I met the Dynamic Miss Faye Carol when I was twelve years old after she played a concert at my school, Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. High. I was blown away by her chocolate brassy voice singing “It ain’t that easy being green… “ She had so much emotion and depth, and her face was like mine. She wore a beautiful smile, delivering music and a powerful message that created a sense of belonging and pride. I felt it.
A musical chameleon unafraid of shifting with the changing times, Faye Carol has been carrying the torch for Black music and excellence ever since she arrived in the Bay Area from Mississippi in the late 1950s. She is one of the magical beings placed here during the great migration to sing and bear witness to the powerful impact that Black music, art, and culture has had, and continues to have, in the United States. Telling the stories of Black people in America has allowed her many wonderful opportunities to sing with and for some of the Bay Area’s most famed musicians and freedom fighters, from Johnny Talbot to The Black Panthers. Rooted in love, and steeped in the waters of jazz, blues, and R&B, Faye learned early on that she wanted to “sing to the world” but that “in the industry they want to categorize you. Are you a jazz singer? Are you a blues singer? Are you an R&B singer? I realized I wanted to just be a singer of songs, and that I could do that.”
Faye Carol is a respected elder, a griot sharing the stories and histories of our past, present, and future through the music. She is unapologetically living her dream, walking in her purpose with great hopes to reach the masses of Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, the greater Bay Area, and beyond, always with a message of love and unity. –VT
Valerie Troutt: Alright, we’re talking about the Bay Area, and being an artist from the Bay Area, and that’s what you and I have in common. We have a lot in common, really —
Faye Carol: Yes, we do.
VT: — being Black women, coming from rich families of history and culture and love. We have both been blessed to have been allowed to grow in our gifts — and be honored in that way. Tell me a little bit about just how family impacts your music.
FC: Well, my mother and father and sister — my late sister and my late father — they were always really supportive of me. And before that, I think even a bigger impact was my grandmother, who I stayed with in Mississippi until I was around ten years old. They couldn’t get me to leave her. My mother and my sister had come on out here to California, and I stayed there with her. That’s really where I started singing and clowning, and being the ham that I am. She always encouraged me, told me I could do whatever it was that I wanted to, and it was obvious to everybody that singing and dancing and the arts — at the time, I didn’t know you called them “the arts,” but that’s what I was naturally attracted to. That’s what I did, just about twenty-four hours a day, on some level or another, ever since I could remember. You know, if somebody’s got your favorite record, you want to sing like that. If you hear a solo, you might want to hum that solo. You’re just inspired on a daily basis. Back then, things were really segregated — even though people was hollering about it, it really didn’t seem like a bad thing for me at the time, because the community was so self-sufficient, and so nurturing. I didn’t feel the need for anything else. And when I came out here, I just continued on with the love of music
VT: And what year did you come out?
FC: Oh, that had to be like ’57, ’58, something like that. I’m so bad with time, girl, it’s all a blur. [Laughter] My father would have wanted me to go to school longer, but ultimately, you know, he was for me doing what I wanted to do. And when I really made up my mind that singing is what I wanted to do, then I didn’t have a problem getting support from my immediate family.
VT: That’s the best thing. As long as we know our rocks got us — there’s really not much we can’t do, once we have that kind of love. Did you play any instruments, outside of the voice?
FC: No. I mean, I had a piano when I was in Mississippi and I took some lessons. But I never really had the discipline, and then here, after I was with my husband a little bit — he played a lot of instruments — I took a few piano lessons, but ultimately I didn’t have the discipline to practice. But I just love, love the instrument.
VT: Yeah. I mean, you are a piano, period.
FC: Girl, I loved that piano.
VT: So I see you were recently in New York, and have been doing tons of gigs, including a bunch a beautiful performances here in the Bay Area. What other goals do you have for yourself — have you set anything else that you wanted to achieve for the next three to five or five to ten years?
