Elli Fordyce is a jazz vocalist and actress who has been called “one of New York’s great gifts to jazz music.” Still active in her 70s, her CD entitled “Songs Spun of Gold” received eight Grammy pre-nominations in 2009. Elli also has numerous acting credits to her name, including Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show” and the film “September 12th.”
After a devastating car accident while touring with her quartet brought about a long break from the music scene, Elli’s comeback CD, “Something Still Cool,” became an overnight sensation. As Bill Gish, speaking for Jazz Improv New York, noted, “Whatever the term means, you know it when you hear it. And Elli Fordyce is cool! As implied in the title: once cool, always cool, vintage cool.”
Fordyce recently launched a new project, using the power of the internet to conduct face-to-face coaching sessions via Skype. She provides voice and performance coaching, as well as life coaching; for a free introductory session, email email@example.com.
Q. Can you give me a little background about your singing career?
A. I don’t look at what I’ve done as really a career, because I don’t look at it as being ‘successful.’ And, yet, there are people that would look at it as successful, but certainly not financially so. It’s been a creative journey, which has been very important to me, if not anything that I could count on financially. But there are an awful lot of jazz singers and there are very few that actually make a living at it. So, “compared to what?” is always my question.
Q. Is it because jazz is kind of a niche genre in music? Is that why it’s hard to be financially successful?
A. That’s one of the reasons, but I bet if you took a proportion of the rock singers, or the alternative singers, or whatever genre you wanted to take, you would find the same kinds of proportions, because the more popular genres have that many more people interested in being one of them.
I don’t live in New York anymore, but I have lived there in my growing up years and then off and on – from about (age) 35 until now I’ve been there a lot and most of the time. And there are just so many artists in any kind of art form or any kind of genre that are starving artists, and there are so many people that go to New York who want to break through. Whether they were born there or not, they go to New York thinking that’s going to be the Mecca.
In any type of job you can think of – I used to fall back on temping in offices – you would find so many artists of any kind and type that you want to name, that were doing that for their living, and moonlighting and trying to break in or trying to expand into some sort of real career. So, it’s not anything unique to me, but the reason I get defensive about it is because the public doesn’t understand, unless they have personal experience or are personally close with somebody.
Q. There are different ways to measure success and one is financially, but in terms of critical acclaim, I think that you’ve had a lot of success.
A. I have had, and that’s part of what was frustrating, because it didn’t lead anywhere. I even hired a manager, because I know I’m not good at the business part … She’s the one that got me into the Grammy’s because she’s a voting member and she had done this for some of her clients before. She knew what the Grammy’s look at and how to get your stuff considered, which is the big barrier. It’s not how good you are, or not good, or who you’re being compared to. It’s the barrier of what they’re looking at when they look at your submission and she and her company know exactly what T’s to cross and what I’s to dot. Everything was taken care of with many, many man hours and hard work that went into it. So, she wasn’t surprised when we got accepted in 13 categories – accepted for consideration – and then, after that, it’s up to the industry people who are voting members, and they look over everything and decide if, and what categories, you will be pre-nominated in. Out of that, we got eight nominations.
Q. I know that you grew up with a famous classmate who had a tremendous amount of success in the music industry – Bobby Darin. If you look back at the fact that you guys went to the same school and you both obviously have enormous talent, is there something you can see that he did that led to his success? Does it come down to connections or luck or some other factors?
A. We ended up both going to a school that was not in either of our neighborhoods, so it was a fluke that we met. It was a school for science and math people, and neither of us were. The reason that we met was that I had gotten really involved in listening to jazz, and he was in a band. In those days – and this was like, early ‘50s – the bands were not rock bands, they weren’t pop bands. They were swing bands, they were big-band bands, all that sort of music – ‘40s music and dance music from the big band era.
When (his band) would play at a school dance or whatever, he was not a singer, he was a drummer. The band that he was with was a quintet that would go to the Catskills, which is where the big resorts were around New York in that era, and they would be busboys and would play at night, and that’s how they got their experience. Then, back at school, they would have jam sessions in the lunchroom or cut classes and have jam sessions in the music room and I started cutting classes and going to jam sessions. That was how we all got acquainted.
