Legendary singer/actress Vikki Carr, born Florencia Bisenta de Casillas Martinez Cardona in El Paso, Texas, skyrocketed to superstardom as an American pop singer in 1962 with "He's a Rebel" followed by "It Must Be Him" in 1967 and "With Pen in Hand" in 1969. In the 80s and 90s her Spanish recordings brought her three Grammy Awards, and she set the precedent for cross over artists becoming successful in both English and Spanish. Now in 2012 she returns to the Sony label with a new album Viva la Vida, released on September 25. In our chat she talks about the album, the charity that is closest to her heart and how she feels about being a Mexican-American in show business.
Congratulations on 50 years in the business!
-Thank you, it's already 53!
I guess I was counting from 1962.
-Well, I went on the road in 1959.
That's a milestone, Vikki. Congrats!
-Thanks so much.
I listened to the first three tracks of Viva la Vida and your voice sounds better than ever!
-Oh, thank you Don! Thank you so much!
Did you record this over the last several months?
-Oh no, that album Viva la Vida was going to be my anniversary album and a thank you to all of Mexico and to all of Latin America for all the success that they have given me over the years...to tell them that as long as God continues to bless me with my voice that I will be there for them. But it was one of those things that when you're not with a record company... and my husband said "You've got to sing. You're singing better." So I invested in myself, and what better investment can you have? I worked and worked and said to my manager Carol Peters, "I'm trying to get a record label." Everything was done...the recording...I co-produced it with Jose Hernandez. I oversaw everything, the photographer, the whole thing. It was just so frustrating, Don.
How long ago was this?
-Three years ago. And it turns out that they heard it....Sony. Carol presented it to them, and these young people...I call them young compared to the old gang that used to run the companies. They were raised with my music, and when they heard it they said, "Oh, we want to release it", yada yada... and I just got back from doing an incredible promotional tour throughout all of Miami and LA. They are just so excited. Since its release in September, it's gone from #49 on the Latin charts to #16. It's a best seller.
Fabulous! That's great!
-You know, this can open the door for me to do other things. I've been doing concerts. My whole thing is trying to present who I am, a Mexican American who had success in English, and thanks to that success, I was able to record the first all Spanish album. It turns out that when I came back from Mexico...they all asked, "Is she going to do a Spanish show or her English show?" It's been such a struggle. I want to do the show of who I am. I'm able to, thank God, draw all kinds of people to my concerts. It's the whole thing Are you an entertainer? Can you tell stories? Can you make people laugh? Do they feel it? Do they cry with you? (she chuckles) Now, at this stage of my career, my whole idea is I'm going to be who I am and have always been, not having to apologize for it.
You're a great singer. You've been a favorite of mine since high school. When I listen to beautiful music sung by a terrific singer, I don't care what language it's in. It's the music and who's singing it that count.
-The music is the universal language. I found out that when I was in a country where I didn't speak the language, if I could make eye contact with the people, and get a smile or smile at them, then I felt I had connected. When you go to see opera, not everybody has the boards like they do at the Met that can tell you what is transpiring. But you certainly do know when it's sad or it's funny, or it's tragic...it speaks for itself, and it's up to the person who is performing or singing to achieve the interpretation.
Is this the first album you have produced?
-I produced another one...do you remember Live at the Greek?
-Well, that was my production. It was not my money, but...isn't that funny because what I'm wanting to do is to go back to the Greek and celebrate...how many years since I did that first one... and now be able to incorporate everything of what I am, with a big band. My dream is to do a tribute to Sinatra, my way. I don't mean that to be funny or anything, but how I would sing. That was the music I was raised with. I wasn't raised with rock and roll, it was big bands and the great Spanish sounds, the music of my father and my mother. That was my whole musical foundation.
Memorias, the tribute you did for PBS a few years ago with the music of the 40s and 50s was wonderful!
-Oh, thank you. About three years ago, I also did Fiesta Mexicana. I went to Mexico, and we showed some of the beautiful cities and the dances and the music. It was just exquisite, visually so beautiful, directed by Leo Eaton. Did you see that?
No, but I'll look for it on DVD. Getting back to Viva la Vida, thank you for the second CD with many of your all-time great Spanish hits.