FC: Well actually, Valerie, it’s the same goal I’ve always had. It’s just hard to achieve when you’re an independent Black woman doing Black music on your own terms; the industry is not all that giving to me. Everything I do, I just have to plow my way and do it. The thing that I’ve always wanted to do was sing to the whole world and be one of the people who carry on the torch for Black music and Black excellence. That’s what I’ve tried to do and what I want to continue to do: play the broad spectrum of the music of our culture with the best musicians of the day. Spread the good news across the world, like all the cats and all the women did before me. And be the best that I can be. And that is a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week struggle to do that. To work while the scene is steadily changing. Well you know, things always evolve. Me, I just figure out my way, how am I going to practice and still get everything else done. And yeah, set some goals. Ideas kind of come to me spontaneously. And then I’ll try to do it, and sometimes I make it and sometimes I don’t. Like the “Blues, Baroque, and Bars: From the Streets to the Symphony” show that I’ve been doing — telling the story of Black people in America through the blues, bringing in jazz, funk, R&B, classical, and hip-hop. In a lot of instances, our musical people are so polarized into different camps. I just never have liked that. I think of Black music as one thing with many flavors, you know? You can have your Archie Shepps, and you can have your Betty Carters, you can have your Chaka Khans, and you can have your Whitneys and you can have Lady. You can have Ruth Brown, and you can have Ledisi. The whole thing is to try to have all of those factions together on some level or another.
VT: Well, I think you’re doing it. I see you doing it.
FC: That’s how I want to do it. And my other fight that I have waged for so long is to filter it down to the streets. It’s the streets who really need the music more than anybody! And the music’s been gone so much out of the community for so long, until our kids are not connected. Being connected is what gives you strength. It makes you know who you are. So that you won’t have no inclination to jump on some old person. You won’t have the inclination to do some of the things that we all see are happening today — because you’ll have a better connection to something that’s great, that you did, that your people did. And that you can do right now, in your own fashion. But you have to at least know it’s there. And I think in so many instances, it’s just not there to be known about. So to do these things that I’m doing, and filter them down to the streets, this is my quest. And you know, it happens. Like, when I could present “Blues, Baroque, and Bars” at Art + Soul for free — that means that anybody that was standing around could see that Black string quartet. They could hear RyanNicole rapping with the string quartet. And they could hear me singing the blues with the string quartet and the rapper. Which, they won’t see that in the morning. But they saw that then, and it was a panoply of people, all kinds, all ages. Like the song says, “all shades all hues.” So that was very, very gratifying. We’re going into the communities, like East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. Is that your place?
VT: That’s one of my places, yeah. That’s awesome.
FC: Yeah, right on. I’m so glad we were able to bring it there. And then the next night we went to Love Center Ministries.
VT: That’s another one of my places.
FC: Yep? I’m trying to hit you, girl. I’m trying to hit you right in your places. [Laughter] Amen. And then we went to my hometown, which is Pittsburg, California, and the Creative Arts Building. That’s the building I graduated in. And I was Pittsburg’s first Black majorette! That was my first civil rights fight.
FC: Yeah, so it’s a really great thing that I can go back there. And then we went to Bayview Opera House on the 11th of September.
It’s still hard to reach the people; for the younger kids it’s harder for them to receive it because they never hear it and nobody ever promotes it as great. And for Black youth no one ever tells them it’s part of their culture, so it’s very easy to be dismissive. But they do hear it and receive it if you can get them there. Because you have world-class music and world-class people doing the music — if you get someone to sit in front of you they pretty much have to receive it because it’s for them and it’s coming to them in love. It’s not a judgmental thing. There’s always people out there talking about the greatness of the music and the history and so forth but often times you end up preaching to the choir. Doing it like this is often the only way to reach the people on the streets. We had great audiences and the music was off the hook. We got a great review of the show in the paper.
This was all part of the commission that I received from the Hewlett Foundation. So that’s what’s making me happy these days, when I just get these ideas and Joe Warner, my pianist and musical director, helps me to figure them out.
VT: Yeah, that’s a blessing.
FC: Of course, like I say, I would love to sing to the world. But right here is where I am. And I love right here. Love Oakland, I love Berkeley, I love Richmond. You know, all of the Bay Area. So to be able to work here, after all these years, is my blessing.
I love the diversity of the Bay Area, the climate, and then you have within the diversity the ability to go in and out of different communities and get the authentic thing. The Bay is where I started my career and ran across people like Martha Young, who was Lester Young’s niece and a great pianist, and Ed Kelly and the wealth of the musicians that were here.
VT: There’s so many nuggets in what you’re sharing. Also, I’m like — do you have a picture of you being a majorette?
FC: I don’t know, my mother might have one.
VT: I can totally see you being a majorette.
