Our Top 10 (& more): WBGO hosts, staff and friends recommend their favorite tracks by Betty Carter
Born Lillie Mae Jones on May 16, 1929 in Flint, Michigan, Betty Carter was raised in the jazz-rich city of Detroit, where she studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory. But it was her voice that was her primary instrument. After performing with jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis, in 1948 Carter was invited by Lionel Hampton to join his big band, a group that included Wes Montgomery and Charles Mingus amongst others. She was only 19 years old. She stayed with that highly visible ensemble for about three years and established herself as a vocalist with chops and presence.
It was Miles Davis who referred Carter to Ray Charles, with whom she’d record a few albums, one of which yielded the massive hit “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Nonetheless, Carter struggled professionally during the 60s, but ever determined, in 1969 she created her own record label, Bet-Car Records, a rarity at that time. In time, through hard work and dedication to her craft, she evolved into one of the most singular jazz vocalists and bandleaders of her time. Just as musicians who played with Art Blakey were said to have attended the Art Blakey School of Jazz, sidemen with Carter would make the same claim, many recalling how forceful a leader she was on (and off) the bandstand. Her bands never held back and played with the same fire with which she sang.
Her career experienced a bit of a resurgence during the ‘80s and ‘90s when her albums were licensed to Verve, which too had reinvented itself as a major jazz label when CDs were flooding the market and creating a new business model. Over time Carter was nominated for three Grammy awards, winning one. But it was the respect of her peers and fans that mattered most to the singer. Tragically, Carter passed away in 1998 from the effects of pancreatic cancer. She was just 69 years old. Her influence on successive generations of jazz singers, male and female, remains formidable.
We asked WBGO hosts and staff, as well as some noted vocalists to recommend a favorite track by Betty Carter and their testimony speaks volumes to her legacy. – Lee Mergner
“Feed the Fire” from Feed the Fire
It is so difficult to choose one Betty Carter tune given her incredible catalog but what stands out to me the most is “Feed the Fire.” It's a live recording with Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Geri Allen, who wrote that swinging tune. For 11:20 you hear Betty's exquisite scat singing. Betty was one of my favorites to see live and this song captures her essence. – Sheila Anderson, Host, Jazz Overnight, Salon Sessions and Sunday Night Music Mix
“My Favorite Things” from Inside Betty Carter
One minute and thirty-eight seconds. In under two minutes Betty Carter’s whirlwind interpretation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” is like being on an express train to euphoria. Her novel treatment is spectacular for a few reasons. For one, Carter and Company (pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Bob Cranshaw, and drummer Roy McCurdy), play it in 4/4 time, a total rhythm-feel departure from the 3/4 waltz time that in part characterizes the classic. Harmonically, the band takes a modal approach to the song (as did Coltrane in his epic rendition in 1961). In this case, they utilize the D Dorian mode, and Carter leans hard into the B-natural she sings instead of the D-natural of the original melody, which really highlights the modal quality of the arrangement. (Listen to the note she sings on the word “and” in the first two lines of each verse, i.e., “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens / Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens”). It takes the song to new heights! This and the reverb on her vocals while Carter effortlessly floats atop the band burning through those changes at breakneck speed, swinging just as hard as they want to… it is the happiness rush we all need. It’s worth noting that this album also includes the first version of her fan-fave original, “Open the Door.” – Angelika Beener, Host, MILESTONES podcast
“Tight” from The Betty Carter Album
When I found out Betty Carter was ill, I was in DC doing a show at the Kennedy Center. I called her manager Ora Harris to check in (living in Paris France at the time, I wasn’t always privy to jazz going’s on). Ora answered the phone and told Betty I was calling, Betty replied that she’d been waiting for my call. She then said that she authorized me to sing “Tight,” that she didn’t want anyone else to do it. I was so flattered and deeply moved. However, I’ve never performed the song. A couple of weeks later I was in Oakland doing a smooth jazz festival with my trio at the time (I’d won my first Grammy and was for some reason being put on smooth jazz festivals with my acoustic trio, honoring Ella Fitzgerald). I remember going on stage upset because I was sandwiched in between Tower of Power and Kool and the Gang. My feet felt like cement blocks and I just couldn’t move. After the second song I went to the stage manager and asked if I could end my set as the audience had left the area, he responded yes as I’d received my check. When I got off stage a woman ran up to me and said, “You must be devastated!” When I asked why she told me Betty had just died! I fainted, and when I came to, my warrior sound engineer James Hatz (since deceased) took me to my trailer. I was freezing, so he laid on top of me to warm me up. Paramedics came and wanted to rush me to emergency as my blood pressure was abnormally high, but I refused and went back to my hotel instead. The next day I saw a cardiologist who informed me I’d had a mild heart attack. In my mind my world had ended with Betty’s death. All that I am is because of Betty Carter. – Dee Dee Bridgewater, vocalist
“Feed the Fire” from Feed the Fire
I first met Betty Carter as a teen at the now defunct club The Bottom Line and she gave me some of the best advice I have ever received. She told me, "Never be afraid to just go ahead and do what you want to do!" Betty lived by these words. She was fearless. The way she commandeered the bandstand was awe-inspiring. She always had the baddest bands and when they got onstage, they came to work, rolling up sleeves, taking their shoes off and pulling out towels. Singing the notes in between the notes, molding vowels into time and space, Betty once sang "It's Not About The Melody." Like Art Blakey, she was a university onto herself, schooling the best of the best. There really isn't an album Betty Carter recorded that I don't love but one of my favorites is Feed The Fire with Geri Allen, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. Classic! I was one of three people invited to speak at Betty's memorial when she passed. A great honor and a tough one to get through, how do you do justice for someone who meant so much and who set the bar so high? She was truly one of a kind. – Monifa Brown, Host, Saturday Evening Jazz
“That Sunday, That Summer” from Look What I Got
Raised in Oklahoma’s heat soured me on summer fairly early, but Betty Carter’s version of this standard makes the season bearable. She swings the lyric with all the playfulness it implies, while Don Braden’s saxophone swirls sinuously around her voice. It’s a song that’s been sung by many, but late in life Betty made it her own. – Brian Delp, Host, Drive Time
“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” from The Audience with Betty Carter
If there is one recording of one song that manifests every element of jazz singing at its highest elevation to a first-time listener, it is that of Betty Carter singing “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” (Fran Landesman, Tommy Wolf), from The Audience With Betty Carter (1980). Recorded live and as it happened (and with no studio “fixes”), Ms. Carter broadcasts her signature and unmistakable sonic identity from a single opening sigh. From, there goes on to spontaneously reinvent the song’s original melody in toto — not to “show off” or exclude the audience, but in service of the composition’s story and of the audience’s emotional experience. (Compare this performance she gives in an earlier recording of the same song — from 1964’s Inside Betty Carter. The evidence reveals an artist relentlessly and restlessly honing her own unique approach over a lifetime of singing).
