A Silenced Songbird

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A Silenced Songbird

It Never Entered My Mind, by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, performed by Joyce Carr (1981)

Buy it here | Lyrics here

This one is not about me. This is about a colleague I met in the course of my duties as a court reporter in Washington in 1976-78. Her name was Joyce Carr.

From the album artwork above, you already know I’m talking about the woman pictured there. So you know already that Joyce was a singer at some point. But you probably don’t recognize the name, and the album artwork gives ambiguous signals. It doesn’t look like the cover of a big-time release, but it does have a certain well-groomed look. (The artist, Reg Stagmaier, did a lot of album covers.)

So, was this a vanity project, the album, or the real deal? That’s an updated version of the question I always had about Joyce in the two years I knew her – as a fellow-court reporter.

The Real Deal?

You have to understand the way we reporters met each other. We didn’t usually go out in teams. There were two places I was likely to cross paths with her, and neither was necessarily conducive to long getting-to-know-you discussions. One was the Superior Court grand juries. There might be three or four juries meeting at the same time, in big subterranean rooms under Judiciary Square off a long corridor. When the juries were taking testimony, which was often most of the time, we reporters were in the room. Otherwise, we were most likely in the hall, which might be jammed full of witnesses, cops, prosecutors and jurors on break. The odds that any two of us would be in that long hall and sitting next to each other at the same time were limited. The other common milieu was the home office on Seventh Street Southwest, a somewhat secure facility where we would type up the confidential grand jury transcripts. And there, since we were largely paid by the page, we tended to keep our heads down over our Selectrics,[1] the better to churn out those pages.

Still, we did chat a little, and it seems to me I also heard some gossip about Joyce.  The story was she had been a singer once upon a time, greatly admired in Washington jazz circles. There was some connection as well with Lincoln Inn, a joint on or just off Pennsylvania Avenue near the National Theater, where we had a Christmas party during one of my two years on that job. Apparently the proprietor was an old friend of Joyce’s, and had cut the court reporting firm a deal for old times’ sake.

Yet I never knew what to make of this. If she had been such a big-deal singer, what was she doing transcribing testimony? I gently pushed Joyce’s reserve when talking with her, but never got very far. The sense I came away with was that something had happened, something had gone wrong. But she never gave away much. I liked and respected her as a colleague. She still looked a lot like the woman you can now see on that album cover (not surprising since the cover probably was painted three or four years thereafter).

In the Era of Amazon

Fast forward six years to 1984. I was then a subscriber to Stereo Review (nowadays known as Sound and Vision), and there was a review of a record by a singer out of Washington with the same name as my old friend. I forget how I got ahold of it, Amazon.com being a few years in the future yet, but I suspect I special-ordered it.[2] As soon as I saw the cover art, I knew it was my friend.

After listening to a couple of songs, I had the answer to at least part of the question. As a singer, that friend was the real deal: exponent of classics from the great American and British songbook: I Wish You Love, Skylark,  I Get Along Without You Very Well, Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry. She had what the liner notes, by Jay McGahee, correctly call a “velvety timbre [which] she maintains throughout her vocal range.” True again that she showed “great insight into meaning and delivery of a song,” which is “direct but not exaggerated.”

I also received a trove of biographical information, and the best way to convey the gist of it is simply to reproduce a decent portion of Mr. McGahee’s notes (written in 1981, three years after I had exited Joyce’s sphere):

Joyce got from where she was (a college kid from Montana) to where she was not (reigning vocal artist in Washington, D.C.) by a path of ecstasy. With breathtaking ease she found herself established as a local star… [A]t 19, she left home with a one-way ticket and $30 for New York and musical comedy theatre. She stopped enroute to visit a sorority sister in Washington and has remained in the area ever since. Initially she took an office job and about four months later began singing in a neighborhood bar frequented by jazz musicians…. Her reputation spread….  She never had to audition for an engagement and one led effortlessly to another. Always very lucky, she seemed to be in the right place at the right time, only working in four rooms in 18 years. She suddenly found herself engaged to sing in the King Cole Room, the IN place at that time, and which was noted for its great atmosphere and staging of good singers. During this time she appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout show, which she won, and despite a schedule to sign with MCA, decided instead to be married.

Her stint at the King Cole Room lasted about six years until it was sold…. In 1959, a room was designed for her in the Lafayette Hotel. She was given the luxury of choosing the musicians, the piano, and the acoustical equipment. She stayed there two years and followed that by two years in yet another room built for her, this one in the Lincoln Inn Restaurant.

