By John Stancavage
Six years ago, Lyn Stanley was a retired marketing executive wondering if she could pass muster for her church choir. Today, she’s an internationally known jazz vocalist whose award-winning audiophile recordings feature A-list musicians, producers and engineers.
If you have visited a major stereo show recently, you already may have bumped into Stanley, either performing, autographing records at a retail booth or roaming the halls with a stack of her own vinyl LPs cradled under her arm. In fact, the singer likes nothing more than to pop into demo rooms and pit her unamplified pipes against her recorded voice on $100K-plus systems.
“It’s not that easy,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles, laughing at the mention of her impromptu mini-concerts. “You have to concentrate on the music and stay on pitch. Those systems are really good.”
Learning as you go
Audio show appearances are just a small part of Stanley’s exhaustive, all-encompassing DIY approach to mounting a late-bloomer career in an increasingly difficult business.
Unlike some younger performers, no corporate executive “discovered” Stanley and plotted her career path. Instead, jazz singing was something she came to almost accidently, but decided to pursue with the same determination and competitiveness she used to reach the top of the marketing industry and, later, to become a champion ballroom dancer.
So far on her three albums, Stanley has applied her expressive phrasing and extraordinary vocal and emotional range to selections from the great American songbook and some newer fare, including the occasional Led Zeppelin tune. Musical comparisons to Diana Krall are inevitable, but Stanley is no imitator.
“Lyn is a really good singer,” said Al Schmitt, a recording engineer and producer who’s won 23 Grammy Awards and is one of Stanley’s hand-picked collaborators and mentors.
“I’ve worked with all the best — Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Sam Cooke. She (Stanley) definitely has the talent. Early on, I just tried to instill confidence and give some advice. She’s like a blotter — she just soaks it all up.”
Schmitt spoke to me from his car, on the way to a session by, as synchronicity would have it, Diana Krall. To offer proof of Stanley’s abilities as a quick study, he pointed out that she took over the producer’s chair after making only two records.
That observation illustrates the key thing you need to know about Lyn Stanley: Whether she’s fine-turning an arrangement, designing an album sleeve or planning a vinyl pressing, Stanley always is asking: “Is this the very best it can be?” The singer admits she’s been this way all her life.
Working for a living
Stanley was born in Tacoma, Washington. He father was a traveling salesman who was a self-taught amateur jazz pianist. He occasionally participated in unpaid gigs at jazz clubs and played when he was home, which wasn’t often. Her grandfather was an opera singer. She also had an uncle who was a tenor in community theater productions. Other than that, there were no serious musicians in the family.
Stanley initially pursued advertising, handling accounts for companies including Mattel, Hilton and Midas. After 10 years, she shifted to a series of strategic marketing jobs at some of the profession’s biggest firms, including Ogilvy and Mather. Later, she embraced the digital revolution, devising sophisticated online strategy for WebMD and Macys.com.
Still hungry to do more, she got a master’s degree, began work on a doctorate and started teaching marketing.
While working on her Ph.D. and raising two boys, however, she was diagnosed with pre-uterine cancer. She dropped out of the graduate program in 1995 and began researching her condition with the same laser focus she had applied to her business career.
“I didn’t know how much longer I was going to be on the planet,” she recalled. “I wanted to spend more time with my kids. So, I sought out a top uterine cancer doctor, who was at Emory University in Atlanta. I had the surgery and, thankfully, they got it all.”
After breathing a sigh of relief, Stanley decided it was time to “give herself a break” from her demanding career and take her mind off a recent divorce. She had become interested in ballroom dancing while in the doctoral program, and threw herself into that as therapy.
“It was clean fun,” she explained. “Nobody was drinking, and I enjoyed the competition.”
Stanley, as usual, was a fast learner, excelling in waltz, foxtrot, tango, Viennese waltz and quickstep.
Then life threw her another curve. In 2005, her car slid off an icy road and she sustained serious head and leg injuries. Even through she lost two-thirds of one calf muscle, she battled back, determined to return to the ballroom.
Five years later, she not only was back on the floor, she was dancing better than ever. In 2010, Stanley entered three dancing events and won them all to become a USA National Pro/Am DanceSport Open Gold Champion. A month later, she captured third place in the world in an Open Gold Championship competition.
