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Carmen McRae
Biography
 
Carmen McRae was raised in a middle class family of Jamaican heritage who encouraged her study of the piano. She took lessons for many years but developed a taste for theatrics and wanted a career as an actress; while she appeared in a few films much later in life, that career never developed. By her late teens she was devoting more and more time to music, though when she started singing her love of verbal expression was a great aid. She eventually fashioned a name for herself as a vocalist with an uncommon respect for the words.

"The popular song is slight in scope compared to drama or opera," McRae once said, "but it can be a high form of melodic poetry."

McRae had early influences who knew a great deal about the need to deliver music with personality - about how to put one's art over through singularly, dramatically delivering a song's message. One influence was Irene Wilson, the songwriter and then wife of Swing Era great Teddy Wilson. She helped McRae with her own song writing and then introduced her to the greatest vocalist of the Swing Era, Billie Holiday. McRae then had two indispensable tools: the writer's appreciation of words and the interpreter's savvy for conveying them. The first song that McRae wrote, "Dream of Life", Holiday recorded in 1939.

"If Billie Holiday hadn't existed, I probably wouldn't have, either, "McRae admitted in her later years.

McRae's first important gig as a vocalist was with Benny Carter's orchestra in 1944. She appeared briefly with Count Basie's band after that and had a stint with Earl Hines's as well. She joined Mercer Ellington's band in '46 and left it in '47, recording a little with it. During this time McRae was married to the bebop pioneer, drummer Kenny Clarke. He gave her further confidence to find her own way to express herself - much as he had had the courage to forge a new musical language, beginning with his bop experiments in 1940 at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. (Her records with Mercer Ellington were under the name Carmen Clarke.)

McRae and Clarke separated in the late Forties but, after she had spent a few years struggling in Chicago - she had a few stints as a singer - pianist in small clubs - he helped her to re-establish herself in New York. McRae appeared frequently in the early Fifties at Minton's, where she polished her instrument in front of small combos, becoming in the process one of the few vocalists who not only handled the rhythmic and harmonic challenge of bebop but mastered it. She also maintained her habit there of accompanying herself on piano for at least one song per set.

McRae was voted Down Beat's Best New Female Vocalist for 1954 - a time when there was a lot of competition in the field. She later developed a friendship with the acknowledged queen of bop vocals - Sarah Vaughan, to whom she had already been compared. They shared a strong reliance on their years of piano training, which compelled even the most daring of their backing instrumentalists to respect the ladies' musicianship.

McRae's first significant recording work under her own name was in late 1954 for the Decca label. She recorded there and for Kapp through the rest of the decade, establishing herself as a supreme interpreter of not just bop tunes, such as Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite", but of such Tin Pan Alley classics as Irving Berlin's "Suppertime".

For the next three decades McRae remained at the top of her profession, choosing ever more judiciously her spots to record, perform in concert halls, and tour - which she did increasingly, in the later decades, in Europe and Japan. She perfected her theatrical, declamatory delivery, given always with the utmost rhythmic surety, which conveyed the sense, even on her records, that she was speaking directly and individually to each listener.

Her last great achievement was her 1988 album for RCA, Carmen Sings Monk. Recorded both live, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and in the studio, she showed palpable respect throughout for Monk's rhythmic uniqueness, while at the same time she maintained the need to be herself. Though other recordings followed, her health declined precipitously from May 1991, when she collapsed after a performance at the Blue Note in New York. The Monk album was her valedictory effort, and her claim, that "lyrics are more important than melody", could have been her epitaph.

 

 

 

 



 

This is a special Tribute Show that Shawnn Monteiro does in honor of Carmen McRae.  Please use of contact page for more information and to book this special show today.  

 

Visit the Press page to read reviews on the show.

 

 

 

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