Carmen McRae

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.[1] McRae drew inspiration from Billie Holiday, but established her own distinctive voice. She went on to record over 60 albums, enjoying a rich musical career, performing and recording in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

McRae was born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrant 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.[2] McRae considered Holiday to be her primary influence.

In her late teens and early twenties, McRae 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 Minton’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. Those years in Chicago, McRae told Jazz Forum, “gave me whatever it is that I have now. That’s the most prominent schooling I ever had.”[3] 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 late 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).

As a result of her early friendship with Billie Holiday, she never performed without singing at least one song associated with “Lady Day”, and recorded an album in 1983 in her honor entitled For Lady Day, which was released in 1995. Some songs included are; “Good Morning Heartache“, “Them There Eyes”, “Lover Man“, “God Bless the Child“, “Don’t Explain”, just to name a few. 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.

Carmen McRae sang in jazz clubs throughout the United States—and 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 “Don’t Get Around Much Any More”, and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1989.[4]

While I was performing at “The Cirque Room” in the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco, Carmen McRae appeared in the Venetian Room. She had just returned from a European tour and before starting she announced that she had a very bad cold and apologized in advance saying that she might not be in her best voice. Then the show began and what I and everyone else in the room heard was a consummate artist. She was flawless and her voice seemed to flow effortlessly as it playfully danced with the music. I had always enjoyed listening to Carmen but after seeing this show she became (and still is) my favorite jazz singer. I love Ella for her beautiful tone and musicianship, Sarah for her inimitable voice and bawdy style, Peggy Lee for her sexy, yet understated manner, and Carmen for all of the above. I listen to her endlessly!

Carmen McRae was forced to retire in 1991 due to emphysema.[5] McRae died on November 10, 1994, in Beverly Hills, California from a stroke, following complications from respiratory illness.

Carmen McRae Grammy Award Recognitions[6]
Year Category Title Label Result
1990 Best Jazz Vocal Performance – Female Carmen Sings Monk Novus Nominee
1988 Best Jazz Vocal Performance – Female Fine and Mellow Concord Jazz Nominee
1988 Best Jazz Vocal Performance – Duo or Group The Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Duets Great American Music Hall Nominee
1987 Best Jazz Vocal Performance – Female Any Old Time Denon Nominee
1984 Best Jazz Vocal Performance You’re Lookin’ at Me (A Collection of Nat King Cole Songs) Concord Jazz Nominee
1977 Best Jazz Vocal Performance Carmen McRae at the Great American Music Hall Blue Note Nominee
1971 Best Jazz Performance – Soloist Carmen McRae Atlantic Nominee
Carmen McRae Awards
Year Organization Category Result
1994 National Endowment for the Arts NEA Jazz Masters Winner
1993 NAACP NAACP Image Awards Honoree
1984 Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame Inducted




  • 1982: “L. A. Jazz”
  • 1981: “Billie Holiday. A Tribute”
  • 1981: “At the Palace”
  • 1980: “From Jumpstreet”
  • 1979: “Roots: The Next Generations“, played Lila[11]
  • 1979: “Carmen McRae in Concert”
  • 1976: “Sammy and Company”
  • 1976: “Soul”

Selected discography

Year Title Label
1990 Sarah: Dedicated to You Novus
1988 Carmen Sings Monk Novus
1987 The Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Duets Great American Music Hall
1987 What Do The Words Say (w. Ray Brown) Blue Music Group
1983 You’re Lookin’ at Me (A Collection of Nat King Cole Songs) Concord Jazz
1980 Two for the Road with George Shearing Concord Jazz
1972 The Great American Songbook Atlantic
1965 Alive! Columbia
1962 Something Wonderful Columbia
1962 The Real Ambassadors Columbia
1961 Sings Lover Man and other Billie Holiday Classics Columbia
1961 Take Five Columbia
1960 Book of Ballads Kapp
1958 Boy Meets Girl: Sammy Davis Jr. & Carmen McRae Decca
1958 Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday at Newport Verve
1957 After Glow Decca
1956 Blue Moon Decca
1955 Torchy Decca
1954 Easy to Love Bethelem
1954 Carmen McRae Bethelem

Source: Wikipedia,, youtube


1 Comment

  1. Aaaahhh! Another favorite Paul. I’m visiting more and more. If this keeps up my house is going to a mess.

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