Interview conducted in person in New York City at CBS Records on 6th Avenue in May 1977
Stints with the likes of EW&F, Norman Connors and Duke Ellington provided Jean with a wealth of experience. Now, with Gamble and Huff in Philadelphia, she's really stretchin' out…
OUR TITLE for this particular article may be somewhat misleading for those with no prior knowledge of the expressive and creative talent of the lovely Ms. Jean Carn.
She isn't a native of Philadelphia; wasn't born there; and doesn't live there now!
The connection is quite simple: Philadelphia just happens to be the home of her record company and her producers — and that, of course, means Philly International and Gamble & Huff.
Jean's been with the company for a relatively short time: she signed in the middle of 1976 and cut her first album shortly after. It's release has shown an immediate impact.
People are becoming aware of the lady and her talent and thereby adding another notch to the success story of Gamble & Huff which itself would warrant several volumes to document! But those in the know find Jean's current success no surprise and the only reason we haven't heard from the lady to a bigger degree in the past is quite simple.
In her own words, "I've been waiting for the right situation and knowing how the business is, I didn't want to settle for anything less than what was right." And in Philly International, Jean seems to have found what is right.
As early as the tender age of three, Jean — a native of Georgia — showed signs of musical knowledge far exceeding her youth. Over the years, she's developed her sense of musicianship to the point where she's one of those rare combinations: a vacalist whose musical abilities far transcend just being able to sing!
Jean admits that the study and training she had as a young girl has helped enormously in helping her gain the respect of musicians that she's been fortunate to work with. People like Earth, Wind & Fire, Norman Connors, her former husband Doug Carn and now, Gamble & Huff. But more about that later…
As with so many others, some of Jean's initial vocal exposure came in church but unlike many others, she also mastered the piano to be followed in swift succession by practically every instrument in the orchestra — from bassoon, oboe, clarinet and glockenspiell. It came as no surprise to find Ms. Carn with a music scholarship in college and a growing awareness of all kinds of music.
"I recall we did everything — our own production of "My Fair Lady" — I learnt to sing in Hebrew for special occasions, to sing opera, you name it, I did it!
"But I'm more than happy about it because I learned just so much — it's stood me in good stead for what I'm doing now."
In terms of contemporary music, the turning point for Jean came when she met Doug Carn — an event which put paid to the lady's plan to attend the Juillard School of Music.
Pretty soon, Jean was singing with Doug's band then came marriage and three albums for the Black Jazz label in California — "Infant Eyes", "Spirit Of The New Land" and "Revelation" which brought Jean's vocal capabilities to the ears of a number of listeners — and notably to devotees within the industry — other performers and so on.
During her stay in California, Jean found herself in the same apartment building as members of Earth, Wind & Fire — and they were frequently found all in the kitchen together!
"Naturally, with us all being in music, we got into conversation and they asked me if I'd sing on some sessions they were doing."
That was back in 1970 and in the ensuing two year period, Jean cut two albums with the group for Warner Brothers — their debut. "Earth, Wind & Fire" and "The Need Of Love".
"Working with E. W & F was fabulous. Even back then, they had this incredible positive outlook on everything — and they'd really just come out from Chicago to California then. It wasn't the same line-up as they have now — Maurice created a whole new group with Verdine, his brother, still there. But the concepts were still the same.
"It was a great marriage for all of us and we contributed to each other's learning, I'm sure. And even working together in the kitchen was fun — we're all into a natural, health food diet!"
Jean didn't actually perform with the group in person but her impact can be heard on the two Wanrers albums and she cites the experience of working with E,W&F as one which "enabled me to stretch out more, become involved in other phases of music. It went beyond the jazz thing that I guess people had led on me and with my background of dealing with different types of music, it added yet another dimension."
Whilst working on her third album with Doug Carn — "Revelation" — Jean found herself in New York and after a stint with the late, great Duke Ellington, Jean found herself with a decision concerning direction.
