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Meeting Carol Kidd, the “best kept secret in British Jazz”

She is a chart-topper in the far east, Scotland’s first lady of jazz, and one of the best ballad singers in the world.

She can count Tony Bennett, Sir Michael Parkinson and Prince Charles among her admirers. She sang the song which helped the hostage, Terry Waite, cope with his captivity in Lebanon, and is the recipient of an MBE and numerous British Jazz Awards.

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She was personally selected to open Frank Sinatra’s unforgettable 1990 concert at Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow. Carol Kidd is all this but, more importantly, she is a woman who has climbed back from rock bottom, which she hit seven years ago when her partner and “soul mate”, John Mackay, died suddenly and intestate.

When we last met four years ago, Kidd was emotionally battered and bruised and only just beginning to emerge from the shell into which she had withdrawn. She had given some concerts in the couple of years following Mackay’s death but, in the midst of what she believes was a nervous breakdown, she had been barely able to get herself on stage.

Today, the woman sitting in front of me doesn’t look drastically different from the 2006 version. Always a bubbly character, she now seems to exude a certain serenity, which she puts down to the new, blissful-sounding life she has carved out in Majorca.

“Moving there saved my life,” she explains. “It gave me a sanctuary, away from everything. It’s such a healing place. I started to get my life back together, and my wits back.”

The need to sing has been part of Kidd’s make-up right from the start.

The eldest of three children, she was born Carol Delaney in Shettleston, in the east end of Glasgow, in 1946, and paints a picture of an idyllic childhood. “We lived on Fenella Street, a one-close street which was like a beautiful wee sort of dirt track,” she says. “It was lined with trees and the engineers’ works where my dad was employed was at the end of it. My mother would come out looking for me, but she’d hear me before she could see me, because I’d be singing. I never stopped.”

Kidd credits her mother with her early grasp of harmonics, and her father – “Och, he was a sweetheart, my daddy” – with teaching her first song. Many of the early songs she learned were from the musicals that her mother used to see at the cinema. “My mum was crazy for American musicals and she would take me to see them,” she recalls. “We loved Judy Garland.”

Going to the cinema also gave Kidd the experience of performing for an audience. “On Saturday mornings we’d go down to the Odeon to watch a movie and they always had a talent show before the film, so whoever wanted to get up and sing got up and sang. That’s when I learned to use a microphone – at the age of seven.”

She starts to say that that’s where she “got the confidence” but interrupts her flow to admit: “Actually, I didn’t need the confidence. I didn’t give a damn. I just got up and did it.”

Her only serious competition was another east end child who later changed her name to Lulu. “Every talent contest I went to, there was Lulu with her mum,” says Kidd. “It got to the stage where I would win it one week, then she would win it … and we decided that what we should do was have her go as far away from the east side of town as possible, and I’d stay where I was.”

Kidd didn’t fare so well with the school choir. “They tossed me out,” she remembers. “I wasn’t disciplined, I wouldn’t conform. Right from an early age, I had that way of taking a song and just going off on one, making it my own.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Kidd found herself in the jazz world. She began singing professionally at the age of 15, when she auditioned for the West Coast Jazz Band. Mind you, with the trad jazz repertoire, there wouldn’t have been too much opportunity for self-expression – it was more a case of belting out the songs. The West Coast Jazz Band was a young crowd, and Kidd fell in love with its trombonist, George Kidd.

“It was first love, and before I knew it, I had to get married,” she says. “I was married at 17, which is not what my mum wanted for me. She was still grieving my dad – and so was I.” Kidd’s father had died at the age of 49, when she was 15.

The West Coast Jazz Band was often called on to back such big names as Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball when they came to Scotland, so the newlyweds were working every night. Kidd laughs as she remembers: “I was singing till four weeks before I had [my daughter] Carol. I was on-stage giving it Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey with a stomach like a whale. And as soon as I could – when Carol was two months old – I was back out there again. And then I fell pregnant again. I carried on again till I had George a year later, and went back to work again when he was two months old.”

When her daughter was approaching school age, Kidd had a wake-up call. “I just thought: ‘Nah. Can’t do this any more. I’m missing out.’ I had to stop, and I did – for four or five years.”

She also had a wake-up call about her singing. “I’d decided that I wanted to do something different, so I changed my style – starting with my style of listening. I began going to mainstream jazz clubs like the Black Bull in Milngavie, which was ‘the’ jazz club in Glasgow. All the American jazz musicians visited it. I’d go over to listen.”

This period, in the early 1970s, when Kidd had quit the trad jazz scene and was doing the school run, was a turning point – and a very conscious one. She effectively swotted up on music, listening to and absorbing her husband’s record collection.