But, back to the differences – for one thing, I had absolutely no understanding or support for me. Nobody even knew I wanted to be a singer and, when I was 12, they found out by something that happened in school – a little play that I was cast in – that I could sing and they were shocked and awe struck by that … Bobby, on the other hand, was totally supported by his mom and his sister and aunt. Also, he was ill. He had a rheumatic heart and he could never do sports and a lot of things the other boys were doing, so his thing was learning to sing and learning music and learning to dance.
He was just totally passionate about the business and about his career. We knew each other for, I would say, two years in high school and then my family moved away. We stayed in touch a little, but it was no longer the close relationship. It’s not like you had email in those days (laughs). He was a little ahead of me in school – he was about six months older, but he was about a year and a half ahead of me in school – and he went off to Hunter College and was majoring in theater, and that was the first I knew that he even wanted to act. At that point, he still wasn’t singing, not for anybody that I knew of, anyway. Then, all of a sudden, a few years later, “Splish Splash” came out on the radio.
So, he had all this support, and he also had this driving ambition. I remember just the day before I moved out of New York, we were sitting and talking on the subway platform, because he was so broke that he couldn’t afford to leave the station and go across the street and upstairs and go back in to go home, which would have cost him a second fare. So we just sat on a bench and talked for hours, and I remember this very intense conversation where he was talking about his ambitions and how he had no time or energy for anything else – he had to just focus. He was really, really broke and he was really a starving artist. And then he had this breakthrough. What are the odds?
Q. Well, you mentioned that you’re still doing some singing, but tell me about the life coaching that you’re doing now.
A. I was involved with what I would call practical spirituality – in other words, how to make things better in your life, how to make things that you feel passionate about better. That’s what kind of kept me going all the years when I was frustrated about the music business … I’m sure you know that I had a car crash and my band broke up and all that stuff. I just said, “Okay, I’ve had enough of this,” and I got farther and farther away from singing and then I got to where I wouldn’t sing at all, even for myself.
The coaching that I was getting in this kind of practical spirituality was what kept me alive through all those frustrations and all those problems. I was very holistic, as well as this sort of spirituality. I had always been both a receiver and a giver of those kinds of techniques and I was always a researcher into those kinds of techniques. Once the internet really became part of the world, I was always online finding new things and new folks and that has continued all these years. It’s just a natural thing to me. I’ve always done it and I’ve always been good at it.
As far as the singing coaching goes, I’ve had hundreds of different kinds of experiences – teachers that were not very good and not very successful – so I‘ve learned a lot about how not to coach a singer and not to coach a performer. And all of that sort of gelled and about ten years ago I started actually teaching.
Q. So, people can contact you for a free coaching session – either life coaching or as a singing coach?
A. Absolutely. It’s so unique that we have to see if we’re a fit. It doesn’t work to just say, “Sign up and I’ll coach you.”
Q. If you were going to summarize all of your life experiences into some kind of career advice – not necessarily to become a singer, but just in general – what would that advice be?
A. Well, number one, they need to see what they are really called to do and, if it’s creative, it’s very often not going to be something they are going to be able to make a living at. But, in this day and age, getting your ideal job is not that easy either. Years ago, if you wanted to be in finance, you went to the right school and you got your job in finance. If you wanted to be a lawyer, you got your law degree and you went to work as a lawyer. But, nowadays, a lot of people are having to settle for less than their ideal, and not just in the arts.
So, number one is really identifying something about what you’re called to do – at least, what it would feel like to be doing what you think you should be doing … It’s like, what is the ideal job for you? You may not have that job right now, but you have some essence of that job that you can bring into what you’re doing now.
I once read probably the first two pages of a book called “Wishcraft” by Barbara Sher – it’s an old book, probably 30 years old – and I’ve never forgotten the point that I got from those first couple of pages, and that was to bring the essence of the thing into your life now, not to wait until you have the whole thing for you to start.
