Betty Carter

Betty Carter (born Lillie Mae Jones, May 16, 1929[1] – September 26, 1998) was an American jazz singer renowned for herimprovisational technique and idiosyncratic vocal style. Her devotion to the jazz idiom was such that her fellow vocalistCarmen McRae once claimed that “there’s really only one jazz singer – only one: Betty Carter.”[2]

Carter was born in Flint, Michigan and grew up in Detroit, where her father led a church choir. She studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory. She won a talent contest and became a regular on the local club circuit, singing and playing piano. When she was 16, she sang with Charlie Parker, and she later performed with Dizzy GillespieRay Charles and Miles Davis.

“It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”

“I Could Write A Book”

Carter honed her scat singing ability while on tour with Lionel Hampton in the late 1940s. Hampton’s wife Gladys gave her the nickname “Betty Bebop“, a nickname she reportedly detested. In the 1950s Carter made recordings with King Pleasureand the Ray Bryant Trio. Her first solo LP, Out There, was released on the Peacock label in 1958.

Carter’s career was eclipsed somewhat through the 1960s and 1970s, though a series of duets with Ray Charles in 1961, including the R&B-chart-topping “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” brought her a measure of popular recognition. In 1963 she toured in Japan with Sonny Rollins. She recorded for various labels during this period, including ABC-ParamountAtco and United Artists, but was rarely satisfied with the resulting product.

In 1970, a record company A&R man tried to run off with a set of her master recordings; the incident led her to establish her own record label, Bet-Car. Some of her most famous recordings were originally issued on Bet-Car, including the double album The Audience with Betty Carter (1980). In 1980 she was the subject of a documentary film by Michelle Parkerson, But Then, She’s Betty Carter.

In the last decade of her life, Carter finally began to receive wider acclaim and recognition. In 1987 she signed with Verve Records, who reissued most of her Bet-Car albums onCD for the first time and made them available to wider audiences. In 1988 she won a Grammy for her album Look What I Got! and sang in a guest appearance on The Cosby Show(episode “How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?”). In 1994 she performed at the White House and was a headliner at Verve’s 50th anniversary celebration in Carnegie Hall. In 1997 she was awarded a National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton. Carter remained active in jazz until her death from pancreatic cancer in 1998, aged 69.

“Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most”

“How High The Moon”

“Every Time We Say Goodbye”

Like Art Blakey and Charles Mingus, Betty Carter recruited members of the younger generation of performers to bring her creations to life. She insisted that she “learned a lot from these young players, because they’re raw and they come up with things that I would never think about doing.” Her collaborators became a veritable musical school – what the New York Times called “jazz’s best university: Betty Carter U.”

In 1993 Carter helped launch the Jazz Ahead program for young musicians at the Kennedy Center. She also devoted much of her time and energy in her last few decades touring colleges and grade-schools across the country.

  • Carter is mentioned along with other jazz luminaries in Gang Starr‘s jazz rap “Jazz Thing.”
  • She is name checked in Chapter 22 of Saul Williams‘ “The Dead Emcee Scrolls”.


United Artists/Capitol
  • 1990 Compact Jazz – Polygram – Bet-Car and Verve recordings from 1976 to 1987
  • 1992 I Can’t Help It – Impulse!/GRP – the Out There and Modern Sound albums on one compact disc
  • 1999 Priceless Jazz – Verve Records – ABC-Paramount and Peacock Recordings from 1958 and 1960
  • 2003 Betty Carter’s Finest Hour – Verve Records – Recordings from 1958 to 1992[3]
On multi-artist compilations

Sources: Wikipedia, youtube,,

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