Berkeley, from the outside looking in, is an academic hub. It’s home to one of the best university campuses for students and researchers alike. Nevertheless, most outsiders forget that Berkeley is also home to the some of the country’s most unique artists and performers.
On March 13, the city of Berkeley held a ceremony to celebrate the city’s inaugural Faye Carol Day. In an interview with The Daily Californian, Faye Carol, popularly known as The Dynamic Miss Faye Carol, spoke about her life and career, which blossomed in and around the streets of Berkeley.
“I’m still levitating over that,” Carol said, referencing the honor. “If you’re not a top-40 type person, you just kind of slide under the radar … so it was just so beautiful to know that someone was paying attention all this time.”
From performing alongside jazz legends to encouraging the careers of countless young artists, Carol’s jazzy, dynamic voice has represented the finest moments of the city’s history.
While Carol is primarily known for her voice, her actions immensely impact her local community. At her School of the Getdown — located in Berkeley and San Jose — she teaches others how to develop their vocal skills, improvise on stage and wholly own their voices. What makes her teaching style unique is its emphasis upon her students to trust themselves and each other.
“First of all, I really love people, and you start out with that premise,” Carol said.
Her school doesn’t have levels, competitions or rankings — it’s an open, welcoming environment for anyone who wants to learn. “I want (my students) to accept themselves first,” she said. During her monthlong workshops, Carol and her students embark on a journey where she creates a space that’s not only for technical growth, but for creative exploration as well.
“You might not know each other at first,” she said of the new students who embark on her workshop, “but by the time the four-week program is over, you have the feeling of a musical family, and that’s gonna last throughout time.”
Carol herself plays a significant role within the musical community of the Bay Area. She has collaborated with jazz legends such as Marvin Gaye and James Brown, and she sang with her own daughter, Kito Gamble. When Gamble was young, her parents first started her out on the piano and violin. Now, Carol proclaims, “She is the best pianist anywhere on planet Earth!”
Ever since her first performance at her mom’s show at the age of 10, Gamble’s career became intertwined with Carol’s. Gamble and Carol collaborated on an album, The Flow, as well as touring together around the world.
Not only did Carol cite her daughter as a musical inspiration, but she spoke about the jazz musicians who inspired her throughout her career. Her rendition of the song “Bein’ Green” — a piece originally written for Kermit the Frog in 1970 — was inspired by Ray Charles’ performance of the piece.
Carol recalled first hearing the song in an episode of “Sesame Street” she watched with her daughter. “Lena Horne first came on singing (‘Bein’ Green’) with Kermit the Frog,” she said. “And later at work, I heard Ray Charles singing.”
After somebody sent her Charles’ “Bein’ Green” later that night, she knew it would have to be on her next album. Years later, when Carol was asked to perform at the Concord Pavilion for the 1986 Concord Jazz Festival, she not only had the chance to meet Charles, but was invited to perform alongside him. “I thought I had just died and gone to heaven,” she said.
As Carol reminisced on the many talents she performed with throughout her career, she gave a sweet laugh. “Most of the people that are really really great, are really really sweet … and not fearful,” she said.
It’s this fearlessness that has lead her to her success. Without managers or talent agents, Carol took the reins of her career. Through working with Bill Graham in his early years as a rock promoter, she become the opener for many iconic guests. Decades after Graham and Carol parted ways, he still remembered that dynamic voice and invited her to perform a song that welcomed Nelson Mandela to the Coliseum in Oakland, following his release from prison.
“I still get chills,” Carol said as she talked about performing for Mandela and his wife.
It’s not only Carol’s magnificent voice and service that makes her a standout citizen — it’s her passion for the city. Although Carol was born in Mississippi and raised in Pittsburg, California, she calls herself “really a Berkeley person.”
“I feel freedom here,” she said. “I feel so much freedom for other people here … your ideas — you don’t have to hold them back. You can create your own way … if you are willing to work for them.”
Carol’s incredible voice and her amazing compassion brought her around the world, but she always comes back to Berkeley — the new home of the annual Faye Carol Day.
Annalise Kamegawa covers music. Contact her at [email protected].