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. She drew inspiration from Billie Holiday, but established her own distinctive voice. She went on to record over 60 albums during her career, and enjoying a rich musical career, performing and recording in the USA, Europe, and Japan.
She was born in Harlem, New York City to West Indian (Jamaican) parents, Osmond and Evadne McRae. She began studying piano when she was eight, and the music of jazz greats like 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" through their influence, was recorded in 1939 by Wilson’s longtime collaborator Billie Holiday. She considered Holiday to be her primary influence.
In her late teens and early twenties, she 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 Milton'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 first recording as pianist with 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. Back in New York in the early 1950s, McRae got the record contract that launched her career. In 1954, she was voted best new female vocalist by Down Beat magazine. She married bassist Ike Isaacs in the 1950s.
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). She recorded an album in 1983 in Billie Holiday's honor entitled For Lady Day, which was released in 1995. McRae also recorded with the world best jazz musicians, Take Five Live (1961) with Dave Brubeck, Heat Wave (1982) with Cal Tjader, and Two for the Road (1989) with George Shearing.
She sang in jazz clubs across the world for over fifty years. McRae was a popular performer at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival (1961-1963, 1966, 1971, 1973, 1982). Performing with Duke Ellington's at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1980, singing "Dont Get Around Much Any More", and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1989. Carmen McRae, who refused to quit smoking, was forced to retire in 1991 due to emphysema. She passed away November 10, 1994 in Beverly Hills, California from a stroke, following complications from respiratory illness. Find out more about this jazz legend at: www.wonderboynyc.com/Carmen/
Research info gathered at: http://www.wikipedia.org/
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