(October 6, 2019). Trailblazing, groundbreaking, pioneering.
All those superlatives and more have been used – and appropriately so – to describe the legendary Diahann Carroll, who unexpectedly passed away Friday, Oct. 4, from cancer.
Since then, Carroll, who was 84, has been lauded in many deserving tributes for her various acting roles – whether it be on stage for her Tony Award-winning portrayal of fashion model Barbara Woodruff in the play No Strings, or her Emmy Award-nominated performances in the groundbreaking ‘60s TV sitcom Julia, where she played the lead character, or on A Different World, the late-‘80s comedy where she played the well-to-do mother of southern belle Whitley Gilbert.
Carroll has also been praised for her big screen roles as a supporting actress in Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess, plus the lead character in Claudine, the 1974 small independent film for which she received an Academy Award nomination, becoming the only African-American woman at the time to have been nominated for an Oscar, Tony and Emmy Award – not to mention a Golden Globe – all for lead roles.
Needless to say, Carroll’s acting career was iconic, especially when you also factor in her versatility. She was equally convincing as a nurturing, single mother of six on welfare (in Claudine) as she was the multi-millionaire, highly cultured, yet hard-nosed diva (Dominique Deveraux) she portrayed on ‘80s nighttime soap Dynasty. (Who among us folks even knew that champagne could be “burned!,” or that some brands of caviar could be so basic, before Ms. Deveraux flawlessly explained both in this classic slaying of Alexis?)
But what hasn’t been talked about much is Diahann Carroll’s musical side.
The legendary entertainer and model (she posed for Ebony Magazine in the 1950s) released a slew of albums between 1957 and 1967 – eleven total during that period – plus a few more afterwards.
Her most recent release was The Time of My Life, an album of old jazz and pop standards that Carroll covered and released on CD (Sterling Records) in 1997. The album, which is available through Amazon, is a rarity that I have yet to find on streaming services.
The rarity of that album, which came a full nineteen years after her previous solo release, A Tribute to Ethyl Waters, underscored the lower priority Carroll placed on the musical side of her career.
Aside from hits compilations and appearances on soundtracks – like the 1995 original cast recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Canadian production of Sunset Blvd, in which she played the lead role of Norma Desmond – a faded star of the past seeking a return to glory – Carroll was more likely to be seen in a classic acting role than heard belting out a tune.
But she did belt them out, and she often held her own – even finding herself paired with legends like Judy Garland (in this resurfaced January 1964 video of the two during Garland’s weekly variety series).
Indeed, Carroll got her start in show business by singing (if you exclude her modeling stint at Ebony). She got her big break in 1954 as a contestant on an early “reality TV” talent competition show that aired on America’s “forgotten network,” the DuMont Television Network.
It was a show called Chance of a Lifetime, where Carroll won for five straight weeks, beginning with her rendition of Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein’s “Why Was I Born?” during her first appearance.
From there, she sang in nightclubs before landing the supporting acting role in Carmen Jones (behind Dorothy Dandridge), which clearly changed her life.
Five years later in 1959 she secured another supporting role behind Dandridge in the film adaptation of George Gershwin’s musical Porgy and Bess, for which she recorded an album of the movie’s songs (not the official soundtrack, however). For that project, she teamed with a legendary composer, the late André Previn, who passed away earlier this year at 89. She would team with Previn again on 1960’s Diahann Carroll and the André Previn Trio.
She did appear on the official soundtrack to her third motion picture, 1961’s Goodbye Again, a romantic drama where she portrayed a nightclub singer and sang “Love Is Just A Word.”
Despite her many contributions to music, including 14 official studio albums from 1957-1997, Carroll never made any of Billboard’s major albums or singles charts – pop or soul.
She never won or was even nominated for a Grammy, although many have praised her singing abilities (and, as we now know, you don’t really have to have that to even win such awards).
These are startling statistics for someone as talented and as well-loved as she was.
Perhaps it had to do with how hard Carroll was to categorize at a time when music was so racially defined and divided. Just as in her movie roles, where her choices of characters spanned a wide spectrum, Carroll’s music styles didn’t fit neatly in such narrowly defined genres as soul or pop, and she certainly wasn’t rock and roll.
Listening to her albums now, it’s hard to imagine a radio format in the late 1950s and early ‘60s that would have taken a chance on Carroll – a black woman – during a time when rock and roll was the rage and even established black female solo singers were appearing less frequently on the charts, giving way to popular girl groups and white solo females.
Perhaps for those of us in my generation and beyond who came to know Carroll after 1968’s Julia, it was what it was. Our fondest music-related memories of one of entertainment’s most elegant stars have more to do with her films than her albums anyway.
Take the 1974 cult classic Claudine, for instance.
Who can forget the Curtis Mayfield-produced, Gladys Knight & the Pips-sung soundtrack that accompanied the movie, with each song perfectly representing Claudine’s wide-ranging emotions as she fought to keep her large family together and to keep her man (played by James Earl Jones)? To this day, you simply can’t hear any of those songs without picturing Carroll in all her ghetto elegance.
Indeed, Claudine was my favorite Diahann Carroll character and, as I pay personal tribute to the late actress and singer this week, I’ll be playing some of her old albums. But I’ll be mixing in the Claudine soundtrack to complete her musical story.
R.I.P. Diahann Carroll (1935-2019). In film and on records, yours was a beauty and elegance that may never be matched.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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