How Vikki Carr's life changed after her husband's dementia diagnosis
Vikki Carr has won three Grammys and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Latin Grammys in 2008. But she made a conscious decision to severely cut back on performing about six years ago.
She’s frank about the reason.
“My husband was diagnosed with dementia in 2012,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I opted to put my husband first and the career second.”
Now, however, she has begun to inch back into the public eye. She has been traveling around the country offering a workshop called “Hay Más Adelante,” or “There is More Ahead.” Presented by United Healthcare, she talks about subjects facing older adults such as caregiving, staying active and how life has changed since her husband’s diagnosis.
It's not the kind of performance people are used to seeing from the singer, known for her torchy, searing vocals.
"You must keep busy," she says on the phone from her home in San Antonio. "I’m alive and I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now, which is sharing my story and talking to people."
And, of course, she will offer a song or two. After all, she knows her audience.
“Hey, it’s part of the draw,” she says with a conspiratorial giggle.
Vikki Carr's love story
Carr and Pedro De Leon wed in 1993. He was a widower; she was twice divorced. She moved from Beverly Hills to San Antonio, where he lived and worked as a prominent physician.
"I remember when I married him it was kind of refreshing," she says. "I wasn't here as Vikki Carr, the singer. I was Dr. De Leon's wife."
On social media, she will post pictures of her and her husband. "I'm 79. He is 89 and still looks incredible!" she happily gushes.
“One of my best business partners is my ex-husband, Michael,” she says. “I’m on good terms with both of my ex-husbands. I didn’t take anything from them, because I was always independent.”
That’s one of the qualities the doctor loved about her, she says. He used tell her: “You work. If anything ever happens to me, I know you’ll be able to take care of yourself.”
But she recalls one occasion after he first became ill. She decorated his hospital room with cozy rugs to make it feel like home. "I was supposed to take care of you," he sadly said.
"For better or for worse, in sickness and in health," she reminded him.
Living a new normal
She employs two caregivers, which has given her the ability to accept speaking gigs and perform occasional concerts. In August, she headlined a benefit in El Paso for the Walmart shooting victims.
She has created a routine that works for the couple.
Her husband walks every day around the couple's property with the caregivers. They'll accompany him to museums and soccer games, anything to keep his mind active. He'll also go on visits to the mall.
"He took care of four generations of people, so you can imagine when people recognize him," she says. "It's 'Dr. De Leon! How are you? You delivered me!'"
On a typical day, she says, the two have dinner at 6:30, then she'll stay up and take care of work matters. Finally, she'll retire to the bedroom.
"I still sleep with him," she says. "Sometimes he'll recognize me, sometimes he doesn't."
"I love this man. I still love him even more now seeing what he goes through."
An international diva
It's a far cry from how life used to be. At the height of her U.S. fame, she was a household name, with hit records like "With Pen in Hand" and "It Must Be Him." There were frequent television appearances. A favorite of Johnny Carson's, she appeared more than 30 times on "The Tonight Show," even hosting on occasion.
Born Florencia Cardona in El Paso, she always included a few Spanish songs in her concerts. But starting in 1980, she began focusing on the Spanish-language market, which embraced her gutsy, emotional style. Her fame grew to immense proportions throughout Latin America. Songs like “Cosas del Amor,” "Esos Hombres," “Total” and “Ni Princesa, Ni Esclava” have emerged as contemporary standards at Latin radio.
During the heady days of the '80s and '90s, it wasn't uncommon for her to perform in four countries in four weeks. Her audiences have included five presidents and the queen of England. The bicultural nature of her fame has meant that she has recorded with Vicente Fernandez and Pepe Aguilar while the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were friends.
Does she ever miss the whirlwind of it all?
“It was 60 years of doing that,” she says. “Do I miss it? Not really. I don’t need all the hassles and headaches that go along with it. But I will say, my happiest times are being on stage. Not the trips getting there, but being on stage and working with the musicians and performing for people. That, I love.”
The death of Nancy Wilson last year served as a reminder how great pop singers from a certain era are slowly disappearing, vocalists who don't just merely sing but serve as all-around entertainers and offer a classic brand of showmanship. In addition to Carr, Barbra Streisand is still around, of course, and people like Johnny Mathis, Jack Jones, Marilyn Maye and Tony Bennett.
"A musician friend told me I was one of the last of the dinosaurs," Carr says, laughing.
She hopes to be in front of audiences more in the coming days. A musician has contacted her about working on a musical autobiography, with hopes of getting it to Broadway. There is talk of a documentary about her life. And she hopes to return to the recording studio, but the lyrical content will be far different than her famous recordings.
Finding a new voice in church
Carr says she's always been a spiritual person, but in San Antonio, she began singing in the choir during Mass.
She recently worked with a musician on a rubato arrangement of "Amazing Grace."
"I want to do a gospel recording, but I want to do it 'a La Vikki.' I want people to listen to the words and know what it means," she says. "The passion for music — it's still there."
"God moves in mysterious ways and gets you going in different directions, doing things I never thought of before," she says. "I was in church crying, and I asked Jesus, 'What do you want me to do?' And the answer I got is that he wanted me to go on singing in the world."
Learning to grieve
In addition to working on music, she is continually working on herself. She fights guilt about leaving her husband to go work. She says there are periods of immense loneliness. The eldest of seven children, she misses the company of her siblings, who don't live in San Antonio.
"I was with my doctor, who is like a psychiatrist, and I was crying. I asked him what was the matter with me, because I was always crying so much," she says. "He said I was grieving for the loss of what I had, and that it was the best thing I could do. He said 'You've internalized everything, and you have to try release it.'"
She talks about how a landscaper who works on her home recently asked her out to a friendly dinner with his wife.
"It was so wonderful to just get out of the house and just talk, just share part of my life with people," she says. "It's a journey. We all have crosses to bear, and I think it's how we cope with it. Maybe these are things I was supposed to learn, like humility, unconditional love and more kindness. It's like, all of a sudden, you just take a different look at things."
Vikki Carr: Hay Más Adelante
What: The Grammy-winning singer will offer a presentation in English about caregiving, health and staying active, as well as sing a few songs. Material and information on Medicare options, nutrition and aging will be available in English and Spanish.
When: 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19.
Where: Arizona Broadway Theatre. 7701 W. Paradise Lane, Peoria.
Admission: Free, but RSVP recommended.
Details: 480-398-0255, 800-983-6998, haymasadelante.com.