Vikki Carr: The Current interview
Vikki Carr was euphoric. Talking in English and Spanish on the phone from Orlando (where she was doing the Spanish TV rounds), she shared with the Current her enthusiasm for the public’s reaction to Viva la Vida, her first album since 2001. But gradually the conversation — which took place days before the first presidential debate — turned to politics.
Here’s the whole conversation, which begins with her return to music and ends with a spirited defense of her man in November: Mitt Romney.
Congratulations on your return to Sony and to recording in general. It was about time!
I came back home. I feel like Judy Garland when she told her aunt, “Oh, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home,” because I had been without a record company for many years. After I got married I was in San Antonio with my grandkids, and now they’re grown up and I was happy to take time for myself and my husband. [Dr.] Pedro [De León] kept saying, “Honey, you’ve got to get back. People are waiting for you to come back, and you’re singing better than ever, so do it!” I was without a record company at the time. It was very difficult because, after the success that I had, record companies were not that interested at the time. So I decided to invest in myself, I borrowed money, and contacted a friend of mine in California, José Hernández. He’s been a very good friend for many, many years. I asked him if he’d be interested in being my co-producer, and he said, “Yes!” The album was initially recorded three years ago for my 50th anniversary of being in the business. It was my way of thanking all of my public, all the mexicanos, and all the Latin American countries for the success that they have given me. And to tell them that God continues to bless me with the gift of my singing and that I will be continuing to sing for everybody. So, [Hernández] got some songs that were original and some that had not been done in about 75 years.
Were the originals done especially for this album?
Yes. One in particular is “A mí no me importa” [“I Don’t Care,” written by Hernández and José Alfredo Jiménez Jr., the son of one of Mexico's greatest composers], which talks about me singing to the people. I don’t care about time, yet I’m 72.
Yes way! [laughs]
You look younger than me!
Oh, c’mon…! Thank you, darling. As I was saying, the lyrics [of "A mí no me importa"] are “Camino, siempre camino/llevando el amor en mi alma/y en mis manos corazones/sin dejar a nadie atrás” (I walk, I always walk/taking love in my soul/and hearts in my hands/without leaving anyone behind”). I’m singing for all those who have given their hearts to me. And I’m saying “I don’t care about time,” because I’m still going to be here for all of you, and my way of thanking you is my singing. Then there are some songs that were written by [Argentine songwriter] Roberto Livi for me, and also one by [Argentina's] Leo Dan ["Amante peligroso/Dangerous Lover"] that says, “Yo sé que fui muy celosa” (I know I was very jealous) … A part of me that maybe I never would have wanted to admit, but maybe at a point in my life I was. We all have our insecurities.
José [Hernández] has been very successful on his own. His Mariachi Sol de México is widely considered the top mariachi in the U.S. He’s been busy. Yet, he found time to work with you. That must’ve felt great.
Oh, I know. He’s incredible.
He was just in town playing with Luis Miguel.
Yes! Did you see him then? I went to see him. I know, he’s very busy. And he’s very talented. And to be my co-producer? Ha!
So what’s the deal with Sony now? Distribution only or what?
Well, the album was presented to them. We were getting to the point of, after waiting for three years, “Forget about it!” If we couldn’t get someone interested in a finished product with album cover and everything, then we’ll just put it out ourselves. My manager got it to Sony, and the people at Sony, when they heard it … they absolutely flipped. They loved it. They wanted to be involved. Yes, initially this is a distribution deal to them, but we’re already talking about other projects in the future. They’re excited, and I’m excited. It’s wonderful after 53 years of being in this business, to be with a company that is young but is excited that you’re back home where you have had your success. So, I’m thrilled. I’ve been here at the office. I’ve met everybody. We did [Univision's] Despierta América, with an amazing response from people that have missed me so much! It’s wonderful. They’ve missed my songs. And so many of the young people that are working now at Sony were raised with my music, so it’s been a love-in. That’s all I can tell you.
At the time you started singing in Spanish, you already had an incredible career in English. Do you feel at all that, because of the success of your Spanish career, people forget that you were already successful before you became successful?
