In the end, family comes first
When she agreed to meet with me, Ila Vann insisted that I come in the afternoon because she slept to noon. The elegant songstress, who had just celebrated her 80th birthday, greeted me with a smile as beautiful as her singing voice, and looked far younger than her age. The first question I asked her was, “Why do you have the sleeping habits of a teenager?” I wanted to hear her laugh and succeeded.
Then, with a pacific voice that seemed to rise straight up from her heart, she answered, “Because of the business. My mother played piano by ear and taught all my sisters and myself to sing gospel. My brother Hampton played piano and he was really good. He played for 34 years with the Mighty Clouds of Joy, a quartet who won many Grammy awards. Music,” she paused, taking an emotional breath. “There is nothing like music. Ever since I was a little girl, I could really sing, and I knew I loved it. Music fills my heart with joy. I always have a song in my heart, and it never goes away.”
Ila Harriet Fields (stage name Ila Vann) was born into an impoverished family in the small town of Long Branch, New Jersey. When she was four years old, they moved to Durham North Carolina, a town that was brutally segregated.
“My mother always said to us, you can’t say you’re poor. Look at the talent God gave you. I had to stop saying I was poor, but we were. At five, I started singing gospel in our church. After that, I sang in every church in the Carolinas and Maryland. My mother booked us all over. We even had our own radio show. I had to stand on a milk crate to reach the microphone,” she laughed. “When I was eight, Mahalia Jackson heard me sing in Raleigh and asked my mother if I could open for her. I went on the road professionally with Mahalia for the next four years. In Durham, I opened for big names like Sam Cooke, the Coasters, Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Staple Singers.”
“At 12 years old?” I asked with a stunned look on my face.
She laughed, “Younger than 12. When I turned 13, I told my parents that after I graduated from high school I wanted to move to New York City and sing rhythm and blues. My mother was not happy, but she said if I went I was going to make it.”
At 20, Ila left with her sister and shared an apartment just down the street from the Apollo Theatre.
“I was so fortunate. I didn’t even have to go to the Apollo. I was working as a waitress on 48th and Broadway, and Sam Cooke came in. He recognized me after I explained to him who I was (eight years older.) I told him I was really interested in recording rhythm and blues, and he said he would be back in a week. He came back with a producer who was very interested recording a young black artist, so we talked. A week later, I was in the studio. A week later I recorded What’s the Matter Baby. It went to number one in England. I enjoyed recording at Liberty because all the writers allowed me to sing the songs as I wanted to.”
“I never copied,” said Ila. “I had my own voice.” Helen Miller fell in love with Ila’s voice and got her into countless recording sessions with big names such as Frank Sinatra, Kenny Rogers, Ray Charles, and Louis Armstrong.
“She took me under her wing and looked after me. We became close. I considered her my sister. I was so young and meeting all these stars. I was in the studio four times a week. I even turned down work with James Brown and Phil Spector. (They were considered difficult to work with.) I was just 23 when I recorded with Louis Armstrong. He was such a nice man and so wise. He told me, ‘You will never make a million in the business because you are so focused on your family, but you will be popular.’ He was right. I turned down a lot of tours because of my children. I would never leave my family for long. I couldn’t do it. I loved my children too much. I am so thankful I had the sense because my children now tell me how grateful they are I didn’t leave them with a sitter for long periods.”
Ila last recorded in New York City in her late 20s with Roulette Records. “Bad news, they paid nobody. I recorded a lot of 45s there.” She asked and was released from her contract.
Throughout her 30s, she turned exclusively to live performances close to home, all over New York City where she met her first husband. After 14 years of a loving marriage with four kids, she was suddenly widowed when he was murdered.
“After he died, I thought, what am I going to do now? You know, I realized I was talented. A producer in New York gave me the phone number of a booking agent in Jonquiere, Quebec. From there, I toured the province for three years, before meeting my second husband, Gaetan Levesque. I was performing near Bagotville where he was stationed at the military base. He came to hear me sing and told his brother he had to meet me. His brother said, ‘she’s not going to talk to you.’ He came over and he didn’t speak English very well. I could hardly understand a word he was saying. He told me he wanted to take me out. The next day, he took me and my daughters for lunch.”
Three days later, Gaetan was back, with an invitation for Ila. “I have been telling my parents about you and my mother wants to invite you and your daughters (who were travelling with her) to her house for supper,” she recalled Gaetan saying. “I loved it and said okay. He picked us up two days later and took us to the house. His mother was a great cook, but they didn’t speak English at all. Still, I managed to get along with them, and started seeing Gaetan forever.”
There were always flowers from him waiting for her at the hotel rooms she stayed in while touring the province.
Long distance was tough on the two love birds. He visited her often in New York. Finally, she moved to Quebec three years from their first meeting and got married two years later when she acquired permanent resident status.
“I made friends with the base’s padre and his wife Vicky while talking her aerobics classes. The first record she put on was my song. I thought I was going to faint. I asked where she found my record and she said, ‘Oh my God, that’s you?’” laughed Ila.
The couple came to Trenton in 1987 when Gaetan was posted here. He died in 2002. “I miss him. We loved each other so much, and again I had to ask myself, ‘What am I going to do now?’ My children were all grown up, and my son suffered from multiple sclerosis, which was another reason I wouldn’t take off for a long time. He died in 2010 at 50,” Ila sighed in remembrance.
Ila continued to perform weekly for the next four years with the R and B Boys out of Belleville. Then, for the next three, she settled into a regular spot at Brandees in Kingston where the owner hired a tight band to back her. There, she met Ian Kojima, the sax player from the Fade Kings, and consequently she did many shows with them before retiring last year.
Drummer Dave Impey said, “It was a privilege and an honour to have had the opportunity to perform with Ila over the last few years. Speaking on behalf of the Fade Kings, we all recognized that even after all those years performing she still worked very hard on stage; simply quite inspiring. Ila is the real deal, a true professional with a wonderful rapport with the audience – not afraid of showing her warm personality and great sense of humour. People loved her, and Ila loved them right back.”
“Canadian people are the best in the world for me,” Ila continued. “I fell in love with them in Bagotville. When I came to Trenton I fell in love with them here. They loved me and let me know it. I have been so happy living in Canada and it’s not because of your weather. The people here are so kind.”
Speaking with the clarity of a master vocalist and the warmth of a sincere heart, she added,
“I have had a long career and I am so grateful I am 80. I am happy with the decisions I made. I loved my first husband and my second husband. I loved my family more than I did my career. They were always more important than me going on tour with any big star, but if I didn’t have music, I would be dead today from thoughts I had when my first husband was murdered and thoughts when my son Emory died so young.”
Pausing in solemn appreciation of the riches in her life, she offered advice. “Be kind to people and know how to forgive. Without kindness, joy and forgiveness…you gonna’ walk around unhappy all your life.”
Ila has finalized plans to move to Richmond, Virginia to live with one of her daughters.
“I don’t want to live alone anymore. I am going to find a church to go to and sing. I am going to do some background recording again. Two studio engineers have already approached me. I am going to sing until I die. Music is a part of me forever.”
She saved her last interview words for a very special message. “I want to say that I can’t express enough how I love Canadians. I am really going to miss it here.”
Photography by Daniel Vaughan