McGahee goes on to talk about the years after 1963, when Joyce would hold forth at the Chimney Room in The Fireplace in Georgetown till 2 in the morning, and working with groups like the Army and Air Force musical ensembles, and the National Symphony.

A Lacuna

Although McGahee (as we have seen) mentions a marriage, he fails to bring up either a divorce or widowhood. Then, suddenly, this: “A few years ago she remarried and voluntarily put herself into semi-retirement. She put herself through business school and became and still is a top drawer professional court reporter.”

Hmm. I sense a diplomatic silence. One does not simply drop out at the top of a glamorous game and become an anonymous functionary in the halls of justice, marriage or not. Joyce Carr was born in 1931. Meaning that she probably became a court reporter in her forties, after the child-bearing years.[3] And I never heard anything about any children from either marriage. Even if Husband #2 was a (then)-conventional thinker to whom it was divinely ordained that wives belong in the home, I find it hard to believe that Joyce would have quit the bright world she so obviously ornamented for that reason alone.

No, I think something happened.

Two Possibilities?

I don’t think that simply because there is this odd lacuna in the official account. I think it because there was something terribly sad about Joyce. Something had burned her wings while she was flying high, that’s my take.

For my money, there are two possibilities, and I find one of them hard, though not impossible, to believe. The one that’s possible but hard to believe is that she had lost confidence in her voice for some reason. Yet the record, made in 1981, features the voice of someone with every reason to be confident about her instrument.

And the other would be a powerful man she had loved and lost. Washington was and is chock-a-bloc with those guys, guys who could stoke their egos by hanging out in sophisticated late-night supper clubs, romancing a cabaret singer. And Joyce, most of whose recorded songs are quietly torchy, about lost or unavailable love, would have been primed for just such a guy by her repertoire. So my strictly intuitive guess is that she had been a Washington mistress.

Looking Like Ava

There is one unforgettable and (to me) on-target cinematic portrait of the breed: Ava Gardner’s Eleanor Holbrook in Seven Days in May (1964), cool, elegant, sophisticated, warm but a little brittle, and catnip for the evil General James Scott (Burt Lancaster). I had previously inserted a link to a clip to illustrate my point, but the clip has been blocked by Warner Brothers. But here’s the associated still:.[4] 

I could see Joyce, who definitely bore some physical resemblance to that character, showing a resemblance that was more than skin deep – and then recoiling into obscurity and matrimony for a while to get away from all that.

Well, this is all speculation, and I cannot (as I did, for instance, with Darryl Runswick) get in touch with Joyce to clear anything up, since (as I learn) she died in 2002. The album is not speculation, though. The album, made a few years after I knew her, is cool, elegant, and sophisticated, and warm but a little brittle. And if I’m right about the songs in it, they are the result of her adding a little bit of the heartbreak from whatever set her back to the craft she had perfected in all of those late night sessions in Washington bistros.

An Emblematic Song?

Since I didn’t know her music when I knew her, I cannot choose (for a series of pieces about individual songs) one that evokes that acquaintanceship; I can only choose a song that seems to sum up what I now see in her: It Never Entered My Mind. This beautifully-written number,[5] to which she gives a haunting delivery, paints a picture of  heartbreak:

Once you warned me that if you scorned me
I’d sing the maiden’s prayer again
and wish that you where there again
to get into my hair again.
It never entered my mind.

This could be what the General Jim Scott in her life, if there was one, said to her. And what her reaction was when he followed through. But if so, the heartbreak he inflicted was of a controlled and genteel sort:

Oh, who’d have thought
that I’d walk in the daze now?
I never go to shows at night,
but just to matinees now.
I see the show
and home I go.

Okay, she went to court reporting training, not matinees. Washington, not Manhattan. But you get the idea: Walking around in a daze, living what for her was only half a life.

I’m so glad she pulled herself together after I knew her and made that record. And I’m grateful to have known her, however superficially and briefly.

[1]  As soon as these words were written, I realized I needed to explain, for any reader whose memory doesn’t stretch back before 1986, when Selectrics were discontinued. By common consent and market share alike, the IBM Selectric typewriter was the class of the field for business typewriters from 1961 when it was introduced until the end of the typewriter era. It eliminated typebars with a radical “golfball” element that roamed from left to right on the line of type, rather than requiring that the platen move the paper to the position where a typebar would fall. If you were serious about typing, you wanted a Selectric. For some history, read here or here or here.