Her techniques allow her to be utterly transparent, emotionally, to her audience. She is a philosopher of love, a comedian, a heartbroken waif and an artist beyond her years. She moans, she swings, she cracks wise, she shares her hard-won fortitude. In one tour-de-force performance she shows herself to have mastered and metabolized every individual facet of jazz singing in such a way that her work has become seamless and solid state. The intimate musical interaction with her rhythm section (John Hicks, piano; Curtis Lundy, bass; Kenny Washington, drums) — probably the finest in a career she populated with the best in the business — shows her to be a consummate bandleader. This performance makes a strong case for Betty Carter as the absolute most — the pinnacle virtuoso in a line of definitive musical masters. – Kurt Elling, vocalist
“This Is Always” from Inside Betty Carter
I have so many favorite Betty Carter tracks. Three that come immediately to mind are “This Is Always” from Inside Betty Carter and “I’ll Buy You A Star” and “The Trolley Song,” both from The Audience With Betty Carter. I can always sense that Betty means every word of lyrics that he sings, and “This Is Always” exemplifies that. There is an element of consistency to Betty’s sound throughout her career; even as her body matured and her vocal instrument deepened along the way between around her 20s and 40s, she'd sung with honesty and absolute conviction from the very beginning, and she'd always known who she was. This track has a gorgeous piano accompaniment from Harold Mabern Jr., who had such a large physical spread to his hands that he could play wide voicings with a gentle touch that most pianists can only effect with smaller clusters that call for little to no physical stretch to the hands.
“I’ll Buy You A Star” and “The Trolley Song” remind me of how magical it felt playing for Betty, and it takes me right back to the place of listening to this album, which was just three years old at the time, in preparation to join Betty’s trio, as I tuned in to her sound and the wide range of musical attitudes that she conducted her band to represent as a team. I feel that Betty’s groups with John Hicks were perhaps her greatest, and some of Betty’s fans feel that the trio on the album—John Hicks, Curtis Lundy, and a then 19-year-old master, Kenny Washington—was arguably her finest of all time. – Benny Green, pianist
“Droppin’ Things” from Droppin’ Things
There was no safety net for the melodic yet dangerous vocal scatting sounds of Betty Carter. One tune that stands out for me is her live original 1990 recording of the song “Droppin’ Things” from the album by that same name, with Marc Cary, Gregory Hutchinson, Craig Handy, Tarus Mateen and the great Freddie Hubbard. I listen to this and immediately find myself being humbled and in awe of this fabulous singer’s prowess in her “take no prisoners” approach in delivering a song, be it a ballad with Ray Charles or her mentoring of the young lions who were fortunate to come out of Betty Carter’s camp. – Allan Harris, vocalist
“Tight” from The Audience with Betty Carter
Truthfully, Betty Carter was much more of a live performer than a recording artist. That’s not a knock but rather a tribute to her brilliance on stage. For anyone who didn’t get to see Ms. Carter perform live, I can attest that she was a force of nature onstage and set a standard for pushing a band well beyond backing the proverbial fronting singer. Under her orders, her bands never held back. And this band, featuring John Hicks, Curtis Lundy and Kenny Washington was one of her greatest. So great that Betty and her longtime manager Ora Harris captured the band and their chemistry onstage at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. This song, amongst several on this album like “The Trolley Song” and “Open the Door,” was a staple of her live shows for years. In recent years, I’ve heard many of her jazz vocal offspring like Jazzmeia Horn and Samara Joy do this song in a tip of the hat to Betty, while each put their own stamp on it. We have to thnk that their reinvention of the material is something Betty would have loved. – Lee Mergner, Editorial Content Producer
"Every Time We Say Goodbye" from Ray Charles and Betty Carter
I used to listen to this entire record searching for clues. The moment when Betty enters is so magical, like she has all the time in the world, and the musical chemistry between Ray and Betty is really something special. – Leo Sidran, Host, The Third Story podcast
“Thou Swell” from Meet Betty Carter and Ray Bryant
I love Betty Carter for many reasons. One reason is her uncompromising, instrumental style of improvising. I love the way she plays with the rhythm of words, and this Rodgers and Hart song from 1927 provided an ample playground for her. Dig how she lays into " just a plot of...not a lot of land..." Already she had developed her own personal language of scat...and it seems as if she is not so much interested in the meaning of the words as she is interested in playing with them as rhythmic devices, not unlike Ella Fitzgerald. Her scat solo on this track is simply sublime—inventive, concise and swinging. This track was actually from her very first record as a leader under her own name. – Janis Siegel, vocalist