You’re right. They do forget it but, you know, the amazing thing is had I not had the success in English first, I wouldn’t have had the strength to insist with the president of my record company at the time, that I wanted to do this album in Spanish. It was like pushing something that I knew was going to be successful. It was also suggested by the Anglos in my audience, because I would always include at least one or two songs [in Spanish]. I would tell the audience what the songs were about, and then they started mentioning to me, “Gee, why don’t you do an album all in Spanish?” I said, “Well, isn’t it going to bother you that you’re not going to know what I’m singing about?” They said, “No, because when Vikki Carr sings we understand everything.” You realize music is the universal language. People can tell when it was a love song, and it gave me a chance also to introduce beautiful music en español other than the same things that we had heard over and over. And to showcase other great composers like Armando Manzanero and José Alfredo Jiménez … I’m so glad we did, even though the company dropped me and stayed with [Barbra] Streisand, because of that fight to do the first one [in Spanish]. That was when Columbia México came to me and they said, “We want Vikki Carr because we know that she can sell records.” They had known me in México and Latin America for “It Must Be Him,” for “With Pen in Hand,” for “I Got My Eye On You”, and I still sing those songs for them, because I cannot deny who I am and the success that I have. It’s beautiful now to be accepted. The biggest frustration to me, Enrique, was after having success in English, and in concerts, and then being in Mexico, and having that incredible success, and three Grammys … it was amazing to me to come back and long to work in the United States, and then have your agents … Stupid! They’d say, “Well, is she going to do her Spanish show? Or her English show?” All of a sudden I was put into this category. What do you mean? Why can’t I just be Vikki Carr? I am everything in music. I am in the Spanish, and I am in the English. But that was the stupid mentality, I think, at that time.
What will happen now? Are you going to tour? With only this new album, or with, uh… all the Vikki Carrs?
Of course I’m going to tour! I’m going to tour as Vikki Carr. There is no “all the Vikki Carrs.” There’s only one Vikki Carr. One who has been blessed to have success in both. In my English show I’ve been doing the retro stuff. We go back to the music that made me who I am, and I wind up doing it maybe a little more differently just to give it a little more life. Then I share with them all of my success in Spanish. Thank God I draw an audience that is equally balanced between the Anglo and the Hispanic. That, I thought, would be an incredible selling point for Vikki Carr. Be it symphony shows or whatever in theaters. If you’re going to be thinking, “I’m only going to draw a mexicano or Latino,” you’re making a big mistake! It’s like having a jewel in your hand that has just now began to be polished, and to be able to shine for everybody. Here’s a woman who has done everything. I have even recorded in Japanese, and I’ve recorded in Portuguese, in Italian, but the thing is that I am known for the English and the Spanish. And plus, I have a great sense of humor. I’m a comedian. Before, I had been kind of guided in my career like, “They pay to hear you sing, not to hear you talk.” And now I’m at a point where I feel I have a lot to say, and I am funny, and the people love it!
I have conflicting information about something: do you or do you not play guitar?
No, I don’t. I did take lessons, but I wouldn’t say that I play guitar. I was given an incredible, beautiful guitar that I still have. My ex-husband, my first, on our fifth anniversary, he came into the bedroom with this humungous big box, and he told me to open it. I opened it, and it was a beautiful hand-made guitar. I looked at it and I said, “Oh! A guitar!” He said, “Yeah.” And I said, “You got me, for our anniversary, a guitar?” But he was so cute. He said, “For the fifth anniversary, it’s wood.” So, he got me the guitar. And I had that, and it was very beautiful. I still have it. Then, I started taking some lessons from some of the musicians that I worked with, and I said, “Oh! This would be kind of cool if I could really accompany myself.” But I never really went further with it, other than to hold it, and to strum a few chords.
OK, let’s play a little game. I’ll give you some names that were important in your life and you tell me the first thing that comes to your mind. Let’s start with Johnny Carson. [she was a guest host at The Tonight Show in 1973 and sang for the presidents mentioned, except Obama]
Someone that really … OK … Richard Nixon. He was, actually … Hmm … Richard Nixon…
OK, we’ll get back to him later [I forgot to get back; sorry]. Gerald Ford.
He was a sweetheart.
The best that we’ve had, and I wish he were back.
George H. W. Bush.
A great gentleman.
A great talker.
[SA's] Holy Cross High School.
The importance of education.
Did you ever meet Obama?
You were born in El Paso but have lived in San Antonio for many years. What do you think of our city?
I first went to San Antonio in ’68 to perform at HemisFair, and I fell in love with the city. I said, “Gee, I love this city. I’d love to work here one day,” and it did come to pass. But, you know, I wound up marrying someone that I had met in 1971 [in San Antonio], and over 30 years later we got married, and that’s why I moved here. I love San Antonio! Are you kidding? There’s nothing nicer than to go into the mall or go to the market and everybody calls you, “Vikki!” and they’ll tell you, “Thank you so much for what you did for Holy Cross, you helped my brother.” I’ve come across former alumni of Holy Cross that say, “Thanks to you! You are our Angel.” But I only went to do the [benefit] concert; it was the people of San Antonio that really supported something so very important.
