The topic of Jazz vocalists always raises strong opinions. Often it’s one of those love ’em or hate ’em deals. Among the female singers there has never been more than a few big names everyone knows. Even those who don’t listen much to Jazz know the old dead divas, Vaughn, Fitzgerald, Holiday, and the living-dead Krall, and ah, ah, hmm. . . not many living. Of the living female (or male) artists, most haven’t a spark of creativity or originality. Everything they sing sounds like a watered down version of the past. Yet there’s one name from the past that no one has tried to mimic. Listen to her, and you’ll know why she’s exceptional, and why no one you’ve heard could possibly mimic her.
Describing Betty Carter is not easy. Despite the fact that she had an early start in her career at the age of 19 with the Lionel Hampton Big Band making a huge splash with audiences, sang shows at the Apollo in New York City with Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie, had her first recording contract in 1955 with Ray Bryant on the Epic label, toured with Miles Davis in ’58 and ’59, had a major popular hit with Ray Charles in 1961 with the single “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and an accompanying LP Ray Charles and Betty Carter, released twenty albums under her name and guest starred on many others, sang at the Village Vanguard and the Newport Jazz Festival, made television appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Bill Cosby Show, received multiple Grammy nominations and eventually won a Grammy in 1989 (finally on her third nomination), received an NEA grant, won numerous other awards, was invited to sing at the White House by President Clinton, received a National Metal of Arts in 1997, was hailed as a true musician by all the major jazz artists she sang with, praised by other vocalists, received dozens of rave reviews by critics, and consistently left listeners spellbound, celebrity never marked her career. With break after break, success after success, her star would rise just above the horizon only to set shortly after. She never rose to the heights of notoriety that the other female jazz vocalists of her time. Overshadowed by Sara and Ella. Didn’t die young enough to steal the “die young and leave a beautiful corpse” title from Billy. Never pursued Broadway to challenge Lena’s status.
Carter certainly had a special inborn talent. An excellent ear for pitch and an uncanny sense of phrasing combined with her unique vocalizations of phonemes that created highly unusual and effective interpretations of lyrics. These qualities and her emphasis on the meaning of the lyrics put Betty in a class all her own. She can’t be compared to any other jazz singer. She was always following her own inner ear. Highly respected by instrumental musicians, who typically look down on singers, she maintained their respect throughout her lifetime. No one else has all these attributes.
To get to know who Betty is, her words express it best—
“There’re a lot of young singers who are coming up, and [A&R men] hope that they will replace the idea of jazz being what I have in mind, with what they have in mind. But until I go away, that’s not going to happen, because as long as I’m around, I may be a thorn in some of the business people’s sides who want to interpret music another way for them to make money more quickly. They discourage these young girls, young singers, from dealing with this music called jazz—don’t improvise, sing it straight, or sing it like somebody else has done it, or be like someone else. We have a lot of African-America singers who sing gospel, who come directly out of a church, and they have these big, wonderful voices, and they know how to program these young ladies, and they tell them they’re going to make a whole lot of money if they sing this way instead of that way. . . most of them don’t even know what my singing is like. They don’t have any idea what jazz is.”
“When we came up, we knew that we had to become musicians. . .that’s what we worked toward. We wanted musicians to like what we were doing as singers, so that they would want to play with us and accompany us, and [for] us [to] feel like we were contributing something.”
“After me, there are no more jazz singers. What I mean is that there’s nobody scaring me to death. No young woman is giving me any trouble when it comes to singing jazz. I’m not even worried about it and that’s a shame. It’s sad there’s nobody stepping on my heels so I can look back and say, ‘I better get myself together because this little girl is singing her thing off!’ They’re all doing what everybody else is doing. . . It’s a crime that no little singer is socking it back to me in my own field. To keep it going, to keep it alive, because I’m not going to live forever… and I don’t want it to die with me. I want it to live on.”
Betty proved herself through her insistence on quality over quantity, integrity over compromise, and endurance over time. To get a deeper insight into her style, I’ve chosen samples recorded 15 years apart. Not only is each rendition distinctively stylized, each shows her evolution as an artist and a musician, not just a singer. Plus she always had topnotch sidemen accompanying. The proof is in her voice.
“My Favorite Things,” 1964, from Inside Betty Carter—
“My Favorite Things,” 1979, from The Audience with Betty Carter—
“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” 1964, from Inside Betty Carter—
“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” 1979, from The Audience with Betty Carter—