[2]  There was another record, Make the Man Love Me, from 1960, but the LP that is rare. However, the CD of Joyce Carr contains the contents from the 1960 release. The cover art of that earlier release, pictured here, does nothing to detract from my comparison to Ava Gardner, discussed below.

[3]  According to McGahee, writing in 1981, the semi-retirement was “a few years ago,” which sounds like the 70s. For what it’s worth, AllMusic has Joyce Carr retiring in the mid-60s. I suspect McGahee was closer to his source and the truth. Plus McGahee’s picture of Joyce’s gig at The Fireplace makes it seem as if it went on for a while, but he says it started in 1963, which was already the beginning of the mid-60s. The mid-60s ended about 1967. But I must acknowledge that if AllMusic were correct, then Joyce would still likely have been in child-bearing years when she quit.

[4]  In the clip the character is beginning to cheat on Scott with Scott’s deputy Kirk Douglas, who was almost as much in love with Scott as Eleanor was. The kind of triangle with powerful men I suspect the capital was awash with.

[5]  From a forgotten Rodgers and Hart musical, Higher and Higher (1940).

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for graphic elements.

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  1. Stefan Ehrenkreutz says:

    Dear Jack: In his old age, my dad had a housekeeper whom I termed the PMVL (the Polish Mountain Village Lady–if you detect some kind of disparagement in that monicker you may be right for she was very annoyingly as bossy as hell) .My father kept commenting on how intelligent she was. Actually she had normal average intelligence–it was just that my father came from a world in which people from the Polish intelligentsia were at least intelligent and the peasants from the villages were simply assumed to be not intelligent. Perhaps understandable on my fathers part, but…. In any case I mention this because I have had lots of experience with lots and lots of people having singing talent. Year after year in the high schools I taught in, there were kids (the stars of the annual high school musical) who had quite a bit of singing potential…I would say the same applies to writing–which is why I suspect creative writing classes flourish these days. Off and on I feel I write something that is not without merit…but then there are people like Richard yates and Raymond Carver…So which was Joyce Carr…just high average (and maybe there are other better things to devote oneself to, if that is the case,or “superior”–at the very extremes of the bell-curve. Of course, with some popular music, as with popular writing, there is the curious phenomenon of superior averageness.

  2. Maggie Hogg Sullivan says:

    Good Morning.

    Life is certainly amazing!!! I had Googled Joyce Carr yesterday to show my granddaughter her picture. Megan, the granddaughter, had heard about the King Cole Room from her grandpa, Denny Sullivan, who lives in Alexandria, VA. Megan lives on the Hill, and is on the staff of a senator from Ohio.

    Small world really!!!

    I visited the King Cole Room with Denny in June 1957. We had gotten married in Bremerton, WA and stopped in D.C. (via New London, CT) to visit his uncle, Vince Gallagher, owner of the King Cole Room!! And, that is where I met Joyce Carr!!

    Vince Gallagher was quite a guy and loved Joyce! Well, by that I mean he was enthusiastic about her and she brought many into the club. I was 24 and very naive as I look back! Vince had rowed in the 1921 Olympics for the Naval Academy and was such a fabulous gent!! Handsome and a laugh that would make you happy to be alive!! Mr. personality PLUS!

    Maybe you can help out to fill in the gaps of my memory. Megan will ask Denny about the name of the small hotel that housed the King Cole Room and also housed Vince’s wife, who was a bit of a hermit, as I recall. Cannot recall her name but remember that she was from a prominent family in D.C.?? In those days a good Catholic man did NOT divorce a wife – just let her be a hermit!!

    So, I met Joyce in June 1957 and only during that visit, I believe. Denny’s family lived in Alexandria while he was a midshipman and the King Cole Room was a regular haunt. My family had lived in Alexandria so I grew up (partly) in and out of the area (Navy kids were we!). And, what a fun place to be a young adult!!!

    Being a transplant and living in Toledo, OH, Denny Sullivan is no longer in my life! So, he cannot help me fill in these gaps. Thanks for any help!! OMG, I cannot believe this small world!!! Maggie

  3. Kevin Rietmann says:

    Hi, nice profile of Joyce, she had a way with a tune for sure. Her 2nd LP actually seems to date from 1967, it was just reissued in the 80s. I’ve read a few anecdotes about her at the Yahoo group Songbirds, like how she’d sing for 15 minutes and then talk to someone for an hour!