In 2010, she decided to retire from her career, feeling she had accomplished all she could. It was time for a new challenge. But for a person who always had meticulously planned her next move, the future suddenly was a blank slate.
“I found myself thinking, ‘If I stop the train now, then what?’ ” Stanley said. “There was dancing, but I already had reached the highest level there, too. So, I started looking for something else.”
After attending church one day, Stanley’s mother told her she should join the choir.
“Mom had been listening to me as I sang along during the service,” Stanley said. “She told me I had a nice voice, but I wasn’t sure it was good enough.”
Not long after, Stanley attended a party at a hotel and was going down the elevator when someone mentioned a jazz musician was performing nearby at a fund-raising event.
“I decided to check it out. There was a gentleman at the piano. I sat down on the back row, but as he played, my ears just went nuts. I kept moving up until I was on the front row. I loved it.”
The pianist was Paul Smith, who she later found out had been Ella Fitzgerald’s longtime conductor and arranger, and also had backed such stars as Bing Crosby, Mel Torme, Anita O’Day, Sara Vaughan and Bennie Goodman. Stanley got up the nerve to approach him as the event ended and told him about her modest church ambitions.
It turned out that Smith’s wife, Annette Warren, was a vocal coach. Stanley scheduled a session with her. At the time, Warren was 89 and, just as her husband, had worked with many singers. It was an imposing situation.
“I went to their home and saw these two big grand pianos,” Stanley said. “I was shaking in my boots. I told her, ‘I just want to see if I have the ability to sing in the choir.’ ”
“Annette asked me to start with some scales. I said, ‘What’s are scales? Aren’t those on a fish?’ She had some sheet music, but I didn’t know how to read it. She asked my what key I liked. I had no idea what a key was.”
Warren finally suggested just starting with a familiar song. Stanley, who had always enjoyed listening to jazz artists, began singing George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.”
“After about 16 bars, Warren stopped me. She got off her piano bench, disbelieving, and said, ‘You don’t know you can sing?’ She thought I was joking.”
Warren immediately scheduled intensive lessons with Stanley four days a week. Just a few months later, on Feb. 13, 2011, Smith invited the novice to sit in for seven songs on a gig with his band.
“He didn’t do that with very many people,” Stanley noted. “It was terrifying. I was worried I would forget the lyrics.”
The singer overcame her nerves, though, and the performance got a great response from the crowd. Stanley had the performance taped, and entered it in a worldwide competition. Twenty-seven finalists were selected to train at Yale University, learning how to put on a show from professionals such as Amanda McBroom. Smith backed Stanley at the culmination of the program.
Gaining confidence, the singer began thinking about taking the next step — making a record. And she pursued it in typical Lyn Stanley fashion.
While many aspiring vocalists pull together a few amateur musician friends and often just have a local engineer capture a live performance on the cheap, Stanley had a different and probably unprecedented plan for a beginner in her 50s.
“I looked though all the albums of the singers I really liked and wrote down the names of the players,” Stanley said. “I also looked at where the albums were recorded, and who engineered and produced them.”
Those albums happened to be by people like Barbara Streisand, Michael Buble, Diana Krall, Frank Sinatra, Shirley Horn and Rosemary Clooney. An industry consultant she spoke with mentioned that another name she should know was Al Schmitt, who had recorded many successful LPs by those artists. Told he was still working, the budding singer bravely gave him a call
Soon, Stanley was in the studio recording her debut, “Lost in Romance,” with Schmitt mixing, Tommy Vacari recording, Steve Rawlins producing and session pros like drummer Jeff Hamilton and guitarist Thom Rotella. She picked the song list, too, which was heavy with standards such as “Change Partners,” “That Old Black Magic” and “The Nearness of You.”
Schmitt did his mix at Capital Studios in Hollywood, giving Stanley the same kind of vocal presence, wide soundstage and air between the instruments that he’d provided for Sinatra. And the virtuoso band she hired laid down a tasteful backdrop that conjured what you might hear after midnight in a small club, when players are improvising and simply enjoying making music, rather than trying to achieve a slicker commercial sound.