FC: That’s why I got this callus on my foot right now. [Laughter]
VT: The queen of cheer. I can see you.
FC: Baby, because see, in Mississippi, my grandmother was the teacher there. And they would have, like, the battle of the bands once or twice a year. Bands would come from all over, and the drum majors and majorettes, these were some of the people that made my eyes sparkle. The music was so good, ’til they made me want to march and do that. When I came out here and was going to Pittsburg High, they had never had nobody Black and it cried out for that. So I had a lot of obstacles, but my mother and the girls’ dean there fought the good fight for me. To have all of those reasons why not become yes, she is and yes, she can and yes, she will. I taught myself how to twirl the baton and yeah, by the time that I got out there I was like what I had saw in Mississippi, and these people out here were a little bit weak. [Laughter]
VT: I’m sure. I know they were like, “What is happening here?” That’s awesome, I love that.
When was your first professional gig? Can you talk a little bit about what that was like, getting started in the music industry? Who you were working with, where you performed, that sort of thing?
FC: My first professional gig came after winning a talent contest at the Oakland Auditorium. The prize was a gig at a room inside Oakland’s California Hotel, which thrilled me because this was during segregation and the California Hotel was where all the main Black folks came and stayed when they were in town working, whether you were a boxer, a musician, or a singer, that’s where they all stayed. It was thrilling to meet a lot of the artists you would go see in concert when they would stay and eat at the hotel. The other thing I liked was the thrill of playing with a live band with horns, which was Johnny Talbot & De Thangs. After that I got a chance to go across the Bay and worked with Johnny for years with Bill Graham Presents at The Fillmore, and also at Winterland. We opened for some of the great acts of the time like Martha & The Vandellas, James Brown, and Otis Redding. This was early on in Bill Graham’s career and going into the Flower Power hippie era. We went on the road with Marvin Gaye around that time, too, I think once with my trio and once with Johnny’s band.
VT: You’ve had such a rich career. Can you give me one or two words that describe each one of these decades? Like, 1960s.
FC: I’ll say — give me four: R&B, civil rights, struggle. Yeah, those were my R&B days with Johnny Talbot for the most part. There was a lot of other people like Johnny Heartsman and Eddie Foster. Clubs had house bands in those days, so I’d sing with a lot of house bands. But Johnny’s is the one I sang with the most. And we did a lot of Black Panther rallies —
FC: — and all the marches, and all of that. And then my soon-to-be-husband, Jim Gamble, I went to audit his class. He had a “Black history of music” class up at Cal. So, there was always a lot of protests going on, we was in up there, getting tear-gassed and — oh my God! It was quite a time. That’s when I started learning about other music besides gospel and R&B, which is what I knew about growing up. Aretha was everything to me. Aretha and Mahalia Jackson. And then I met Martha Young — I think this was in the ’70s. Things were still going pretty good in the R&B scene, but then things were starting to slack off. I would go to her house, because I was falling in love with Nancy Wilson, and I was learning all of those songs while all my R&B cats was getting out of work, because disco was starting to rear its head and start chasing a lot of bands out.
Another thing that happened in the ’60s was you could hear the breadth of the music. If you wanted to hear some blues, wanted to go straight ahead with the jazz, or wanted some R&B, you could hear that damned near any night of the week, and all of the places had lots of people in them. And that was carrying on, into the ’70s, ’til it got to be — duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, you know, we lost Dr. Martin Luther King. We lost Malcolm X. The Panthers started not being able to stay together. We lost our way a little bit, especially when crack started creeping down in the later ’70s. The ’60s, ’70s, and the ’80s, that was a lot, then it was medium, and then it got to be damn near nothing. That about sums it up. There was a lot, then it was kind of medium, and then it got to be damn near nothing. By the time that crack showed up —
VT: 1984. Just wiped us away, huh?
FC: But first it was like the Black exploitation movies was in the ’70s. And so us around here, we was learning all them songs. Like, Curtis Mayfield was doing in Shaft and stuff. Learning all the James Brown songs. That’s when I learned that Black music was this, this, this, and that, and just got really turned on, and started learning about everybody. When Martha told me that Lester Young was her uncle, I didn’t know who Lester Young was, I didn’t know who Billie Holiday was. She hipped me to that, and at first I didn’t like it because it was nothing I’d ever heard of —
VT: I didn’t either!