-It was presented with different insight this time: what my feelings were and why I chose those songs. I told the record company how much I appreciate all the repackaging they keep doing, but I added, "Wouldn't it be nice to have some new material? I'll select the songs and write why they are so special to me." They liked the idea.
Tell me about the charities closest to your heart.
-The one I have been so identified with is my scholarship foundation that I started in California in 1971. I've been able to help over 350 young Mexican-American Hispanic students to continue with their education. I just got tired of all the negativity, and I had a wonderful PR lady/manager who got fed up with my complaining and said, "Look, if you don't like it, do something about it." I thought what the heck could I do? Then, God sent me that commercial for the National Dairy Association before there ever was the white moustache. This was in the west and north. They ran it for two years. The money that I earned went to the scholarships. I decided to help one student, and as I sat in bed reading these applications from families, some of them migrant families who had so many children but they saw to it that every single one of them got an education. One of the kids graduated with a 4.0 and wanted to be a criminologist. I cried and said "I've got to continue this." Since 1971, I've had an astronaut, the first Mexican-American astronaut Jose Hernandez, a superior court judge, doctors that have clinics, attorneys, I have people that are into fashion in New York...I've never had any biological children, but in a way, these have been my kids. We weren't and aren't the big foundation, but we care about the kids, do they have the clothes that they need and what they need besides that. That has been my baby. (she laughs) I have to tell you this. This album...I considered it like my baby and I've been telling people, "My God, it took years for this baby to come out, for heaven's sake"... It came out and said "Hi, mom. Hi, dad." and then went straight to school. When you really, really believe in something, you have to fight for it. I had to fight for "It Must Be Him", I had to fight for "With Pen in Hand", I fought for the first all Spanish album. It's kind of ironical that the things that I fought for have been some of my biggest successes. It's reconfirmed in me that you have to do what you believe in your heart, what you want to do, because nobody else can feel it. They are not you. It's better to go all out for it and say "I tried but it didn't happen" rather than complain and say, "Oh my gosh, I didn't to this and I didn't do that." We all fall into that trap.
Who are your favorite singers of all time? I know you've already mentioned Frank Sinatra.
-One of my all time favorites is Tony Bennett. I felt bad that I was never asked to do his Duets album. Others are Judy Garland, Kay Starr, Teresa Brewer, I mean this was the music that I was raised with.
Any from the new crop that you like?
-Adele, she has a great voice.
Like you, I prefer to listen mostly to the oldies but goodies.
-I need to hear a melody; I want to hear the voice. I get so bored with some of the stuff that we hear. I have grandchildren and they'll play this and say "C'mon, grandma. You can groove to this." And I'll say, "I don't think so."
I saw you in Follies about 10 years ago. Do you enjoy doing stage musicals?
-I love doing shows. In fact, my first one was South Pacific. It was incredible, and I also did The Unsinkable Molly Brown and I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road. I loved that, because I think what you do as a performer is you become that character, you're telling a story with your music. That's really what I try to do with all my music. It's amazing to me that all of these collections that are coming out from England, like EMI, have some of my greatest hits that were very big in Europe. Who knew? Son of a gun...
You have more passion in your voice than most singers!
-I'm glad because that's one of the things that my father always said,
"What you do in your life, do it with all your heart! The day that you can't do that, stop, because your audience will know." And they will. When you get that gut reaction, you know.
How do you feel about strides that Hispanics have made in show business?
-I would like the Latino to be accepted for themselves as talent and not have that stigma of being Latino. Like Ricardo Montalban playing a Japanese in the film Sayonara, he's an actor. I've done some stuff on television like on Baywatch, I was one of those babes (she laughs); no, I was the mother of a lifeguard. I've auditioned for roles and they always see me...I don't fit their caricature of what they think I should look like. Not all of us are olive-skinned. My mother was very, very light. I tried to stay out in the sun (she laughs) and all I got was skin cancer. So obviously I have to be happy with the color that I am.
Well, you're beautiful just the way you are, and we love you!
-Thank you so much, Don.
Vikki Carr is a warm, caring human being with a delightful sense of humor that translates into everything she does. Buy Viva la Vida and live her passion!