“I tended to go towards guy singers because I found that if I went for girl singers, it tended to rub off – you’d come away with some of whoever you were listening to. I didn’t want to become an Ella Fitzgerald or a Billie Holiday. So it was easier to listen to a guy like Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett or Mel Torme because I could put my own stamp on it.”

At the Black Bull one night, Kidd was invited up to sing. The well-known Glaswegian vibes player, Jimmy Feighan, heard her and invited her to join his band, which had a regular Saturday lunch-time gig at the Lorne Hotel in Glasgow.

“Then I really had to learn songs,” says Kidd with a laugh. The arrival of pianist Sandy Taylor to the band was a stroke of luck as he and Kidd hit it off immediately and he came up with many songs for her. Before long, she was getting gigs outwith the Lorne band – and Taylor, the guitarist Alex Moore and ­drummer Murray Smith became her regular trio.

Apart from a hiatus following the birth of her youngest child, Stephen (now 36), Kidd worked with the trio for most of the rest of the 1970s, a period which culminated in a booking at the most famous jazz club in London – Ronnie Scott’s. She wound up playing for there for one fortnight every year until 1990.

“It was amazing,” says Kidd. “If you do Ronnie’s, anyone can drop in. Aretha Franklin came in one time when I was on. Spike Milligan used to come in and drive me mad. The man was crazy. He’d come into my dressing room before I was about to go on, and have me in absolute fits, so there was no way I could go on and sing those serious songs. I loved him.”

One evening in the late 1980s was particularly memorable. “I was about to go on-stage and I noticed this kerfuffle going on down at the front of the audience – chairs being moved as two people walked in and sat down. It wasn’t until I was halfway through my set that I realised it was Tony Bennett and Michel Legrand. I just about passed out.

“The next night – my last night – I was just coming through the door when this voice said, ‘Hi there.’ It was Tony Bennett. He said he’d come back specially to see me again. He sat on the little balcony at the front, on his own, and I could see he was sketching away. He was the friendliest, nicest guy – he asked why he hadn’t heard about me before, and he gave me the sketch he’d been doing.”

Bennett wasn’t the only famous artist to capture Kidd’s image. In 1987, the photography for her third album, Nice Work, was taken by Eve Arnold, the Magnum photojournalist responsible for some of the most iconic pictures of Marilyn Monroe. “I have no idea how she came to be booked to do those photos for Nice Work,” says Kidd. “I didn’t know who she was at the time, so I had no nerves about it. Of course, I found out afterwards.”

In 1990, Kidd landed the gig of a lifetime when a certain Mr Sinatra, impressed with the albums she had recorded – especially her 1990 CD, The Night We Called It a Day,

the title song of which he had recorded decades earlier – asked her to open his Glasgow show at Ibrox, and gave her a quote for her CV: “Carol Kidd is the best-kept secret in British jazz.”

A decade later, the best-kept secret in ­British jazz became the best-known Scot in the far east when her signature song, the exquisite ballad When I Dream, which she had recorded with Alex Moore in 1984, was prominently featured on the soundtrack of the Korean blockbuster movie, Shiri. The British hostage Terry Waite had already credited Kidd’s version of When I Dream as helping him through the last stage of his captivity.

“The single came out at the same time as the film and went straight into the South Korean charts at number six, then to number one for 12 weeks,” says Kidd. “Britney Spears was number four, Robbie Williams was number three, Celine Dion was number two and I was number one. Then it was released in North Korea and it was the same story – this time for 10 weeks. My kids and grandchildren thought it was hilarious.”

Appearances on the Korean equivalents of Top Of The Pops followed. When Kidd and her guitarist Nigel Clark landed in South Korea, they found they had bodyguards for the duration of their trip – and Kidd’s face was plastered on movie posters on every billboard. “It was a scream,” she says. Her success spread, and she went on to play prestigious concerts in Cambodia, Thailand and Hong Kong. She was already known in China, where, in 1994, she was the first western artist to be invited by the Chinese government to perform in some 25 years.

With the death of John Mackay, who was Kidd’s partner for 12 years following the break-up of her marriage, such success seemed to matter little to the singer. But music played a huge part in helping her move on – and she discovered a flair for songwriting. As with the oil paintings she enjoys working on, this proved to be terrifically therapeutic.

In the last couple of years, Kidd has significantly upped the number of concerts she performs. It’s not that she’s suddenly become ambitious – quite the opposite, in fact. “I’m actually finding that the older I am, the more I enjoy it because there’s no pressure on me,” she explains.

Nevertheless, the plaudits keep coming. Last June, she won the Best CD category – as voted by the public – at the Scottish Jazz Awards, for Dreamsville, her first album to feature any of her own songs. She also made Sir Michael Parkinson cry with her sublime version of Moon River at a star-studded concert of Johnny Mercer songs.

Parkie summed Kidd up perfectly that night: “You’d have to travel a very long way to hear a better singer than that.” Presumably, he meant with a time a machine.

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