Thanks, Vikki. Anything you want to add?
Viva la Vida, the name of the album, can be translated as “live life,” and its also kind of geared more toward the Mexican people and all of the horrible problems and situations that they are in right now. They must have faith and unite, because it’s pretty frightening what is happening, and what has happened to them.
Based on your take on past presidents, I suspect I know who you’re going to vote for …
You can ask me about the election now. I don’t mind. It’s Romney for me.
Do you really believe what Romney has to offer is what the Mexicans need right now?
Yes, because I feel [Obama is] only placating and playing up to a Latino. Meanwhile, he’s put out in immigration … How many people has he already deported? He knows what to say to get votes. And I feel that he says the things, my darling, that the people want to hear. But I remember a country where we really worked and nobody gave up anything. I’m not saying that some of the benefits and things that have come about are not important and were not given to people that really needed it, but I feel truly in my heart (because I know personally from relatives) that they have abused it, OK? And, I resent that. Because I have worked so hard for 72 years, my father worked so hard, my mother worked so far, and I was a Democrat until I started to work, and then to read and to find out really what is going on. The thing that frightens me the most, is [that Obama] is appealing to those that are afraid that they’re not going to have somebody take care of them.
Are you saying that if I vote for Obama, I do it because I’m afraid no one’s going to take care of me?
You’re going to vote for Obama because that’s whom you want. That’s what’s so great about this country, Enrique.
OK, but you just said Obama appeals to “those that are afraid that they’re not going to have somebody take care of them.” You’re generalizing, just like Romney did when talking about “the 47 percent.”
Doesn’t Obama also do it? “The rich. The rich. The rich.” Do you want to know who that one percent is? It’s myself and a small company that I’m trying to keep going. And I’m going to have to pay more taxes than the 35 percent that I do now.
Do you make more than $250,000 a year?
Es junto con mi esposo [along with my husband]. He works his butt off! And they don’t pay doctors what they used to pay. Congress has stolen from Social Security. They’ve stolen from Medicare. Why do we have so many programs? And where do you think the money is going to be coming from, Enrique?
Oh, Vikki … We could go on forever. But I respect the fact that you’re talking with your heart and standing up for your ideas, unlike many of your colleagues who are unwilling to risk any political opinion for fear of losing fans.
I have to, hon, because a lot of people before would say, “Don’t say anything. Think about your career.” If I had to do that, I never would have taken the first stand against smoking, OK? And I was blackballed in Nevada because of that in 1974, but I also was the Chairman of the American Lung Association. I fought for the first all-Spanish album; I fought to give scholarships to young Latin-American kids that needed help in East L.A.; I fought to do Holy Cross. So, a lot of things that I’ve believed in, I have fought for.
That’s true. But everybody fights. Everybody works hard. Not just the rich.
We agree there. But don’t you think everybody would like to be working now?
Of course, but a lot more people are working now than in 2008. I’m one of them. In 2008 there were layoffs all around me. I don’t see that happening now on a massive scale as in 2008. For your information: I’m not that thrilled about Obama either, OK? I enthusiastically voted for him and felt somewhat betrayed. And the only reason I’m going to vote for him now is because I saw the Republican National Convention and said, “No way!” But you have to give it to the guy. Am I better off now than in 2008? You bet. And most of my friends are now working, unlike four years ago. Things are still bad, but don’t you sincerely think things are a little more stabilized now?
May I say a couple of things? We often complain about 2008 and what happened. But everybody forgets there’s no other president that went through what President Bush went through. When they went into two towers.
Right: they went into the towers under his watch, and after his administration ignored signs of a possible attack.
Who said that? Where is the proof?
Where is the proof? Didn’t you see Condoleezza Rice’s testimony before the 9/11 Commission? I can send you the video.
Hindsight is great. Who would have believed that this was going to happen? And why didn’t [Bill] Clinton take out Osama Bin Laden when he could have? He blew it there.
Well … At least he tried.
We can keep going back, and keep going over cases and cases. But the thing is, you forgot that there was a war. That we had a president that had to stand up for our country, and that’s the only time that everybody was united. Now, here was a president (and I’m talking about Obama) who said, “I am going to unite everybody, not divide them.” Our country is more divided now than it has ever been. Every time the Republicans could have helped with an idea, he shot it down.
Vikki! It’s the other way around! The Republicans are the ones who said “our number one priority is to make sure Obama is a one-term president.” And… Oh, never mind. Vikki, I still love you, OK?
OK, Enrique. I love you too. And I’m glad this was a nice heated discussion and debate. I liked it. — Enrique Lopetegui