around because the people are all screaming and I said, "Oh, my God, who the heck is here?" (Laughs). He says, Miss. Vikki Carr!" My fiancé at the time said, "Vikki, stand up!" I said, "I'm trying to. My brain is saying stand, but my legs won't work." (Laughs). So, I finally stood up and then Elvis has his hand out. (Laughs) I was such a smart ass. I looked over at my fiancé and said, "Okay, what am I supposed to do now? Go up and kiss his ring? What is this?" So, I went up and he gave me a kiss on the cheek. You know the scarves he used to give out?
Q - Yeah.
A - Okay. So then we went downstairs to the dressing room and I'm talking to the girls. Then somebody said, "Vikki, Elvis is ready to meet you." And I said, "Oh, where is he?" "He's standing behind you." I said, "Okay." I was so scared that I turned around and said one of the stupidest things; I'm sure there's many things I've said that are stupid, but this one in particular was... "Oh, please Mr. Presley, don't walk all the way. I'll meet you halfway. Don't ask me why." He said, "Call me Elvis." I said, "Okay Mr. Elvis." (Laughs). He said, "Come into my dressing room." He closed the door and he started to take off my fiancé's ring that he had given me. He said, "Close your eyes." So, I close them and he started taking off my ring. I said, "I don't think Elias (Vikki's fiancé) is going to like that." He said, "Elias will understand. Open your eyes." It was a ring in the shape of a star that was all pave diamonds. I said, "Oh my gosh!" He said, "I had this made for you because I knew you were coming." You know, he was very, very generous with the jewelry and everything. I told him "Please Elvis, before I cry and my false eyelashes fall off, I'd like to show this to Elias." Well, I was performing a one-woman show, The Hell Of A Woman show. They told me that Elvis was going to come to the show. I said "You're kidding!" Because he would never leave the hotel. So, he came and was at the show. I explained to the audience that I had never been a fan of Elvis because I had never seen him perform and was not familiar that much with his work. I said, "But at my age now it's never too late." Elvis was one of the greatest showman and performers I'd ever seen. So, I went to introduce him out into the audience and he walks out on my stage. I looked at his hand and he had a ring like the one he gave me, only it was twice as big. Then he put the two hands together and the spotlight hit him. It's all these prisms. It was like in a movie. I can't believe it. It was my closing night, but we had to go back to the Hilton and we went back to the Hilton and we were talking about rings, my birthstone. I said, "I saw the ring I wanted. One day when I make enough money, I'm going to buy it." So, we go back to the hotel and we go back to the suite where all of his people were. He said, "Vikki, come with me." I said, "No, no, no." He goes, "Please, I don't want anything. You have already given me more than I ever dreamt of. You made a wish and I want to make your wish come true." He gave me his personal pinky ruby diamond ring that he would wear at times. He had a whole collection of rings. He gave me this one that was the birthstone, the ruby. I couldn't believe it. In a week I had a star pave ring and Elvis' personal ring that he gave me.
Q - Do you still have those rings today?
A - There in the safe. When I tell people the story they go, "Oh my gosh!" They can't believe it. They say "Could we see it?" So, I brought it out of the safe. They're putting them on and go "This was Elvis'!" (Laughs). It's really something. I really liked him. He was a lonely guy. When you see so many people around... Oh, and then he wanted to give me karate lessons. I said, "Yeah. I noticed you on stage that you would stand like a karate guy." All of his people, the singers, his crew, everybody would take classes. He was watching me in class and he says to me, "It's very obvious that you cannot do a class lesson. You're going to have to have private lessons." I said, "No, thank you." (Laughs).
Q - I think he liked you.