She explains: "I made a short list of people that I felt I could work with musically and it included Roy Ayers and Norman Connors — people whose musical direction and style I felt I could work with. It really knocked me out to find that people had heard me through the albums I did with Doug and when the situation seemed right for me to be with Norman, I went for it.
"But I've never been the kind of person to jump into anything — I take my time to examine what I'm going to do."
The union with Norman Connors proved to be very successful for all concerned. Jean performed on two albums, "Slew Foot" and "Saturday Night Special" and the latter spawned the single, "Valentine Love" written by Michael Henderson, who duets with Jean on the tune on Norman's album.
"With Norman, I travelled extensively and it opened up new doors for me. Gave me a chance to deal with completely new audiences for me. We did a tour with The Commodores, who are really fabulous people, and it was great.
"There is so much going on with young audiences — it isn't just about boogeying all the time and I found the whole experience very satisfying."
Working with Mr. Connors was a forerunner for Jean's teaming with Gamble & Huff, in that it gave her th exposure and experience (if any were indeed needed) to another audience. With Kenny & Leon, the marriage (you could say) has been consummated.
"I'd actually spoken with Kenny several years back about us working together but at that time, it just didn't come together. It just wasn't the right time and timing in this business is just so important.
"We stayed in contact with each other — plus Billy Paul has known me for quite a time going back to the albums I did with Doug. So I waited for that right moment, for that right situation. I have a whole stack of contracts sitting at home in the drawer — people who were interested in signing me. But it was only when I really checked out Philly International that I felt that I'd found the right thing for me. And that has a lot to do with the underplay of ego that goes on there.
"It's not a question of people going around with big heads and overblown egos. It's truly a family spirit — and I dig that. And I think the whole atmosphere of respect and admiration that radiated from the sessions comes through on the album."
The album displays Jean's vocal talents in perfect settings provided, of course, by MFSB ("Who are just so fantastic — true professionals in every way") with Gamble & Huff and Dexter Wansel amongst those providing producer credits.
"When it came time to selecting material, all the producers presented songs. We had a couple from Bunny Sigler which I cut and may come out on the next album. But when it came down to making the final choices, it was incredible the amount of freedom I was given. And because of that, I was totally relaxed, laid-back and just plain happy in the studios!
"There was no pressure — and don't forget, this was like my big moment! You know. I kept telling myself 'this is the big moment, the one you've been waiting for'. But it was no problem. I found everyone so warm — and of course. I was aware that it was like another new area for me to be tackling.
"It wasn't jazz, it wasn't strictly r&b — it was tasteful, and as important, it was meaningful. Yes, we deliberately went for songs that said something because that is very important to me. Like. "Free Love" (which is about an unwed mother and warns about the dangers of 'being a slave to your passions'). Yes, there's a new morality around but in the corner of all of our minds, there's that old-fashioned part which reminds us that we have responsibilities and so on.
"And then, we've found people have been responding very well to several other cuts — 'No Laughing Matter", which has an incredible hook in it and 'I'm In Love Again'. No. I can't say that I have any particular favourites, but I can say that I wish it could have been a double album."
Jean has no regrets about not having made that step out front by herself earlier. "I'm happy to think that I've been able to make a contribution in however small a way to other people's music. Now, I'm in a situation where I'll be able to express myself.
"And this first album, hopefully, typifies what we'll be doing in the future. To me, all the people who contributed — Dexter, Kenny & Leon, everyone — are saying something and I believe that the combination of providing messages through music — and believe me, there is a lot to say today — is of great importance.
With so much obvious musical talent, it comes as a surprise to find that Jean hasn't recorded any of her own material. Naturally, we assume she's written some.
"Well, yes, I have! But it's all tucked away in my closets at home! I don't know if I want it to come out yet — because I guess I'm very super-critical and I want it to be right. But one day!"
Meanwhile, we'll have to content ourselves with the soulful singing that Jean Carn has to offer now.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.