Jean Carne: ‘It feels like it’s my time now’


She hung out with Earth, Wind & Fire, helped coach Michael Jackson and was the last person to sing with Duke Ellington. Now Jean Carne is enjoying an unexpected second spell in the limelight

Tue 24 May 2022 03.00 EDT

At 21, the singer Jean Carne had uprooted her life in Atlanta, Georgia, to elope to Hollywood with jazz pianist Doug Carn. It was 1969, and like so many American kids of the flower-power years, Carne was moving west to try her luck in the world of entertainment.

While most of her generation would have struck out, Carne found herself living in an apartment block with members of a new funk collective from Chicago. These vegetarian men, who expounded on the benefits of clean living and astrology called themselves Earth, Wind & Fire. Doug and Jean soon hit it off with the band, recording backing vocals and keys on their first two albums, and even adopting their vegetarianism. The group went on to sell more than 90m records, becoming one of the best-selling pop acts of all time.

In the ensuing five decades, Carne has honed her five-octave vocal range to perform with a roll call of the 20th century’s finest American singers. Her highlights include being the last singer to perform with jazz great Duke Ellington, performing with Stevie Wonder, Minnie Riperton and the Temptations, vocal coaching a young Michael Jackson, and featuring on albums from jazz fusion luminaries including Grover Washington Jr and Roy Ayers. She has also produced solo hits, including the 1978 rare groove classic Don’t Let It Go to Your Head and the 1986 R&B ballad Closer Than Close.

More than 25 years after her last album of original compositions was released, Carne is back with a new record, produced by A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and composer Adrian Younge. Even so, she still harks back to the joys of being in Hollywood in her 20s.

“We didn’t tell anyone we were leaving when we eloped,” she says, laughing over a call from her home in Philadelphia. “Thankfully, my parents were OK with it when they found out, although they did have a wager for how long the marriage would last! It turned out to be a wonderful time that has supplied me with everything I’ve needed. The Chambers Brothers were living there, as well as [manager to Roberta Flack and Herbie Hancock] John Levy; Janis Joplin would even stop by. It was the best way to start.”

That start included recording a series of albums with her husband (Carne adopted the extra “E” in her name midway through her career) that added lyrics to instrumental jazz classics such as John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Horace Silver’s Peace. “We knew the jazz genre had an exclusive and very narrow audience and not all music lovers could get the message from the instrumental line alone,” Carne says. “We wanted to broaden the audience for these jazz classics and no one else was doing anything similar at the time; we were out there on our own.”

The resulting records – 1971’s Infant Eyes, 1972’s Spirit of the New Land and 1973’s Revelation – went on to acquire cult status among crate-diggers, with some tracks being compiled by Detroit house producer Theo Parrish in 2013 on his album Black Jazz Signature. “We were also making a social statement,” Carne explains. “They were all released on the label Black Jazz – one of the only Black-owned jazz companies at the time – and, especially after Dr King had been killed only a few years before, we were promoting a message of unity.”

Carne with Adrian Younge, left, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Photograph: The Artform Studio

For a genre usually so beholden to the concept of tradition, Carne’s interventions were met with surprising approval, notably from the big band pioneer Ellington, who asked Carne to audition for him in 1974. “I remember walking down the nave at the Westside Church where he was sitting at the piano and my knees were shaking so much I thought I’d faint,” she says. “As I got closer to him, he exclaimed: ‘Ah, Miss Carne, I’m a big fan,’ and I was instantly put at ease.”

She went on to perform in Ellington’s final spiritual work and toured with him for a month, his last outings before he died in May that same year. “He was ill at the time, but he was such a wonderful, grandfatherly gentleman,” she says. “Between shows, he would rest in the dressing room and ask me to sing for him. He showed me the skill in singing very high and very soft and was always recounting his philosophies on life; I wouldn’t take a million dollars to take back those moments.”

The church setting is a familiar one for Carne. Her mother sang in the choir and by the age of four, Carne was taking her own solos. At 12, she was playing piano and arranging music for services. As part of the arrangement work, Carne coached the choir and realised she had a talent for guiding other voices. It was a skill that led her to work with the Supremes’ Mary Wilson and an 18-year-old Michael Jackson.

The pair met in the mid-1970s after the Jackson 5 had left Motown and were working with the producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Carne was going through her own transition phase, having recently divorced her husband, and was finding her footing as a solo act by working with Gamble and Huff. Together they formulated what has become known as the “Philly soul” sound, alongside the likes of Teddy Pendergrass and Lou Rawls.

For Carne’s latest project, on Muhammad and Younge’s Jazz Is Dead label – which has also released new work from her long-time collaborator Lonnie Liston Smith as well as ex-husband Carn – she is harking back to those Philly soul days by recording solely on analogue tape. “It was like being in the 70s with the equipment,” she says. “It was a very unusual situation. Adrian and Ali hadn’t sent me any songs. I just turned up at the studio, they started playing some piano chords and then I came up with all the lyrics and melodies on the spot. It added pressure, but it was also so freeing.”

The resulting seven tracks showcase Carne’s voice in peak form. Opener Come As You Are places her soaring falsetto over a driving funk rhythm, while the Black Jazz era of cosmic social-consciousness is represented on tracks such as the euphoric People of the Sun and scat-heavy Black Love.

After spending her early career being presented as a featured vocalist alongside her ex-husband or for groups such as Earth, Wind & Fire, it all feels like an unexpected second coming for Carne, a late-career moment in the sun. “I had no problem with others taking the limelight,” she says, “but it feels like it’s my time now.”

Jean Carne JID012 by Adrian Younge, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jean Carne is out on 29 May on Jazz Is Dead.












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