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High-Performance Carr

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Vikki Carr, just another overnight sensation (with four decades of experience), will stage a Saturday night benefit at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center to celebrate a quarter-century of service by El Concilio del Condado de Ventura.

Carr has released nearly 60 albums and is a three-time Grammy Award winner with international appeal, especially in Mexico, Latin America and Australia. Born in El Paso and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, she is the eldest of seven children.

She began her performing career at age 4, when she sang “Adeste Fidelis” at a Christmas school production.

Proud of her Mexican heritage, Carr released her first Spanish-language album in the early ‘70s, which opened doors for her in Mexico and substantially widened her audience. It also helped pave the way for the current crop of bilingual Latin entertainers such as teen scream Ricky Martin.

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Carr’s recording career officially began in 1961 with “He’s a Rebel” for Liberty Records, whose stable of artists at the time included Gene McDaniel, Julie London and Bobby Vee. Her biggest hit, “It Must Be Him,” began a series of successful songs including “With Pen in Hand,” “The Lesson” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”

Carr’s resume includes radio, stage and television work, plus performances for Queen Elizabeth and five American presidents, as well as a tour of Vietnam with Danny Kaye. She has appeared on numerous television shows including “The Mod Squad,” “Fantasy Island” and “Baywatch.”

The fiftysomething singer also has a lengthy history of charitable work, including the establishment of the Vikki Carr Scholarship Foundation, so this Oxnard gig is nothing out of the ordinary for her. El Concilio del Condado de Ventura is a nonprofit Latino advocacy and community-based organization. Services include youth violence prevention and intervention and after-school tutoring as well as alcohol and drug counseling programs.

A busy lady indeed, Carr discussed the latest as well as the past during a recent phoner.

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Your bio is quite impressive. Anything you haven’t done or would like to do?

I’d like to do more film and television work after being a 41-year overnight sensation. I’d like to do more work in the States.

When did you decide you wanted to be a singer?

I followed my dad’s footsteps. He always wanted to be a singer, but he never took the opportunity. I was always around the beautiful music and all the Spanish music as I was growing up. I know I have been blessed with this voice--a gift from God--and it’s still going strong after 41 years.

When you were signed to Liberty Records, one of your early hits was “He’s a Rebel.” Was that the same song that was a hit for the Crystals?

Yes, it was. Phil Spector had that song for the Crystals, and I remember when I recorded my version, I heard the same song coming from across the hall. My version was a big hit in Australia.

What sorts of problems did you face with your first Spanish album?

I had a fight originally with Clive Davis at Columbia. The Spanish album was something my audience wanted, and I mean more than just my immediate family. I always sang a few songs in Spanish, and the audience always understood what I was saying, even if they didn’t understand the words. I’m glad I did it--it opened the door for me in Mexico.

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You performed for five presidents--what was that like? Did any of them sing along or get up and dance?

Nixon was stiff, but Ford was very loving--those two were like night and day. Seeing the Reagans was more like being in someone’s home because they were very caring. At those state dinners, they separate you from your partner and one time I thought I was going to be with the president--the president of Venezuela--but it turned out to be President Bush. I thought they were all very gracious to me, and to have come from a poor family born in a house with a dirt floor in El Paso, I think I represented all the Mexican Americans and it was very uplifting for me.

Tell me a Vietnam story.

We went to Da Nang in 1966. I had only been married a month, and I spent my one-month anniversary aboard the Kitty Hawk. . . . I was with Danny Kaye, who was incredible--a very caring and loving man. . . . We went everywhere, playing to crowds of 10,000 to 25. I remember crying when the Viet Cong were firing mortars near us. That was an amazing two weeks of my life, and we met some amazing young men. They told me I reminded them of home.

Who were you on “The Mod Squad”?

I was engaged to Leslie Nielsen, who was a Vietnam war correspondent who got into drugs. We never had any scenes together, because they shot the show out of sequence. It was actually kind of tiring and boring.

What do you think Vikki Carr music sounds like?

Hopefully, it’s a music that’s pop-oriented. I still do the wonderful music of Sinatra, Garland and Nat King Cole. I still sing “It Must Be Him” which was a hit in 1967, and it’s kind of interesting to see people singing it with me. I try to bring to people a feeling of hope.

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If you weren’t a performer, what would you be doing?

Anything that has to do with people. I’ve been a receptionist and a switchboard operator. Just anything that has to do with people.

DETAILS

Vikki Carr at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center, 800 Hobson Way, 8 p.m. Saturday; $40 to $65; 486-2424.

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Todd Winokur, he of boundless optimism and no “off” switch, built a viable music scene in Ventura with his Cafe Voltaire. When that venue closed last year, local artists were left circling the drain, scrambling to pick up gigs. But now Winokur is back, having taken over the longest-running country venue in the county, the Ban-Dar in Ventura. The first gig under the new regime will be a Blue Monday affair featuring Mighty Joe Houston & the Defrosterz.

Houston hasn’t been around as long as the city, but it’s been close. He left Austin when he was still a teenager, moved to Chicago and became part of the blues scene.

His resume includes stints with Big Joe Turner, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and boogie-woogie piano wizard Amos Milburn. He was once in the same band with Milburn and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

The tenor sax player has been in Southern California since 1952 and has recorded numerous albums, including his latest, “Live at Cafe Voltaire.” And Houston should know the way since he played the Ban-Dar numerous times in the early ‘60s.

Winokur intends to keep the country music happening, but will expand the bookings with local bands playing original blues, country and folk and rock. The official grand opening is set for April 28 with Jonathan McEuen & the String Lizards and Jimmy Adams & Friends.

DETAILS

Mighty Joe Houston & the Defrosterz at the Ban-Dar, 305 E. Main St., Ventura, 8 p.m. Monday; $5; 643-4420.

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Eileen McGann, one of Canada’s leading contemporary songwriters, will bring her Celtic-flavored folk songs to the Ojai Valley Woman’s Club for a Tuesday night concert, offering selections from her four albums.

For what it’s worth, the critics seem to be impressed with McGann, using adjectives such as “magnificent,” “stunning” and “hauntingly beautiful” to describe her work.

She has toured relentlessly across Canada, Great Britain, Ireland and the United States, accompanied by David Knutson, her multi-instrumentalist sideman who plays Irish bouzouki and bass and adds harmony vocals. This will be their first visit to Ojai.

Born to Irish immigrant parents in southern Ontario, McGann fell in love with Celtic ballads while still in her teens.

Since then, the guitarist has made these traditional ballads her own, singing some a capella. McGann’s originals have a decidedly environmental theme, celebrating the beauty of Canada’s natural landscape, and she has several political songs, decrying misguided policies as well as voter apathy. Perhaps there’s an Ojai oak song in her future.

DETAILS

Eileen McGann at the Ojai Valley Woman’s Club, 441 E. Ojai Ave., 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; $10 advance or $12 at the door; 646-5163.

Bill Locey can be reached by e-mail at blocey@pacbell.net


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