What I applied that to was that I always wanted to be a movie star. As a kid, I would go see June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day and I was wishing I was them and I was up on the big screen. I always put off acting. I did a little tiny bit in my 20s in very small venues and I knew could do it. As a singer, I knew I could act because I acted when I sang, but I put off the whole idea of really going after acting. I hated the whole idea of cattle calls and auditions and rejections and all that stuff that I heard about for years and years and saw people go through.
But, all of a sudden, I had this little breakthrough to apply that piece of information, to bring the essence of what I would want to be a big movie star for – it’s not just being a big movie star, but there’s something that you want to feel or there’s something that you want to experience about that work – not about the stardom, but about that work. What is the feeling? And I knew what that feeling was, so suddenly I had no more excuses to not audition, because in New York at that time, there were tons of projects at a beginner level.
I went ahead and started to read the trade papers and get the audition locations and would go and sign up and started auditioning, and very soon I got into a student film. Nobody knew that I hadn’t gone to acting school. Nobody knew that I had never done a film before. I just auditioned, they liked what I did, they cast me, and I did the film – a little short film – and they were happy and I was happy, and I got to experience that ‘thing.’ Well, now, looking across the room, I see a stack about two feet high of DVDs of stuff that I’ve done…
It’s carrying that to whatever field somebody wants to be in, or they can want to be in more than one thing – I mean, a lot of people have many more than one talent and passion – and just finding what the essence is of that thing. Why do you want to do that? How would that feel to you? You might not even be able to put it into words, but you would be able to put it into some sort of experiential feeling and thought and belief and whatever goes into that little package that is that thing. And then, figure out a way from there to do a baby step in that direction. If it’s jazz singing, for instance, take a lesson or go to an open mic or find a musician to sing with or get a karaoke track. That’s one of the things I’m good at in coaching is helping people figure out what their baby steps should be.
Visit Elli’s website at http://www.ellifordyce.net/ and follow her on twitter at @ElliFordyce and @ElliFordyce2. You can hear clips, download tracks or buy her albums on cdbaby.com. Elli Fordyce is super-star in the world of Jazz. Many critics consider her to be a beautiful gift to music industry. She is a professional singer who has produced several hit albums. Now in her 70’s, she is still up and running her singing career. She is a role-model to many young kids who are looking to make a career in music industry.
She was born in New York on 31st March, 1937. She has a passion for music since childhood. In her college days, she started spending time with music bands. Her music career officially began when she started singing in a clubs, hotels, and other venues. She started out small and eventually got a lot of fame. Her talents in singing jazz are outstanding which is why her music career became such a success. Her music career was on the path of glory when it was abruptly ended with a violent road accident. This happened when she was driving to a gig along with three other musicians. This accident was devastating for her in more than one way. Her band split as the result of this crash. She had to deal with both physical as well as emotional scars. As a result of this tragic event, she stopped singing for about fifteen years. Music, or Jazz, is the one thing she loves most in this world, so not singing for more than a decade was a frustrating time-period for her.
During her absence from the music industry, she worked on healing herself, both physically and emotionally. She had to fight-off physical pain and deal with depression at the same time. After an absence of 15 years, she came back to the world of Jazz thanks to the puppy named Dindi. Elli noticed how her puppy loves hearing her voice and music. This made her realize that perhaps her journey hasn’t ended yet. She decided to sing again and it was a decision made well. Her second term in the music industry proved to be more successful than the first one.
Elli Fordyce finds one thing about her Jazz career frustrating, the low income. She says that financially, her career hasn’t been successful. Today, in the world of internet, some amateurs singers are able to make tens of thousands of dollars just by posting their videos on YouTube. On the other hand, a lot of singers with real talent are struggling to make music their career because they aren’t making enough income.
Elli’s music journey was like a roller-roaster ride. She went through some really hard-times, but she is now enjoying her life singing in her 70’s. She is also an actress. She is credited in five films. She also appeared in a documentary. She believes that she is a better musician today thank to all the great coaches who taught her over the years.