Jazz singer Betty Carter, who died 15 years ago today, was such an unmatchable vocalist that fellow singer Carmen McRae once commented, "There's really only one jazz singer – only one: Betty Carter."
The legendary chanteuse entered the jazz world late, toward the end of the era when big bands were king, but her timing allowed her to stand out. One of the last great big band vocalists, she became known for her breathy style and masterful scatting. And she was more than a Grammy-winning singer – she was a businesswoman who founded her own record label, Bet-Car Records, and an educator who loved sprinkling lessons about jazz history into her concerts at colleges and universities.
As singular as Betty Carter was, she produced some of her most enduring work when she got together with other jazz greats. Collaboration has always been a cornerstone of jazz, and Carter embraced it when she performed with fellow legends Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and more. Here are a few of our favorite tracks from Betty Carter and her friends:
Carter's big break came from vibraphonist and bandleader Lionel Hampton. When she joined his band in 1948 she gained a wide audience and lots of name recognition. But the two stars didn't always get along – Carter wasn't crazy about his swing style, and Hampton didn't like the way she improvised with scat singing. In less than three years working together, Hampton fired Carter seven times … but he kept bringing her back, because their music just sounded so good.
When Carter left Hampton's band for good, she was a well-known singer who began getting gigs with lots of other successful musicians. One was King Pleasure, whose skill at vocal improvisation rivaled Carter's own. Their duet on "Red Top" is a unique treat.
With pianist Ray Bryant and the Ray Bryant Trio, Carter recorded new takes on classic standards.
Perhaps Carter's best-known collaboration was with R&B legend Ray Charles. They toured together and recorded beautiful duets such as the chart-topping "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
No matter who she sang with, Betty Carter brought her own inimitable style to the music – and made us forget there were ever any other jazz singers.
Written by Linnea Crowther