Carmen McRae

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Carmen McRae
Carmen McRae.jpg
Portrait by Zita Cypress, circa 1949
Background information
Birth nameCarmen Mercedes McRae
Also known as"The Singer's Singer"
Born(1920-04-08)April 8, 1920
OriginHarlem,
New York City, New York,
United States
DiedNovember 10, 1994(1994-11-10) (aged 74)
Beverly Hills, California, United States
GenresVocal jazz, bebop, traditional pop
OccupationsSinger, pianist
InstrumentsVocals, piano
Years active1939–1991
LabelsDecca, Kapp, Columbia, Mainstream, Atlantic, Blue Note, Concord, Novus
Associated actsJack Pleis, Sammy Davis, Jr.
Billie Holiday
Norman Simmons
Cal Tjader
George Shearing
Dave Brubeck
 
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Carmen McRae
Carmen McRae.jpg
Portrait by Zita Cypress, circa 1949
Background information
Birth nameCarmen Mercedes McRae
Also known as"The Singer's Singer"
Born(1920-04-08)April 8, 1920
OriginHarlem,
New York City, New York,
United States
DiedNovember 10, 1994(1994-11-10) (aged 74)
Beverly Hills, California, United States
GenresVocal jazz, bebop, traditional pop
OccupationsSinger, pianist
InstrumentsVocals, piano
Years active1939–1991
LabelsDecca, Kapp, Columbia, Mainstream, Atlantic, Blue Note, Concord, Novus
Associated actsJack Pleis, Sammy Davis, Jr.
Billie Holiday
Norman Simmons
Cal Tjader
George Shearing
Dave Brubeck

Carmen Mercedes McRae (April 8, 1920 – November 10, 1994) was an American jazz singer, composer, pianist, and actress. Considered one of the most influential jazz vocalists of the 20th century, it was her behind-the-beat phrasing and her ironic interpretations of song lyrics that made her memorable.[1] McRae drew inspiration from Billie Holiday, but established her own distinctive voice. She went on to record more than 60 albums, enjoying a rich musical career, performing and recording in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

Biography[edit]

McRae was born in Harlem. Her father, Osmond, was originally from Costa Rica, and her mother, Evadne McRae, an immigrant from Jamaica. She began studying piano when she was eight, and the music of jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington filled her home. She met singer Billie Holiday when she was just 17 years old. As a teenager McRae came to the attention of Teddy Wilson and his wife, the composer Irene Kitchings Wilson. One of McRae's early songs, "Dream of Life", was, through their influence, recorded in 1939 by Wilson’s long-time collaborator Billie Holiday.[2] McRae considered Holiday to be her primary influence.

In her late teens and early twenties, McRae played piano at a New York club called Minton's Playhouse, Harlem's most famous jazz club, sang as a chorus girl, and worked as a secretary. It was at Minton's where she met trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Kenny Clarke, had her first important job as a pianist with the Benny Carter's big band (1944), worked with Count Basie (1944) and made her first recording as pianist with the Mercer Ellington Band (1946–1947). But it was while working in Brooklyn that she came to the attention of Decca’s Milt Gabler. Her five-year association with Decca yielded 12 LPs.

In 1948 she moved to Chicago with comedian George Kirby. She played piano steadily for almost four years before returning to New York. Those years in Chicago, McRae told Jazz Forum, "gave me whatever it is that I have now. That's the most prominent schooling I ever had."[3] Back in New York in the early 1950s, McRae got the record contract that launched her career. She was voted best new female vocalist of 1954 by Down Beat magazine. MacRae married twice: to drummer Kenny Clarke in 1946, and to bassist Ike Isaacs in the late 1950s; both marriages ended in divorce.[4]

Among her most interesting recording projects were Mad About The Man (1957) with composer Noël Coward, Boy Meets Girl (1957) with Sammy Davis, Jr., participating in Dave Brubeck's The Real Ambassadors (1961) with Louis Armstrong, a tribute album You're Lookin' at Me (A Collection of Nat King Cole Songs) (1983), cutting an album of live duets with Betty Carter, The Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Duets (1987), being accompanied by Dave Brubeck and George Shearing, and closing her career with brilliant tributes to Thelonious Monk, Carmen Sings Monk (1990), and Sarah Vaughan, Sarah: Dedicated to You (1991).

