Pam Crain: Another star in heaven

Pam Crain
Pam Crain
Sometimes people ask me who my role models and inspirations were musically. Of course, as a singer of jazz standards, the obvious Ella and Sarah and Anita… even Helen come to mind.
Although today I spend more time on my own material, I didn’t move up the scale, so to speak, before I’d cut my teeth, deconstructing and coaxing the beauty out of melodies that defy reason like Lush Life and Midnight Sun.
But there’s another singer, a little closer to home, who made a profound impression on me and I hadn’t really exactly realized how much until I heard of her passing this morning from Lorraine Banks, wife of the piano player Louiz Banks.
Her name was Pam. Pam Crain.
And she was India’s Ella, Sarah, Anita and Helen all rolled into one. And I write this filled with an inexplicable sorrow although she wasn’t someone I actually knew personally.
I first heard her sing even before I knew I wanted to be a singer, as a little girl when my parents lived in Calcutta. At Trincas and Blue Fox where Pam glittered.
And by the time I began my own career, I was in total awe.
She was lush, lovely, long limbed, blonde, beautiful and had a voice like an angel. She knew her standards, she knew her blues and she could scat endlessly and effortlessly, chorus after chorus, without repeating her ideas. I think that’s when it crystallized in my mind. The fact that I needed to sing.
Like Pam.
At least like Pam.
As someone who had studied Indian classical music (I had no choice in the matter, it was the done thing in my household where Suprabhatam trounced Stella By Starlight on a daily basis) but whose heart lay somewhere between rock and roll and jazz, Pam’s mastery over turnarounds and chromatics had me spellbound. It was as if she’d found a way to unravel life’s deepest mysteries and I knew I had to either find a way to do it like she did, or find something else that would allow me to make my own mark.
When you study Indian classical music, and then try to make the transition to jazz, the problem is that you are rooted in the tonic. It’s hard to wrap your head around the changes and the shifting tonic that jazz mandates.
It’s rocket science. Really it is. Especially if you can’t read music.
Pam Crain wasn’t weighed down by any such millstone, possibly because she was Anglo Indian and the music playing in her house as she grew up was what got inside her head and stayed there through our her long career.
Recently, Susheel Kurien made a movie called ‘Finding Carlton’ which traced the history of Indian jazz, especially in Calcutta, where Pam spent most of her years singing. Sadly, there were way too few clips of Pam, but when he managed to catch her in action (old footage) it was electric. At least to me.
I don’t know if Pam made a lot of money singing jazz in India. It’s most unlikely, judging by Susheel’s movie which traces the tragic path of Carlton Kitto – a jazz guitar player who performed with Pam. In the movie, you learn that Louiz Banks left the jazz scene in Calcutta and moved to Bombay to keep body and soul together because jazz was being slowly but surely pushed out of the clubs and bars before the bars and clubs themselves got shut down. Bollywood took over.
People these days can do very well without jazz, especially in India, and I consider myself very fortunate when someone actually asks me to perform. It’s rare and it’s precious.
I am not sure when Pam stopped singing publicly, but in the past several years, there’s been no mention of her performing. Everyone gives it a rest after a while, I guess.
A couple of years ago, she ‘befriended’ me on Facebook.
I was amazed.  I had no idea she even knew who I was. It totally and completely validated me as a singer and I consider it the equivalent of a ‘Star’ on Hollywood Boulevard.
RIP Pam Crain. You were fabulous, one of a kind.
And I’ll sing a song for you when I go on stage next.

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  1. Radha, thanks for this. I spent lots of time with Pam and even sang with her in good old Calcutta. She was simply superb and as good as any of the international big stars. Ken

  2. Radha, those are beautiful thoughts, and yes, for me , hearing her when I was 18 or 19 in Blue Fox was a memory that I will treasure ..I regret I could not get more of Pam in the film.. I just wrote something about her ..see

    Pass on the tradition, inspire and mentor a young person !

    1. Susheel, your film has to be seen by everyone who loves jazz… not just if they’re Indian. it was one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen. So give it up on Pirate Bay already 🙂

  3. Very touching piece…and I agree she was all those greats you mentioned rolled into one ..She was a true Diva and India’s finest jazz singers…growing up in Calcutta she was a sensation and instrumental along with Louis Banks, Carlton Kitto and Arthur Gracias in getting myself many others to appreciate live jazz ..I had the honour of having her perform in my poetry to jazz show called Rhyme & Rhythm in Mumbai in 1999 backed by Louis Banks and had Naseeruddin Shah read along with Ayesha Dharker and others…RIP

  4. I first saw and heard Pam as a gauche 15 year old in the winter of 1968 at the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi. She spoke with me briefly… I fell in love with her then and never fell out… Over the later years – the ’70s and early ’80s – I saw and heard her in Calcutta… at Trinca’s and at The Blue Fox. I never spoke with her again, just adored her and her music. It was a one-sided relationship I’ve never regretted. Always wondered what happened to her and wished that her last days were as joyous and those moments of listening to her and watching her perform were to me.

    RIP Pam… they broke the mould when they made you.

  5. it was nearly 25 years ago that i had the privilege of watching Pam Crain perform on stage at the Mood Indigo festival in IIT Bombay with a lineup of musicians that must have been among the best jazz/fusion musicians in Inda – Ranjit Barot on drums, Karl Peters on bass, Roy Venkatraman on guitar, and Louis Banks on the keyboards. On a cold wintry night, the warmth and beauty of Pam Crain singing jazz and blues formed a cloak around us. I had not heard of her then, and I only got to see her perform just that time but I will always cherish the memories of that concert.
    Rest in Peace, Pam. You may be gone but our memory
    shall always live on

  6. Coming from a rigid Iyengar home, going to Trincas or listening to Pam Crain was a sin. All I remember was her mesmeric voice if we ever happened to pass by the restaurant and the door opened at that time with the coolth of the a/c wafting by and the warmth of Pam Crain’s voice drifting on to Park Street!

  7. IMHO – all of us who loved Pam Crain, on this day of 15 august will doubtless have in our minds the flag flying at half-mast today to honour her memory

  8. Pam was special. Diva divine. Thanks Radha. We were doing a New Years gig on TV and of course nothing was there as planned. She taught me how the professional never complains but keeps the show going. Pam, Braz, Louis, Carlton were my fix of youth, till the winds scattered them. But when Pam began the song time came to a stop. RIP angel.

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