The interview takes place at Gorila Residence, a production house and boutique hotel by the sea in the south beach road off Tulum. It is just a few hours before her scheduled Swamp Blues concert at Gorila’s front yard, and we are amidst a bunch of swarming young people prepping the whole place for the night happening. I did not have to knock knock. Carol is ready waiting for the interview seating comfortably on a chair by the shade at the corner of the hotel pool bar. She is wearing a Caribbean teal coloured bandana covering her hair. The chair is placed exactly by the hotel iconic altar. She greets me kindly, her good friend Becky Owens joins us and our conversation happens as if in the living room of anyone’s home. During the interview, Carol reflects on her life; She is content, but breaks when it comes to remembering Clarence [Holliman], her late husband and soulmate. She looks frail at brief moments, but recovers promptly to show, as in the previous day rehearsal, that she is a strong woman that has had a lifetime career dedicated to singing Blues. Having learnt to establish her own turf 65 years ago, at age 15, such a grand spirit has so very much to tell and pass on to younger generations.
Carol, nice to meet you and get to talk to you in Tulum. What brings you to this Caribbean side of Mexico?
Well, It’s been 5 years since I’ve known Becky. I’ve been sick in the past years and I have had her support all these time. She believes in me so much. We came to put everything together, looking back at my career. That includes the video she is making. I’m doing this by myself now. With Clarence [Hollimon] gone it is very hard.
Sometimes I’m lost”.
Having been a steady Bourbon Street singer, you took a long tour to Mexico in the 50’s. Why Mexico?
I was singing at Tony Bacino Club in New Orleans back then. I met a gentleman by the name of Nick Perez. He owned a couple of Clubs in Juárez [Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico]. I was tired of New Orleans at the time and took Perez’ offer. I moved [in 1953] to Juárez and lived there for three years, where I sang late night show for his Lobby Supper Club. There were very good singers there, such as Estela Reynolds and Cuco Valdez’ twelve piece orchestra.
After the show I remember going to the Harry’s American bar behind the Club, where I would have a bottle of good Tequila and play the same song the rest of the night. Juárez was a tourists town back then and had some operating US military support bases.
You’ve been awarded the National Endowment for the Arts prize 2013 [NEA National Heritage Fellowship recipient], congratulations. Did you expect this to happen? What were your first emotions as you learned about it?
No. I did not. Hearing the news I felt it was bigger than me. I immediately called Becky about it!
I understand Becky is filming a documentary on your life as a singer, pianist and songwriter. Can you tell us more about this?
Yes. As I said we are putting it all together. We are shooting here in Tulum as well.
[Becky nods. She has been filming footage on her own, relying on heart and intuition and a minor in photography, and is now directing the final footage that Gorila is filming in Tulum. It’s a busy day for Becky but she is relaxed].
You see, I was a piano player but since I suffered a massive stroke, my right hand was compromised.
In the 1964 song “Crying in the Chapel” lyrics say “…tears I shed are tears of joy, know what content is now, I’m happy with love…”.Can you relate to this looking back into your life?
I was. Then when Clarence died, I was not. Now, I’m trying hard to be.
There’s a black and white photo on the Internet where you are at the Piano and your late husband Clarence Hollimon is playing his guitar seating below by you… Did you compose together? What do you remember most of Clarence and of Clarence and you?
I was so happy with Clarence…
We had met in New Orleans early on. When I met him again he had married. His marriage did not work. [Carol’s first marriage to saxophonist Bob Francois, did not either]. We got together later on. “That’s when the progress started”. We travelled the world and it was not a duo anymore … Then he died on me and I hit rock bottom… [Carol weeps and takes a few minutes to gather herself up, with grace]. I had no children, so I’m alone, except that I have Becky here with me. When my mother was alive, she was my support.
I have people around me all the time; Having had a troubled health it has been difficult to accept help from others, but, good or bad, I know welcome it and do say “Yes, you can” [she refers to a sign in her home]. It is still somewhat embarrassing to me.
What are your impressions on Tulum musicians as they assembled together and rehearsed to play with you today, with no more than a days rehearsal?
A lot of talented musicians here. I’ve had a good impression of them while rehearsing. My advice to the young: You have to stop wanting to sound as BB King or any other players that’s not you, for that matter; this is about finding your own style. It is about establishing your own turf. You do that by putting the best that you can, with what you have got!
When I was young I’d listen much to Sarah Vaughn and Peggy Lee, among other singers, but I’d just had to be me.
The interview finishes and I thank Carol for her timely advice which I can very well relate to. She tops it saying, “we’ll you’ve got to step strong with your right foot”. I can´t but agree. I guess “I am gonna Try“. Thank you Carol.
The Gorila Residence Concert
That same evening at around 18:30h Carol Fran was on stage one more time. Gorila Residence front yard was packed with people singing and dancing to Carol’s voice and lyrics such as 1950’s hit “Emmett Lee” (Excello label) and the seven piece band that amiably got together to render her a tribute and have the honour of performing with this Blues diva:
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