Smith heard the masters and was very proud of his protege.
“Paul Smith told me, ‘I hope to be around for your tenth album,” Stanley remembers. “He died the next month.”
The singer now faced the task of getting her album out in the market.
It probably needs to be stressed at this point that Stanley plunged into the project without a record deal, a manager or even a benefactor. She was hiring the crème de la crème of the jazz world and pressing thousands of records — all on her own dime.
“I was draining my 401(k), basically, to get it made,” she said.
The master of mastering
Schmitt and Vacari told Stanley she should get a good mastering engineer. The singer wasn’t sure what mastering was, but she asked who was the best. She got two names. Bernie Grundman was one of them.
Stanley didn’t know it then, but the man she was contacting was world-renowned not only for mastering jazz albums, but also for putting his sonic imprint on some of the best-selling — and best-sounding — pop and rock records of the past four decades. The neophyte vocalist’s chutzpah in hiring him not only allowed her to create a stunning first album, it also helped steer her toward what has become her core audience.
“Bernie talked a lot about sound quality. He was really into high-resolution recordings,” she said. “And, when we were mastering the record, he told I should think about putting it out on vinyl. I said, ‘They still do that?’ ”
Grundman said he was impressed with the quality of Stanley’s debut album.
“I told her, ‘I really like what you’re doing here musically. I like your voice. You have the best players in town and a mix by Al Schmitt, who’s known for capturing a very natural sound. This could appeal to the audiophile market.’ ”
High-end audio was another unfamiliar area for Stanley, but she always had enjoyed listening to her father’s stereo. She took Grundman’s suggestion and began to learn all she could about modern high-fidelity reproduction.
“I told Bernie I wanted to do the vinyl, too, and he said I should go 180-gram, 45-rpm,” the singer remembered. “I just said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’ll find the money somewhere.’ ”
Grundman also recommended she pack up some copies of “Lost in Romance” and take them to a high-end audio show. So, Stanley showed up in Denver for the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Ever the one-woman marketing whirlwind, she took her LPs room to room and asked exhibitors to play them. Their reactions were encouraging.
Stanley began selling her albums through her own website, CDBaby.com, Acoustic Sounds, The Elusive Disc, Amazon.com, BestBuy.com, Target.com and other retailers.
Stoked by the enthusiastic response to her debut — particularly in the audiophile segment — she made even bigger plans for her second LP. This time, Stanley recruited names like percussionist Luis Conte, pianist Bill Cunliffe and drummer Joe LaBarbera. She chose standards made popular by some of the best-known jazz singers to create a Sinatra-style concept album, “Potions: From the ‘50s,” which was released in 2014.
Schmitt and Grundman were back on board, with Kenny Werner producing. This time the LP was both recorded and mixed at Capitol Studios. Stanley used 2-inch tape and 24 tracks to recreate the studio environment as it was in the 1950s.
“I was able to sing with Frank Sinatra’s microphone, too,” she said. “They keep it locked up, but Al was able to get it for me. It’s a Neumann U47. Of course, the tubes had been replaced, but Capitol had found the exact types as the originals.”
“Potions” expanded Stanley’s visibility, especially among stereo enthusiasts, as the record became a familiar demo tool in show rooms — even those the singer hadn’t personally visited.
Making album No. 3
Stanley also added some more well-regarded players to her roster, including pianist Mike Garson, known for his work with David Bowie, as well as recording several audiophile jazz albums; and guitarist John Chiodini, who supported Peggy Lee for many years.
“Interludes” shows just how much Stanley has learned in a short time. While her first album was impressive, especially for a newcomer, and her second improved on that, the latest record displays a polish and sophistication other artists take decades to achieve — if ever.
Stanley also brings a deft touch as a producer, resisting the urge to clutter the sound or overreach in arrangements. Her song choices also are inspired, ranging from standards such as “More Than You Know” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” to more adventurous, but still jazzy, takes on newer compositions like pop hit “Black Velvet” and “Whole Lotta Love” (yes, the Led Zeppelin song, which she turns into a sexy, swinging romp).
Garson said Stanley impressed him during the sessions with her talent, drive and musical instincts.