As a result of her early friendship with Billie Holiday, she never performed without singing at least one song associated with "Lady Day", and she recorded an album in 1983 in her honor entitled For Lady Day, which was released in 1995, with songs including "Good Morning Heartache", "Them There Eyes", "Lover Man", "God Bless the Child" and "Don't Explain". McRae also recorded with some of the world's best jazz musicians in albums such as Take Five Live (1961) with Dave Brubeck, Two for the Road (1980) with George Shearing, and Heat Wave (1982) with Cal Tjader. The latter two albums were part of a notable eight-year relationship with Concord Jazz.[5]

McRae sang in jazz clubs throughout the United States — and across the world — for more than fifty years. She was a popular performer at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival (1961–1963, 1966, 1971, 1973, 1982), performing with Duke Ellington's orchestra at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1980, singing "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1989.[6] She left New York for Southern California in the late 1960s, but appeared in New York regularly, usually at the Blue Note, where she performed two engagements a year through most of the 1980s.[4] She withdrew from public performance in May 1991 after an episode of respiratory failure only hours after she completed an engagement at the Blue Note jazz club in New York.

On November 10, 1994, McRae died at her home in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 74. She had fallen into a semi-coma four days earlier, a month after being hospitalized for a stroke.

Awards[edit]

Carmen McRae Grammy Award Recognitions[7]
YearCategoryTitleLabelResult
1971Best Jazz Performance - SoloistCarmen McRaeAtlanticNominee
1977Best Jazz Vocal PerformanceCarmen McRae at the Great American Music HallBlue NoteNominee
1984Best Jazz Vocal PerformanceYou're Lookin' at Me (A Collection of Nat King Cole Songs)Concord JazzNominee
1987Best Jazz Vocal Performance - FemaleAny Old TimeDenonNominee
1988Best Jazz Vocal Performance - Duo or GroupThe Carmen McRae-Betty Carter DuetsGreat American Music HallNominee
1988Best Jazz Vocal Performance - FemaleFine and MellowConcord JazzNominee
1990Best Jazz Vocal Performance - FemaleCarmen Sings MonkNovusNominee
Carmen McRae Awards
YearOrganizationCategoryResult
1993NAACPNAACP Image AwardsWinner
1994National Endowment for the ArtsNEA Jazz MastersWinner

Partial discography[edit]

YearTitleLabel
1954Carmen McRaeBethlehem
1954Easy to LoveBethlehem
1955Torchy!Decca
1956Blue MoonDecca
1957After GlowDecca
1958Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday at Newport (Released 2001)Verve
1958Boy Meets Girl (with Sammy Davis, Jr.)Decca
1959Porgy and Bess (with Sammy Davis, Jr.)Decca, Brunswick
1960Book of BalladsKapp
1961Take Five LiveColumbia
1961Carmen McRae Sings Lover Man and other Billie Holiday ClassicsColumbia
1962The Real AmbassadorsColumbia
1962Something WonderfulColumbia
1965Alive!Columbia
1967For Once in My LifeAtlantic
1967Sounds of SilenceAtlantic
1967Portrait of CarmenAtlantic
1970Just a Little Lovin'Atlantic
1972The Great American SongbookAtlantic
1975Live at Century PlazaAtlantic
1975I Am MusicBlue Note
1977At the Great American Music HallBlue Note
1980Two for the Road (with George Shearing)Concord Jazz
1982Heat Wave (with Cal Tjader)Concord Jazz
1983You're Lookin' at Me (A Collection of Nat King Cole Songs)Concord Jazz
1987What Do the Words Say (with Ray Brown)Blue Music Group
1987The Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Duets (Live, with Betty Carter)Great American Music Hall
1988Fine and Mellow: Live at Birdland West (Live)Concord
1988Carmen Sings MonkNovus
1990Sarah: Dedicated to YouNovus

Filmography[edit]

Movies[edit]

Television[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]