Singer Carmen Bradford was only 22 when she first met Count Basie.
The jazz giant was sitting backstage. Bradford was singing two songs with the opening act. Being the fearless early-20-something she was, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I said, ‘Hi Mr. Basie, my name is Carmen Bradford and I’m a part of the opening act for you tonight. ... I just want you to know that I think, if you hired me, you’d make millions of dollars,’ ” recounts Bradford. Sweet and skeptical, Basie listened as she further explained, “There’s nothing like having a young lady on a show.”
She sang her songs that night and had to wait a painstaking nine months before hearing from Basie again. He called when she was on her way to a gig. In disbelief, she thought her cousin was playing a prank, and hung up the phone. Mercifully he called back. She’d gotten the job.
Bradford will be appearing with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra alongside trumpeter and vocalist Byron Stripling on Saturday at the Gaillard Center in a tribute concert to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
“The year I got to work with him (Basie), they were just the best months of my life,” says Bradford.
The daughter of a long line of talented jazz musicians — her mother is singer Melba Joyce and her father is trumpeter Bobby Bradford — she went on to sing with the orchestra for 10 years as their regular vocalist. She currently sings with the band as a guest.
At 58, she now has three solo albums and a fourth recording of her star turn in the 2009 production of Duke Ellington’s opera, “Queenie Pie,” under her belt. Her meeting with Basie is just one remarkable example in the life of a performer who, from an early age, knew what she wanted.
“I knew I wanted to sing when I was about 4 or 5,” she says. Compelled by visions of her mother dressing for gigs in glamorous sequin gowns, she recalls her early music influences as being diverse. “I really, really fell in love with Aretha Franklin,” she says, adding many other R&B legends to the list, including Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight and the Doobie Brothers.
In addition, she notes influences including Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. The result is a rich, soulful voice with original phrasing and a classically trained singer unafraid to make the standards her own.
Performing with Stripling for “A Tribute to Louis and Ella” is a little like a homecoming for the singer, who was first introduced to Stripling in Basie’s orchestra. He was a trumpet player with the band when she was first getting her start.
“It is such a joy and honor for me to watch him on stage,” she says. “You know when you know somebody forever and they can still surprise you with what’s inside of them? Our chemistry is awesome. When you know somebody that long you do a lot of laughing onstage.”
Together they will re-create some of the most iconic duets in music history.
Bradford believes it's important to preserve this history.
“This is really all that America has,” she says. “There are symphonies performed across the United States written by Europeans. This is an American art form, and it came from black people. This is our classical music.”
If Bradford ever had any doubt of her place in that legacy, surely it was checked by another remarkable moment of serendipity she experienced later in her career. After the death of Fitzgerald, who Bradford had had the occasion to meet, she learned at the estate sale that it was none other than Bradford’s tribute album sitting in the late singer’s boombox at the time of her death.