A - Yeah. I think he did, but I have some people that work with me and I'm doing a book on people that have been instrumental in my career. It's not a gossipy, garbage book. The kind of a book who came from nothing, a Mexican American, come up through the ranks and some of the people that were very important in my life to me which was Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Dean Martin; someone who would sing for five Presidents Of The United States and I'm thinking how did I get here? Yes, I went through two divorces in my life. I came out of it and it was painful, but it was not the end of the world for me. I was trying to show people you can do this. If I can get through this, you can get through this. Actually, with some of my music, I felt like the traveling psychiatrist, especially with songs like "With Pen In Hand". I became very emotional on that song. With my songs and with my music I tried to tell a story. It doesn't necessarily mean that I lived that story, but to try to bring to life what the writer was wanting to relay to the audience. When I found that song "With Pen In Hand", it seems that the biggest changes in my career had been the things I have fought for, be it my first all Spanish album, "Vikki Carr En Espanol" with Clive Davis. I love him. When I had the peak of success with "Pen In Hand", "It Must Be Him", "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You", he came after me to go with Columbia or CBS. He also had Barbra Streisand on the label. When it came time for contract renewal, I had fought for the Spanish album saying "I always included two or three songs in Spanish." I would explain my heritage, my real name and all of that. I would tell the audience what the songs were about so that they would not be left in the dark. They are the ones that came to me and said, "Vikki, please do an album in Spanish." It wasn't necessarily the Hispanic community because they said it's so beautiful. So, I told Clive, "I have to do this because my audience wants it." At that time I was ahead of the group and not too much happened. But the two albums I did, "Vikki Carr En Espanol" and "Hoy" are now classics. They were arranged by one of the greatest arrangers, Bob Florence, and they were recorded 'live' with an orchestra.
Q - The best way to do it.
A - Oh my gosh, there's nothing, nothing like it. When you have to go in and sing to a track and you don't have any interaction with the musicians; I've done it, but it's so different. It is so different because when I did those Spanish albums, Bob Florence said, "Tell me what this song is about." I would tell him and he would arrange what I told him the story was about. Then all the musicians had headphones on and I recorded with them. Bob just told the musicians, "Look. Just listen to her." My gosh, it was incredible. To this day I will hear those albums and they are the most gorgeous arrangements. I'm very, very proud of those two albums. So, that was one disagreement with Clive. Fighting for that opened the door for me to record in Spanish. When it came time for my contract renewal, Clive was honest and said, "I can only work with one diva at a time, and I have two." So he dropped me. And he stayed with Barbra. But I asked my audience, "What has she done lately?" (Laughs). She's an incredible talent, but had he not dropped me, CBS Mexico would never have approached me about signing with them and they said, "We want Vikki Carr because we know she can sell records." I said, "Where do I sign?" That's who I wanted to be with, Gary, while Disco music came in, in the States, I was recording in Spanish still with Bob Florence doing charts and I recorded with Jack Gould who was also with Columbia. Then I turned around and did an album of Mariachi music, which is what my dad wanted more than anything after I'd had Pop success. That garnered me my first Grammy. I was nominated for "It Must Be Him" and I was nominated for "Pen In Hand", but I never won. It was so ironic. I was in New York watching the Grammys all by myself and they said, "Now the Grammy for Best Mexican American Performance On An Album; Miss Vikki Carr." Okay Gary, it was the greatest moment of my life. I went to scream and there was nobody there! (Laughs). I felt so alone. So, I called my father and I said, "We won the Grammy!" And only as a father who gives you good advice, he says, "I told you." It was amazing to me that working so much in Mexico and the sale of albums, I have Gold and Platinum albums for almost all of the recordings I did in Spanish. It was so great because what I had wanted to do in my career all along was to kind of be the bridge between those of us that are born in the United States and where our roots are and to try and unite the two and then share our music with the world. In England they loved my stuff in Spanish. I would ask them, "Is it going to bother you that you won't know what the heck I'm singing about?" They said, "No, because when Vikki Carr sings, we understand everything." Then I realized, my gosh that's like Opera. Maybe you don't speak Italian, but for heaven sakes, you see the performer and it's an acting thing also with costumes. You know if somebody is going to die. You know if they are happy because they are like laughing and walking around. I said music to me is like the universal language. When I was in Japan, the music that they loved was my things in Spanish because Spanish is so similar to Japanese, the way that you write it out and pronounce it, it's the same.