FC: It was like, “What is this?” [Laughter] No, because you know, you usually like what you’re used to hearing! And I was listening to Gladys Knight and The Staple Singers and The Temptations and all of that. Sam and Dave. Man. But I just kept listening. Because they kept telling me it was great, and I should listen.
VT: Right. Same.
FC: Right? And one day, it was just like a bell or something went off. Like, damn! I get it! Because Billie Holiday was 360 degrees different from Aretha or anybody like that. You know, her approach, her sound, the songs. Everything. But my light went on, and I really started talking more to my soon-to-be-husband about it, because he loved it so much, and he was learned in it. So he would tell me to listen to the cats and tell me about Ella and Dakota Staton and all of the people, you know. When I was learning about all of them, when I was going up to audit his class. And then I just found out, “Damn! This is mine? This is Black music? All of this is mine?”
FC: “But then, that means I can do what I want with it?” I felt like I could be more diverse than what the industry wants you to be. That I didn’t have to stick with just once genre. If I wanted to do an R&B song it’s fine, if I wanted to do a blues song it’s fine. If I want to put a backbeat on a standard like “I Can’t Get Started,” which no one was doing at the time, I could do that. My “Love for Sale” is so funky. And then I might want to sing a pop song like “You Light Up My Life” and then really go in in on the blues with “Driving Wheel.” In the industry they want to categorize you. Are you a jazz singer? Are you a blues singer? Are you an R&B singer? I realized I wanted to just be a singer of songs, and I could do that. Like Ray Charles.
So it was like, some kind of revelation or something. I was just so totally turned on to listening to everybody, to going to the clubs — because there was still a lot of jazz clubs. There was The Both/And and Keystone [Korner] and Jazz Workshop, and over here was still the Sportsman and Showcase and all those kind of clubs as well.
And so many musicians and singers. Of course Martha Young and Jim Gamble were influential to me. Also Eddie Foster, Johnny Talbot, Johnny Heartsman, John Turk, Ed Kelly, Leola Jiles, Faidest Wagoner, Reverend M.T. Thompson, Richie Goldberg, Vi Redd.
It was just a lot — a lot of musicians, lot of clubs, lot of choices. There were so many clubs in all the hoods. In Richmond, East Oakland, West Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Pittsburg. And they were thriving. They would all be packed and we would be working them every night. And I began to realize, “Oh my God, this is my culture?” Nobody ever really speaks of it in those terms. Well, they didn’t then at all. You know, Black culture. Now they call it culture, but they seem to be leaving this part out. That’s my other quest, hey!
VT: Yeah, the whole erasure culture. They just want the music, but they don’t want to give you credit or salute —
VT: You just answered a bunch of the questions all at one time. I didn’t even have to ask. One of them was just, what was the scene like, you know, and what were some of the venues? And you were talking about the Sportsman, and the Showcase. Did you ever frequent, like, Seventh Street? [A vibrant West Oakland corridor teeming with Black businesses and culture.]
FC: Uh-huh, I did. It had had its heyday by the time I came along. There was still a couple of places trying to hang on. It was before BART, and the post office kind of took over everything down there.
VT: And do you know the name of the Black man who owned a lot of those spaces?
FC: Slim Jenkins.
VT: Slim Jenkins. My dad was telling me about him, and how he was found dead?
FC: No, that wasn’t Slim. That must have been a promotor, I think his name was Charles Sullivan, and he booked all the major Black acts. Yeah, and they did find him dead on some railroad tracks or something. My husband used to talk about him.
VT: And so I was curious — just from my own experience, you know, because there’s a lack of venues — how do you stay inspired? It seems like you already answered that, too, by creating your own ideas and building your own platforms to make things work.
FC: Trying to. That’s one of the things that’s so different now, because you don’t have the venues that you had. You just plainly don’t have them. And you don’t have a plethora of musicians to choose from, either.
A lot of the veteran musicians have passed on, so the younger musicians are just out there searching for information. I try to be one of the ones to inspire them. The past few years I’ve been fortunate to be able to bring a lot of great musicians to the Bay Area to work with me and do workshops. It’s been a joy working with folks like Dennis Chambers, Bernard Purdie, Gary Bartz, Lenny White, Robert Randolph, Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith and trying to get the young folks to check them out. Then you also have folks like Kehlani and Ledisi who were my students who have gone on to great heights coming from the Bay Area and that’s beautiful.
