Gayle Kolb: A Singer’s Autobiography

The vocalist shares an Artist's Choice playlist of songs that describe her life in music

Gayle Kolb
Gayle Kolb (photo: Jennifer Girard)

With the release of my new album, I’ve been talking to a lot of people about my background, my history, where did I come from, how did this all happen. As I think about the impressions and signals received along the way, I realize that I can connect them all to songs that were part of my life and triggered each move forward. Taken together, they become a kind of autobiography of my life as a singer.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs mentioned below:

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Nina Simone
“I Loves You Porgy”
Little Girl Blue (Bethlehem, 1958)

I was 10 years old, in the ladies’ locker room at the pool, and this song was playing. I stopped what I was doing, sat there and listened. The way she sang that beautiful song, it impacted me so hard. Especially the voice, because I knew I had a deep voice like hers and I wondered if I could sing like that.

Cover of Nina Simone album <I>Little Girl Blue</I>
Cover of Nina Simone album Little Girl Blue

Frank Sinatra
“Fools Rush In”
Nice ’N Easy (Capitol, 1960)

I went to a piano bar with a girlfriend—she was the one who wanted to sing, but the pianist brought me up too, and handed me sheet music for “Fools Rush In.” “Sing this.” I knew Sinatra’s version. I loved the impeccable way he phrased it, and his swing, the rhythm and the tempo, just moved me. So we did the song the way Sinatra had done it.

June Christy
“Midnight Sun”
Something Cool (Capitol, 1954)

Just as I began singing jazz in L.A., a friend of mine who knew Joe Pass took me to a little club where he was working to say, “Hey, you’ve got to hear her sing.” I sat in and we did “Midnight Sun.” I’d learned the melody from listening to June Christy, whom I’d been told I sounded like; her approach was so graceful.

Sammy Davis, Jr.
“I’ve Gotta Be Me”
I’ve Gotta Be Me (Reprise, 1968)

This song was hugely popular at the moment in my life when I was trying to decide if I should become a full-time, professional singer. While I loved Sammy’s singing, it was the message of the song that grabbed me. It was true: I had to be me, I had to do this. I quit my day job.

Nancy Wilson
“Here’s That Rainy Day”
From Broadway with Love (Capitol, 1964)

I saw Nancy perform this song with Ray Brown in L.A. The way she phrased it and the way she delivered it, you believed every word she sang. She could really sell it. That was true with everything Nancy sang, of course, but her way with a ballad, and that one in particular, was wonderful.

Lorez Alexandria
“Over the Rainbow”
Alexandria the Great (Impulse!, 1964)

My singing coach recommended that I go see Lorez Alexandria, and she sang “Over the Rainbow” like I’ve never heard. It was a whole new approach: the difference between being a Doris Day singer, going out there and singing it straight, and being a singer like Lorez, a different concept, digging in really deep and figuring out what you have to offer.

Sarah Vaughan
“Send in the Clowns”
Send in the Clowns (Mainstream, 1974)
“September in the Rain”
At Mr. Kelly’s (EmArcy, 1957)

I was doing “Send in the Clowns” before Sarah recorded it; my brother saw the musical A Little Night Music and told me to learn it. I had a backer who wanted to record me at Capitol, but he wouldn’t let me do this tune, even after my conductor told him it would be a big hit. We blew it. Sarah, though, sings it the way it should be sung. She sings everything the way it should be sung. That live version of “September in the Rain,” at Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago, I just love. It’s a song that I recorded on Getting Sentimental, though I do it differently. I couldn’t do it like Sarah: The tempo, the band, the richness of her voice, it’s all perfection.

Carmen McRae
“Detour Ahead”
At Ratso’s, Vol. 3 (Hitchcock Media, 2007)
“If the Moon Turns Green”
The Great American Songbook (Atlantic, 1972)

This brings us to the present day. I’ve always loved Carmen McRae because you can feel her merely by the enunciation of her words. “Detour Ahead” is particularly resonant for me now. I picked up on it because it coordinates with some of the struggles I’ve had recently. I relate to it on a personal professional level. I’m also putting together a show in Chicago of her live recording of the Great American Songbook. “If the Moon Turns Green” is my favorite on that one. It’s an old Billie Holiday staple, but it’s Carmen McRae’s version that I think is the best.

[as told to Michael J. West]

Gayle Kolb has been a jazz singer for decades, performing in hotels and showrooms principally in Los Angeles and Chicago. But it was only recently, with the help of bassist/producer/arranger Dennis Carroll, that she finally got around to recording her first album. Titled Getting Sentimental, it was released by Jeru Jazz this past August.