Carol Kidd MBE may be the finest jazz vocalist Scotland has ever produced, but in times of crisis, it has been painting which has saved her – rather than singing. The ebullient, pint-sized Glaswegian, now resident in Spain, is back in her home town this month to celebrate her 70th birthday and give a trio of concerts. Oh, and to show her paintings to the public for the first time, with an exhibition and workshops at iota in Glasgow’s west end.
So how did the singer who was hand-picked by her idol, Frank Sinatra, to open his legendary Glasgow 1990 concert for him and who was accorded superstar status in the Far East due to her chart success become an exhibiting artist. “Artist?!” splutters Kidd. “There’s no way I’d call myself that! When I think about people who’ve been to art school and university, I wouldn’t dream of calling myself an artist – but the things that I’m doing are straight from the heart. That’s the only way I can put it.”
Kidd’s first brush with, er, the brush came in 2005 – when she was at her lowest ebb in the aftermath of the sudden death of her longterm partner, and manager, John and in the midst of a court case over his estate. Shuddering, she recalls: “I was a maniac. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, I was a mess. You would come into my flat in Glasgow and have to walk over bank statements and papers. I really was so black about everything.
“Then, one day, my daughter Carol came to my flat with an easel, canvases, brushes, oils – everything I needed – and she said: ‘Mum, you’re dying before my eyes. You were always good at drawing so, there, go for it.’ I’ve been drawing since I was child. I used to draw the dogs, when we had dogs, and the kids – but always in pencil. So I was always into drawing but never took it that step beyond that and actually painted anything. I didn’t have a clue.”
Nevertheless, with nothing to lose, Kidd gave it a go. “ Just putting out a bit of paint, getting a brush, putting the canvas up, and putting that first stroke on the canvas were huge steps .. and once I got an idea in my head, I was off and running. It saved me – because what it did was it blocked out everything else, because I was so focused. It really was therapy.”
Relocating to Majorca in 2007 – “it gave me the tranquility I need” – Kidd continued and developed her painting. She works with oils, and paints mostly from memory or from her imagination – everything from horses to trees to portraits.
Almost two years ago, the singer was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a lumpectomy and a course of radiotherapy. The subsequent hormone replacement medication she was put on produced awful side effects in her – and she just recently took the decision to stop it. “I have had a year and a half of hell, truly hell. I’ve had no energy, and just wanted to crawl under the sheets and sleep. I’ve never experienced anything like it. And the depression. I just wanted to throw myself under the first bus that came along. These were side effects of this pill. I took myself off them two months ago, and I’m like a new person. I’m about to try another hormone replacement therapy but if it throws me back to the way I was a year ago, then I’ll be coming off that too.”
Thankfully, she had her art to turn to – something she could lose herself in, as and when she had the energy. “That’s twice it’s done it for me. This time, it was a case of ‘Right, okay, I can’t do anything else. I can’t go out, and I cannae go and sing. So I’ll carry on with my painting. And then I started doing things that were a wee step above what I’d done before, and having more confidence, and that’s when the gallery became interested. When they saw them, they said: ‘These are good, let’s go for an exhibition.’ And at that point I was still unwell but I kept painting and painting and painting.
“I’ve done all sorts of things. I did this beautiful woman that I met when I was having my treatment, and she was having chemo so she had no hair, but, my god, her face was outstanding. She had the most gorgeous blue eyes. And I had to come home with her picture in my head.”
One face that Kidd painted from memory – even though she could have referred to photos online or in the press – was that of Billy Connolly. That painting has already sold, she says proudly. “It was bought by a friend in Glasgow who saw an early version of it and said: ‘I don’t care what it costs. I want it.’ I said: ‘You mean I’ll need to do it again?! I’ve just scrapped it!’ It took me four months – because I kept changing it, and it got to the stage where I had to scrap it and start again, because he’s got such a complicated face and you’ve got to put an expression in.
“I had to do him. Why? Because of what’s happening with him at the moment, he was in my head so much and I felt for him so, so much. I know Billy and it was horrifying to read all that stuff about him – I couldn’t believe it – and then Robin Williams died, and to imagine how he would feel about that because they were like brothers… I just felt I had to paint him.”
Kidd first met Connolly in the late 1970s, at a party at the home of another much-loved Scottish jazz singer, Fionna Duncan. “I’ll never forget,” she says cackling. “He walked in the door with a great big long fur coat on, and the first thing he did was he took off the fur coat, threw it in the corner, and said: ‘Stay Rover!’ And I thought who is this man? We got on like a house on fire. He was so funny.”
While she’s back in Glasgow, Kidd has three duo concerts with top pianist Brian Kellock, with whom she recorded a live album last summer – but her chat today is all about her love of painting. Does she feel more excited about the art stuff than singing these days?
“No. No, definitely not. I’ll tell you what, I feel very, very lucky that at the age I’m at now I have something to fall back on, if it gets to the stage where I can’t sing any more – you know, if I can’t sing the way that’s good enough for my standards – then I would have to give it up. I couldn’t do a Frank Sinatra thing and just keep going on and on and on. So I feel really lucky that I’ve got this other string to my bow, and it’s something that can go on without the stress of going and doing concerts – although I don’t want to give up singing. I’ll keep going till I know it’s time to stop.”
* Carol Kidd’s paintings will be exhibited at iota, Unlimited Studios, Hyndland Street, Glasgow on October 24th & 25th from 12-6pm; Carol Kidd & Brian Kellock perform at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh on October 30th, at Wild Cabaret, Glasgow on November 2nd and at The Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock on November 9th. Their new CD, Carol Kidd Live With Brian Kellock Present Cole Porter will be released on October 23rd.
First published in Scotland on Sunday, October 19th