Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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McRae, Carmen (Mercedes)

Carmen McRae's subtle musical sense and often ironic take on lyrics earned her the title of "the singer's singer." But McRae was also a fine pianist and composer, who played with Mercer Ellington and Count Basie, and wrote songs for Billie Holiday.

Carmen Mercedes McRae was born in Harlem in 1920 to prosperous parents from Jamaica, Osmond and Evadne McRae, who filled their house with the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. She studied piano as a child, and by her late teens was the intermission pianist and singer at Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse. There she met bebop pioneers, including Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke, whom she later married, and songwriter Irene Wilson and her husband Teddy, who played piano with Billie Holiday on many of her early sessions. The Wilsons encouraged McRae in her own writing and introduced her to Holliday. Holliday subsequently recorded one of McRae’s early songs, “Dream of Life,” in 1939, and the two singers became friends.

In 1944, McRae got her first major gig singing with Benny Carter's big band. McRae achieved some musical successes in the forties, working with Earl Hines and Count Basie, and recording with Mercer Ellington, but continued to rely a variety of day jobs, including some in Washington for the war effort.

A relationship with comedian George Kirby led her to Chicago in the early fifties. Later McRae referred to the Chicago period as her “apprenticeship.” She made a name for herself as a singer in the local clubs, increased her repertoire, and began to develop her distinctive sound, with its no-nonsense, trumpet-like clarity and incisive diction. In 1952 she returned to New York, ready for a new start.

When Milt Gabler, an executive at Decca Records, heard McRae perform in Brooklyn, he was so impressed he immediately signed her to the label, for whom she recorded a remarkable string of 12 albums over 5 years. The first of these, Carmen McRae was released by Decca in 1954, and earned her Down Beat magazine's award for “best new female vocalist” that year. At age 34, her career was finally off and running.

McRae's standout recordings from the Decca years include her 1955 cover of the Gershwin tune "Our Love is Here To Stay," as well as Charlie Barnet’s swing tune, “Skyliner,” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For,” with Strayhorn himself on keyboard. With the commitment from Decca, McRae was able to explore new directions, devoting a 1957 album, Mad About the Man, to the songs of Noel Coward, and another to songs from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Her other albums for Decca include one with Sammy Davis, Jr., called Boy Meets Girl in 1957, and an album of “bird songs,” Birds of a Feather, recorded in1958, with Mundell Lowe on guitar and an uncredited Ben Webster on tenor sax. This fascinating album featured bird-themed songs like “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “Skylark,” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

In 1961, McRae recorded a vocal version of Paul Desmond’s 1959 hit“Take Five,” which became a hit in its own right. By this time, McRae had reached a new level of recognition. For the next 30 years, she got top billing at clubs and festivals across the U.S., as well as in Europe and Japan, and recorded widely. But as her reputation grew, McRae also got into trouble for speaking her mind on topics such as commercialism in music. Her toughness and perfectionism caused problems with the musicians and managers who worked with her, with her frequent changes in personnel being cited in the press.

Although she could be difficult, McRae was also known for her willingness to nurture younger performers. She maintained lifelong friendships with singers who could have been seen as rivals, like Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughan. Her live duet album with Betty Carter in 1987 is another example of her openness to collaboration. When these two singers get together on the standard “Sometimes I’m Happy,” Carter seems to push McRae’s vocal boundaries in a good way, and McRae’s comparatively straight-ahead style complements Carter’s more abstract improvisation. Captured on video, the interaction between the two great singers clearly delights their audience, who respond to their playfulness, humor, and warmth. The resonant low notes both veteran singers sustain are stunning without ostentation.

McRae’s personal life has been remarked upon for another kind of openness. She had serious relationships with women as well as men and was willing to be seen in public, especially in her later years, with female companions. She would tell anyone who inquired that she saw sexuality as a continuum. A second marriage, to keyboard player Ike Isaacs, ended in divorce.

McRae stayed an active performer until 1991, when she collapsed on stage at the Blue Note. A lifelong smoker like many singers of her generation, she was diagnosed with emphysema. She died on November 10, 1994 in Beverly Hills of a stroke related to respiratory failure at the age of 74.

Although she could swing and scat in the company of masters, McRae eschewed vocal athleticism as an end in itself. Perhaps her most important contribution to music was her careful attention to the lyric and the implicit story of every song. In this way she was a role model for a long list of prominent singers, including Carol Sloane, Abbey Lincoln, and Ernestine Anderson, and for generations of jazz singers to come.

Select Discography

Carmen McRae (remaster/reissue of first solo album on Decca; JVC Japan, 2007)

Torchy/Blue Moon (reissue of two Decca albums from the 1950s, MCA UK import, 1999)

Take Five - Live at The Basin Street East (with Dave Brubeck, Columbia/Nippon import, reissue from 1961 released in 2008)

Live at Ronnie Scott’s (1977)

Two for the Road (with George Shearing; Concord Jazz, 1980)

You’re Lookin’ at Me (Nat King Cole songs; Concord Jazz, 1983)

Live at Montreux July 22, 1982 (Acrobat, 2005)

For Lady Day (original release 1983; Japanese import 1995 on Novus)

The Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Duets (Great American Music Hall, 1987)

Fine and Mellow: Live at Birdland West (Concord, 1987/1990)

Carmen Sings Monk (Novus, 1988)

The Great American Songbook (Atlantic, 1990)

Sarah: Dedicated to You (Novus, 1991)

Twentieth Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: The Best of Carmen McRae (Verve, 2004)

Contributor: Sue Russell