VT: Betty Carter had her Jazz Ahead program, things like that. Do you ever think about having like, a Faye Carol’s Jazz Ahead?
FC: Well you know, I had my Music in the Community program for about twenty years around here, trying to promote this music and singers and musicians, and the whole nine yards. It got to the point where it just couldn’t get funding, any support. But I carried it for at least twenty years, and now I have my vocal workshop for singers.
VT: Yeah, and that’s thriving.
FC: Yeah, that’s doing very well. Because I love my singers. I’m telling you. [Laughter] And there’s so much more I would like to do. I would like to have a workshop for young trios.
VT: That would be awesome.
FC: I’m going to be pursuing this because these cats don’t know what to do for us singers.
VT: Yeah, they really need your tutelage. I’ve met a lot of young musicians, working at Oakland School for the Arts, but I’m not convinced that they know what communication practices are for live performance vs. creating or recording digital music tracks. For one, being a part of a live vocal ensemble or jazz trio takes focus, practice, and surrendering to the song form and melody structure in order to allow and explore improvisation, comping styles, voicings, and shared space with other musicians. Young people are not hosting or attending in-person jam sessions, they are not being challenged to embrace the jazz or soul standard… there’s a lot of work to be done.
FC: You want the young musicians to know basic things, for themselves. Not just for me or other singers, but just for themselves, to be enriched. And to learn how to learn and be inspired to learn. Because sometimes you have to have your own inspiration.
VT: You’ve got to have that.
FC: You’ve got to. Whenever something is really kicking me in my gut, I just think about Sarah Vaughan or somebody on the bus with fifteen hard heads and nowhere to stop to sleep. And ain’t nobody going to give you nothing to eat. You gotta get to the next town and try to freshen yourself up, and be with all these musicians and you're the frontwoman. And just be in the fight as a woman. Then I tell myself, get up. Just get up. Get on up. Because you don’t have to do that. They’ve done made it so you don't have to do that. So I try to think of things like that, that’s going to give me inspiration to keep going. Because, there’s so much that people have laid down their blood for.
FC: And to try to find a path through it all is the challenge. But you know, you just got to make the challenge doing something. So it may as well be something you love.
VT: So tell me, do you have any new recordings coming up? And how can folks join you on your journey and support you?
FC: Well there’s a lot of me on YouTube. They can go and download some music. That would be very, very good.
FC: Praise God. You know, nowadays it’s much harder for us as entertainers. People expect us to do all the advertising and all of that. So to have an audience is what I’m eternally grateful for. And that is what I’m always seeking for the next show: I love to have asses in the seats. When people come out and show their interest in that way, that’s the best support I could have.
And I like I say, look me up. And come and write to me, and all those kind of things. I’m going to have some music coming up, because Joe and I, we're going to go in the studio pretty soon. So stay tuned.
VT: I’m looking forward to that.
FC: Yes. I’m looking forward to hearing you, too. With that gorgeous voice of yours.
VT: Working on it. We’re working on it. Well, I thank you for your time. One last question: when’s your next show, or your next few shows, that people can come check out?
FC: Well, I’m presenting the Black Women’s Roots Festival which will be Sunday November 27 at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. It will feature myself with an all-star quartet and Lady Tramaine Hawkins — legendary gospel singer — as well as Lady Bianca and Terrie Odabi, who are both incredible; and one of my students, Le Perez. Last year we did the Black Women’s Blues Festival which was great, and this year we broadened it to roots. So that will be an incredible afternoon of music and culture from several generations of incredible Black women. So go to thefreight.org and get your tickets — they’re on sale now. Another thing I’m doing is working with a lot of great drummers. There’s a series going on at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle called “Groovin’ High” which is a free drum workshop series that just started and is running once a month through next April featuring a lot of legendary drummers. I’m telling all the young folks to check that out. And I’ll be doing a lot of shows with these drummers each month when they come to town. People like Roy McCurdy, Victor Lewis, Mike Clark, Tony Coleman, legendary and incredible drummers. So keep your eyes out for that. There is always more music!
Lead image of Faye Carol & Her All-Star Sextet featuring Steve Turre, Dennis Chambers, and Elena Pinderhughes, live in performance at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle. Oakland, CA, 2022. Photo: James Knox.