Q - Back to Elvis for a minute. Instead of saying to Elvis your wish was for a ring, if you said "My wish is to marry you," you could of been Mrs. Elvis Presley.
A - No, but I was in love with a doctor. I don't know. I know that he respected me and I know that he knew... He was a very spiritual person, he knew that I was going through a lot of anger issues within myself because he gave me some ideas of books to read. I can't recall any of the titles now. The next time that I saw him he said, "You're much better." I said, "Yes." He cared, which was nice, but I had someone who used to be my soundman say, "Vikki," because he was giving me information for the book, "Here's some things you forgot about. Do you remember Elvis calling you everywhere we went?" Isn't that weird, I don't remember. He said, "Vikki, he cared for you!" I said, "Oh no, Bill, he didn't." He goes, "Yes, he did."
Q - The first time you saw Elvis was at the Hilton, but when is the first time you heard an Elvis record?
A - Not until after that. After I saw him in person and the power of his voice and the showman that he was in performing and the obvious love he had for what he was doing. You can tell if a performer is enjoying themselves or not. Elvis told a story on stage which I will never forget. He said the song, "Softly, I Will Leave You Softly" happened for a husband who was passing away in a hospital. His wife I guess was at his side and had fallen kind of asleep, when you put your head on the bed. According to Elvis this was written by the husband who said "Softly, I will leave you softly, long before your eyes can beg me stay for one more hour or one more day." I thought to myself, oh my gosh. This man, this singer, he tells a story also.
Q - You recorded "He's A Rebel" before The Crystals did, yet they had the hit with that record. How did that happen?
A - Al Bennett was the President of Liberty Records at the time. Snuff Garrett (record producer) told me "This is going to be your first single." Phil (Spector) had left Liberty (Records). When we were in the studio recording "He's A Rebel" we took a break at United Recording. We opened the door and coming right across the hall was "He's A Rebel". Snuff said, "What the heck is going on?" I guess he looked into it and Phil, when he left Liberty, took the song with him. Snuff called Al Bennett and he's telling him Phil (Spector) is across the way recording this song. From what he told me, they weren't even The Crystals. They were background singers that went in because the actual Crystals were on tour and he wanted to get that song out because that was going to be my first single. Al Bennett told snuff, "Do you think your version is as good as his?" He goes, "Yeah." He said, "Well then go for it!" My version was a hit in Australia. I have what is comparable to a Gold Record there. I'm not taking anything away from The Crystals, they had this record out and all the DJ's already were familiar with their hits because they'd already had a couple, so automatically I guess, they went with The Crystals' version of "He's A Rebel" and not mine.
Q - I guess that's the way the record business is.
A - Yeah, and at that time there was really a lot of payola. That's not to say it doesn't go on now, but it was so rampant then. At that time it was really the DJs that selected the hit out of an album. Then the record companies would kind of go along with it. The DJs were just as important as the artist, I mean certain ones throughout the country. I thought I was going to get my walking papers from Al Bennett because he called me into his office because nothing was happening with my recording of singles. He said, "Well, it's obvious were not going to have a single hit with you." I closed my eyes and said "Here it comes." He said, "We're going to make you an album artist. You're going to be our Tony Bennett for the label Liberty," which was a smaller label, in other words the class they wanted for Liberty. That was when I started recording the albums and found "It Must Be Him". Actually, it was my manager and my manager used to handle at that time Arnold Mills, Bobby Vee and Gene McDaniels and I think those were artists Snuff recorded.
Q - Explain to me how payola translates to someone going out and buying a record.
