Jazz singer and pianist Carmen Mercedes McRae recorded for Decca and its sister label Kapp Records from 1954 to 1959. This five-year association established her as a star, and this period saw her produce what many believe to be the most consistent music of her forty-year career. The 12 albums she recorded have been described by critic Will Friedwald as ‘among the greatest vocal records of all time’.
Born in Harlem in 1920 to West Indian immigrant parents, McRae grew up in Brooklyn where she studied piano as a child. Her parents hoped she would take the classical route, but the world of jazz and The Great American Songbook proved more compelling. In these early years she also started to write songs which, via winning an amateur talent contest, came to the attention of jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and composer Irene Kitchings Wilson. Through them one of her early songs, ‘Dream Of Life’, was recorded by Billie Holiday. ‘If Billie Holiday had never existed,’ McRae later recalled, ‘I probably wouldn’t have, either.’ Perhaps surprisingly, her later success came as an interpretive singer rather than with songs from her own pen; the aforementioned ‘Dream Of Life’ is the only self-penned composition to appear on this collection of her greatest works.
McRae’s parents opposed a showbusiness career and persuaded their daughter to take a secretarial course. By 1943, she was doing office work by day while performing in clubs at night. Gradually music became her life when she took an 18-month engagement with a band led by Mercer Ellington, Duke’s son. In 1946 she made her recording debut with the band, singing as Carmen Clarke. She’d married her first husband, bebop drummer Kenny Clarke, in 1944, separating three years later. Her second marriage, to bassist Ike Isaacs in the late Fifties, also ended in divorce.
When the Ellington band broke up, McRae moved to Chicago with comic George Kirby as a singing pianist and ended up staying for three and a half years. ‘Those years in Chicago,’ McRae told Jazz Forum in 1990,‘gave me whatever it is that I have now. That’s the most prominent schooling I ever had.’
Her career finally took off when she returned to New York and developed an act as a stand-up singer at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, being named best new female singer by Down Beat magazine in 1954.While working here she made recordings for the Stardust, Venus and Bethlehem labels, and her solo album for Bethlehem in 1955 came to the attention of Decca’s Milt Gabler, one of the greatest talent scouts in the history of jazz. Carmen McRae has always been recognised as an insightful interpreter of lyrics. ‘Every word is very important to me,’ she said. ‘Lyrics come first, then the melody. The lyric of a song I might decide to sing must have something that I can convince you with. It’s like an actress who selects a role that contains something she wants to portray’.
This collection showcases the best songs from the Decca recordings of the late Fifties. ‘Something To Live For’ and ‘Supper Time’ come from her very first Decca LP, ‘By Special Request’ (1955); Carmen accompanies herself on piano on the latter. Her second and third Decca LPs each contained a dozen classic songs from her favoured Great American Songbook: ‘Star Eyes’, ‘But Beautiful’, ‘Yesterdays’, ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘My Foolish Heart’ all come from this period.
Then in 1957 she recorded ‘Boy Meets Girl’ with Sammy Davis Jr. With their contrasting vocal tones, they sound like they are enjoying working together on songs such as Cole Porter’s ‘You’re The Top’.
The ‘After Glow’ LP, also recorded in 1957, yielded such treasures as ‘Guess Who I Saw Today’; she followed this with ‘Mad About The Man’,on which she sings such Noel Coward classics as ‘Mad About The Boy’, ‘I’ll See You Again’ and ‘If Love Were All’.
A third release in the same year was ‘Carmen For Cool Ones’, on which arranger Fred Katz divided the songs into three categories by instrumentation and feeling: strings as represented by ‘I Remember Clifford’, woodwind in ‘If I Were A Bell’, and percussion in ‘What’s New’.
Her final recording for Decca before moving to Kapp, ‘Birds Of A Feather’ (1958), featured songs with an ornithological connection, including ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’,‘Flamingo’ and ‘Bye, Bye, Blackbird’. The last-named makes a fitting farewell to our collection.
Renowned for her interpretations of lyrics and her unbending point of view, Carmen McRae died in 1994 in Beverly Hills, California at the age of 74,a month after being hospitalised for a stroke. She had withdrawn from public performance in May 1991 after suffering an episode of respiratory failure following an engagement at the Blue Note jazz club in New York.
The National Endowment for the Arts recognised her posthumously with a Jazz Fellowship award for lifetime achievement in 1994, while an obituary in The New York Times concluded that, ‘Although McRae never reached the heights of popularity attained by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, she was widely regarded as their artistic equal.’
Sleeve notes by Helen Akitt