See and hear Carmen
Interview by Art Taylor
Film, Television, Radio
Friends and Fans
THE NEW YORK TIMES
November 12, 1994
Carmen McRae Is Dead at 74; Jazz Career Spanned 5 Decades
BY STEPHEN HOLDEN
Carmen McRae, the jazz singer known for her probing interpretations of
lyrics and her bruised but unbowed point of view, died on Thursday evening
at her home in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 74. She had fallen into a
semi-coma four days earlier, a month after being hospitalized for a stroke,
said her secretary, Jan March. She withdrew from public performance in May
1991 after an episode of respiratory failure only hours after she completed
an engagement at the Blue Note jazz club in New York.
Although Ms. McRae never reached the heights of popularity attained by
Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, she was widely regarded
as their artistic equal. In a prolific recording career that spanned nearly
five decades, she had only two minor hits, both in the mid-1950's. But the
scores of songs on she which stamped her bittersweet, gently mocking
signature included "Alfie," "The Music That Makes Me Dance," "Guess Who
Saw Today?", "Blame It on My Youth," "Yesterdays" and "Mean to Me." In
January, she received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Fellowship
award for lifetime achievement.
Ms. McRae was born in Harlem on April 8, 1920, one of four [Ed. Note: she was an
only child] children of immigrants from the West Indies. Growing up in
Brooklyn, she attended Julia Richman High School in Manhattan and received
her musical grounding in five years of formal piano lessons. Like many other
jazz giants of her generation, she had her first break when she won an
amateur talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. It was there that
she was discovered in 1939 by
Irene Kitchings, who was then married to the
jazz pianist Teddy Wilson. Through Wilson, who worked with
Ms. McRae met the woman who became her biggest influence and who recorded
Ms. McRae's song "Dream of Life."
"If Billie Holiday had never existed," Ms. McRae later recalled, "I
probably wouldn't have, either." Ms. McRae's parents, who opposed a
show-business career, persuaded their daughter to take a secretarial course,
and she spent two years in Washington doing clerical work for the
Government. Returning to Brooklyn in 1943, she did office work by day while
performing in clubs at night. Gradually music took over, and she began
substituting for other singers in bands led by Benny Carter, Count Basie and
Earl (Fatha) Hines. She eventually landed an 18-month engagement with a band
led by Mercer Ellington, Duke's son, and in 1946 she made her recording
debut with the band, singing under the name Carmen Clarke.
In Chicago, when the Ellington band broke up, Ms. McRae remained there
and embarked on a solo career. A two-week engagement in a club as a singing
pianist expanded to 17 weeks, and she ended up staying in Chicago three and
a half years. Her career took off when she returned to New York and
developed an act as a stand-up singer at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem,
receiving enough notice to be named best new female singer by Down Beat
Ms. McRae released her first solo album for Bethlehem in 1955, the same
year she made her first recordings for Decca, where she remained until 1958.
From there she moved to Kapp (1958-60) and Columbia (1960-62), then jumped
to several smaller labels before ending up on Atlantic for five years
(1967-71). Her longest record company affiliation was with Concord Jazz
(1980-88). Her last two albums, for RCA, were tributes to Thelonious Monk
and Sarah Vaughan.
In these four decades as a jazz star, Ms. McRae toured constantly.
Although she left New York for Southern California in the late 1960's, she
appeared in New York regularly, usually at the Blue Note, where she did two
engagements a year through most of the 1980's.
From the moment she made her mark, Ms. McRae was recognized as a
supremely insightful interpreter of lyrics.
"Every word is very important to me," she said. "Lyrics come first, then
the melody. The lyric of a song I might decide to sing must have something
that I can convince you with. It's like an actress who selects a role that
contains something she wants to portray."
The singer's two marriages, to the be-bop drummer Kenny Clarke and the
pianist [bassist] Ike Isaacs, both ended in divorce. There was no immediate
word on survivors.