A - Well, I think if you hear something enough it's going to get catchy to you. I felt that disc jockeys were, as I mentioned, almost as important. I was with Liberty (Records) and I did a Country album. I believe I was one of the first Pop artist at that time to go to Nashville and I recorded 'live' with musicians. Some of the greatest musicians in Nashville, and I was used to the charts, you sang 'live' with these guys and they just answered you. I had never worked with musicians like that. They became part of the arrangement. They created at exactly the same time. I didn't get a chance to meet Kris Kristofferson, but I did "Sunday Morning Comin' Down". I did The Johnny Cash Show he was doing out of Nashville. I told him I did the song "Sunday Mornin' Coming Down" and he said, "You know, Kris wrote that for me and I didn't record it." I said, "Oh my gosh Johnny, that's really too bad because it is a great song." Well, it was a little bit later Johnny went in and recorded it and that was a humongous hit for him.
Q - Yes it was.
A - Well, one of the reasons I was told he didn't want to do it was one of the lines was "Wishin' Lord that I was stoned." He didn't want to push that anymore because he had cleaned up and was not using drugs and he didn't want to use that word. I was just telling a story when I did it. My take on it when I recorded it was all of the days of being on the road and pretty much I was by myself most of the time and how lonely an artist can become, especially when she comes from a family of seven kids. It was hard. That song, "There's something in a Sunday that sure makes a body feel alone and there's nothing worse than dying", anyway I love the song.
Q - Who signed you to Liberty Records?
A - Sy Waronker. He was one of the original guys at Liberty. What I did when I decided to go off the road and not work with groups in Nevada; my dad said, "That's enough of what you're doing on the road. He gave me $25 to go into a studio and record a demo. I did this demo and went to every record company and submitted the disc. I think I had about three or four songs on it. You could tell whether they had opened it or not. I kept hearing "No, no, no." I finally went to Liberty and Sy Waronkep heard it. They said yes! He presented it to Al Bennett from Little Rock, Arkansas and that was how I was signed.
Q -. Who gave you the stage name of Carr? Was it given to you by a manager?
A - No. I had many names. To begin with I was Carlita.
Q - I like it!
A - Yeah. My dad loved it because his name was Carlos, so I was his Carlita, but I was working with an all Latin group in Palm Springs. Then I was sent to Nevada and now being as fair skin as I am with my sparkling sherry of color hair, it turns out people couldn't believe that I was Mexican. I got to know the musicians and there was a place at Harold's Club, a round-like bar. It had slot machines inside of the bar. Most of the musicians would congregate there after their shows. They had 24 hour entertainment. They could tell me, "No, no. This Carlita stuff has got to go." I said, "Why?" They said, "Because you don't sing that much in Spanish." At that time, that was an era when people changed their names. It wasn't anything that I was ashamed of, my name. "We gotta find you a name." It was a group of musicians that decided "We gotta find you another name. We gotta find you something that's catchy." So they came up with Vikki and I came up with the spelling Vikki. I never knew there were so many spellings. There was a comedian, Frankie Carr. So I said, I'll cut my name Cardona down to Carr and add an r. But I always mentioned my real name on stage and kind of make it part of the show. My real name is Florencia Bisenta de Casillas Martinez Cardonna. Then the audience would go "What?" That's why I changed it to Vikki Carr. I said "Could you see that long name on a marquee? You'd think it was a whole group!" (Laughs).
Q - Imagine being a schoolteacher trying to take attendance with a student with that name.
A - (Laughs). But it was short in school too, Florence Cardona.
Q - The follow-up to "It Must Be Him" was what?
A - "Pen In Hand".
Q - How did that do for you?
