Much is rightly made of the tremendous abilities of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday in the pantheon of jazz singers; well, Carmen McRae belongs there, too. This collection,” Great Women of Song: Carmen McRae,” showcases her incredible talent.

Carmen McRae was born to Jamaican parents in New York on 8th April 1920. She started learning classical piano at age 8. Her parents initially weren’t too keen on her getting into the music business as they believed she might be drawn into what they considered a very louche life. “My parents were sort of staid West Indian people,” she said. “They were of the old school of thinking that most people in show business were either dope fiends or drunkards or stayed up carousing at all hours of the morning.” Despite their initial disapproval, from the early 1940s, she worked with Benny Carter, Mercer Ellington & Count Basie as a pianist.

Leaving New York for Chicago in 1948, and needing a job, she was employed to play the piano and began singing in a club despite being very shy.  That stint allowed her to hone her skills, develop her vocal style, and give her the confidence to return to New York to develop her career as a singer. Mentored by Charlie Parker, who taught her one of his classic tunes, “Yardbird”, she was also a huge fan of Billie Holiday. In an interview with the New York Times in 1979, she said, “I have always sung at least one song of Billie Holiday’s at every show I’ve done; she was the greatest influence in my life so far as singing was concerned.” 

Carmen McRae, circa 1970. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

The hallmarks of Carmen’s singing were her timbre, clarity as a singer, her enunciation and her ability to invest emotionally and intellectually in a song’s lyrics. Her focus on lyrics was central to her approach to jazz. In an interview backstage at Club Mocambo in San Francisco with Angela Davies in 1977, discussing her approach to singing, she said, “I want you to understand every word I’m saying. If I’m a storyteller, and I’m telling you a story, and if you don’t know what the hell the story is about, then it’s just a waste of time, and I refuse to waste my time.” 

Hearing her interpretations of songs written by some of the best lyricists and composers of the Great American Songbook is a delight.  This album features three classic tunes by George and Ira Gershwin: “Love Is Here to Stay”; “I Was Doing All Right”; and “How Long Has This Been Going On” in which she sings the verse. Carmen loved to sing the obscure verses of tunes and made a huge effort to find and include them if they could be found, saying, “Sometimes the verses are better than the choruses in songs.”  

Drummer Joey Baron worked with her for 3 years and described Carmen as someone who was rather blunt and knew exactly what she wanted from musicians. “ She just wanted it to swing, ” he said, “and she wanted the drummer to blend with the piano, bass, and her. She did not like a lot of wasted motion or unnaturalness in the playing. She liked it very spare… You know, the way she sang, that’s how she liked her accompaniment.” And listen to how brilliantly she swings on “When The Red Red Robin Comes Bobbin’ Along”.

Also featured on this album are two Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers tunes. The poignant “My Romance” from the 1935 musical “Jumbo.” And “You Took Advantage Of Me,” originally written for the 1928 musical “Present Arms,”  Carmen’s version eventually became part of the soundtrack for the 1985 sci-fi movie – “Real Genius,” starring Val Kilmer. 

‘Whatever Lola Wants’ has playful mischief in every line. Other tunes include a song written by the only female lyricist featured on the album, often considered challenging to sing, which Carmen tackles with ease.  It’s Dorothy Fields’ “Exactly Like You,” with music by Jimmy McHugh.

American jazz singer, composer and pianist Carmen McRae performing on stage in Chicago. Photo: Ted Williams / Iconic Images.

The final tune, “Cheek to Cheek,” is a real gem and features the sublime pairing of Carmen with Sammy Davis Jr, originally found on their 1957 duo album “Boy Meets Girl.” 

Overall, this album is an opportunity to hear Carmen’s dexterity as a singer and her innovative approach to the interpretation of lyrics. Carmen always stayed true to her jazz roots despite the vicissitudes of the music industry.  A critic once said of Carmen,  “She had reached a permanent plateau of perfection as a singer!” Her seven Grammy nominations garnered between 1971 and 1990 testify to her immense talent as a singer and song interpreter. Carmen passed away in 1994, but what a legacy she left behind.  She was one of a kind, a true jazz singers singer.

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Jumoké Fashola is a journalist, broadcaster and vocalist who currently presents a range of Arts & Culture programmes on BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4 & BBC London. 

Header image: Great Women of Song: Carmen McRae album cover. Courtesy of Verve Records.