“Lyn is a hard worker,” he said via email during a break from his international David Bowie tribute tour. “She has a vibe, and a way of conveying these standards with a certain conviction.”
Stanley knows what she wants, whether she’s behind the microphone or the mixing board, he said.
“She has a clear vision and a lot of integrity,” he said. “She’s a good producer.”
SACD, tape and vinyl
While Stanley now is comfortable with the recording process, she also has become well-versed in the audiophile market. She issued “Interludes” as a limited-edition hybrid SACD and, even more surprisingly, offered that album and “Potions” on quarter-inch tape.
“As I attended the shows, I could see reel-to-reel was coming back,” Stanley said.
Grundman pointed out that the vocalist paid to get one-to-one dubs of her record for the tape release, rather than making multiple copies in a single run.
“It’s expensive to do it this way, because that’s a lot of studio time. But it gives you the best fidelity,” the mastering engineer said.
Stanley cut her first album digitally. Since then, though, she has insisted — except for a few experiments — on analog recording.
“I don’t believe in going digital and then using that to make a reel-to-reel tape. I won’t do it. It should be analog all the way through,” she said.
Stanley also takes special care with her vinyl pressings.
“I pay extra to have the stamper replaced every 300 copies, instead of every 500. And it also costs me more to have the copies numbered exactly in the order they are produced. A lot of times, the copy labeled No. 1 wasn’t really the first one stamped.”
“I’m going to combine jazz standards with classical music,” she explained. “For instance, we’re going to do (Antonio Carlos) Jobim’s “How Insensitive” merged with Chopin’s “Prelude in E Minor.”
It may be hard to wrap your head around that concept, but a demo I heard from rehearsals sounded sublime. Garson and Chiodini will co-produce with Stanley.
The singer hopes to release the first volume in the series, tentatively titled “Moonlight Serenade,” at High End Munich in May. A very limited run of vinyl will be cut using the one-step process (see sidebar).
Stanley already is gearing up for maximum market impact. The singer market-tested cover art on her Facebook page, and she’s been doing focus groups with audiophiles to see what formats they are interested in.
“Limited-edition versions, numbered records, vinyl, tape, SACDs,” she said, listing some of the responses. “And I’m probably going to be doing high-resolution downloads on a site I’m developing.”
The working title for a second volume is “Moonlight and Love Songs.” It should follow later this year.
The singer also has created The Lyn Stanley Society, which rewards members with exclusive updates and offers on new projects, as well as other perks.
As if all that weren’t enough, Stanley is working on a book on her life, and has a busy schedule of appearances and audio shows on her 2017 calendar. In fact, Stanley recently announced she will be giving a talk on making great-sounding records during AXPONA, April 21-23 in Chicago.
Making a name
The singer also is hoping to expand her brand awareness among both high-end audio fans and non-audiophiles. She’s aware that, although she certainly presents an alluring image and has the pipes to match, there is rampant ageism in the entertainment industry. Stanley, now in her 60s (although you wouldn’t guess that), has no expectations of getting invited on mainstream TV programs such as “The Tonight Show,” which favor the latest auto-tuned millennial faves.
“The audiophile market is great, but it’s so small for the music industry,” she said. “And jazz itself only made up 1 percent of all domestic record sales last year.”
There’s a pause in our conversation. Even over the phone, I can hear the gears whirring in Stanley’s head. Can she apply her famous iron will and marketing savvy to what may be her biggest challenge? I wouldn’t bet against her.
“It’s been an uphill battle, and I’ve made a few mistakes along the way,” she said. “You have to be willing to put your head on the table and get it cut off. But I’ve enjoyed working with some great people and I’ve made a lot of headway. So far, I’ve sold 31,000 albums, and I still don’t have a manager. I’m doing it all myself.”
Finding a booking agent would help in reaching her next goal, which is to tour more extensively after the initial “Moonlight Sessions” LP is released.
“I’ve got more visibility now that I’ve recorded a few albums,” she said. “I want to put a trio together and hit the road.”
An, finally, she wants to get a serious high-end stereo of her own.
“I’ve played my music on so much great equipment. I’ve really become an audio geek and dream of someday having the perfect system at home.”
Looking for more on Lyn? Check her out at http://lynstanley.com/.