A - It did very good. It got on the charts. It didn't get up to number one. What happened was, United Artists merged with Liberty and it became Liberty UA. We had a whole meeting at the Hilton I think it was where we got to meet all the artists. I met Bobby Goldsboro. He told me he had some songs he'd like me to hear. He started playing them for me. There were some that were good, but the one that I liked was "Pen In Hand". Then Bobby said, "Well no, that's a man's song." I said, "Why? Why can't a woman go through divorce? Why is it you're only thinking about the man?" I was thinking again story wise what it could be, but it was also, Jerry Vale recorded it and Bobby Bare. But I was the one on TV and I was the one that was getting all the publicity for it and a lot of air play. One thing I learned from that song is to tell a story and then when I went through my first divorce, is to live through it. I would hear people in the audience say, "Sing that song where you cry." That would hurt my feelings because I would say, "Is that the only reason you came in, to see me cry?" Then I figured out this was a cathartic thing for the audience. Those that could not speak to their other half, men or women, could hear in the song this woman trying to talk sense into her husband, saying "If you don't think the good times outweigh the bad, then go ahead, sign your name and I'll be on my way." When I went through it, I didn't have children, it was my way of singing my pain out. Sometimes Gary, when I go back and hear recordings of the shows I've done, I think to myself, oh my God! I made my audience suffer with me too. My song, before I suffered, turned into a help for those people. I had people come to see me, say thank you for that song. You saved our marriage. A lot of us make mistakes in life. You've done it and you want to get on with your life and make it right again. Sometimes one or the other cannot forgive.
Q - Did you ever meet Janis Joplin?
A - No.
Q - Jimi Hendrix?
A - No. None of the Rock artists.
Q - None?!
A - Other than Elvis.
Q - Never met The Beatles?
A - No, but I did see them. And I met Tom Jones, but I met Tom Jones was he was in England. I was so moved by his voice. He was singing at the Talk Of The Town. I was with my manager at the time. I wanted to go back and tell him how moved I was by his singing. He sang "You'll Never Walk Alone". I said, "Wow! What a singer!" I went backstage and he wouldn't let anybody else in and just wanted to talk to me. I told him what a great singer I thought he was. We went to a disco called Bag Of Nails and I did see Ringo. I guess there must have been a lot of Rock artists there. I never really hung out with performers. The only one was Sinatra and I wound up cooking for him.
Q - Cooking for Frank Sinatra?! He was supposed to be a pretty good cook himself.
A - Yes! Remember when he retired? At the age of 50?
Q - Yes.
A - He became like a producer and I had just come back from a big tour of the Far East. I was wiped out. I was in California and I told my manager, "Okay, great tour. I don't want to see you. Don't call me." I was wiped out. My manager calls me and I said, "What part of I don't want to see you or hear from you, didn't you get?" (Laughs). He said, "Sinatra called." I said, "What does he want?" He said, "He's producing the inauguration for Governor Reagan", who had just been elected Governor of California, "and he would like you to be part of the show." I said, "Okay." So picture this: I'm in Sacramento in the dressing room with Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jack Benny, Buddy Ebsen and John Wayne. I'm the only girl. Sinatra had a drink in his hand and he looked at me and said, "You know, you sing good." I said, "Oh, thank you very much." Sinatra said, "I said good!" Like he had to make his point. (Laughs). "Good". I thought to myself, oh my God, he can spell too. (Laughs). Can you tell I have a very crazy sense of humor and I'm crazy like this on stage.
Q - I'm wondering where all this is going.
A - (Laughs) Then he produced some shows in Palm Springs. He had a compound. He had these cabanas around his house; were all around theer. I asked him if he liked Mexican food. He said, "Yeah." I said "I'll make you some tomorrow after the show." We did the show and the next morning I was going to do it for him, but then of course it was a late night. I get up and somebody comes up to me and says, "Vikki, Sinatra's been waiting since 8:30 for you to cook." I said, "Oh my God!" I went and cooked for him. But he was a great cook. In Washington DC he was producing something and Henry Kissinger was at his apartment and he made sausage and eggs. It was so delicious. Okay that's enough of the stories. I'm giving you almost my book! The only one I haven't told you about is Danny Kaye and he's not a singer.
Q - Did you like guest hosting The Tonight Show?
A - I loved it.
Q - You should have had your own talk show.
A - Well, we tried, but we couldn't convince anybody. What I wanted was a fun and uplifting show like Dinah Shore. It was fun. You did cooking. I loved to cook. She had mystery guests, whoever would come in. It was kind of a lead-in to the Operas and the Ellens.
Q - Where do you performed today?
A - Theaters and tours in Central America and Mexico. I just signed with a new agency A.P.A. (Agency For The Performing Arts) and things are starting to roll.