McRae, Carmen (1920–1994)

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McRae, Carmen (1920–1994)

Acclaimed African-American jazz artist . Born on April 8, 1920, in Brooklyn, New York; died after a stroke on November 10, 1994, in Beverly Hills, California; daughter of Oscar McRae and Evadne McRae; married Kenny Clarke (a drummer), in the 1940s (divorced 1947); married Ike Isaacs (divorced); no children.

Joined Benny Carter Orchestra (1944); recorded first album (1954); retired from performing (1990); named master of jazz by the National Endowment for the Arts (1993).

Selected recordings:

Just a Little Lovin' (1970); I'm Coming Home (1980).

Carmen McRae was a contemporary of jazz vocalists Sarah Vaughan and Shirley Horn , and equally lauded for the vocal stylings she delivered in her smoky, smart contralto. Born in 1920 in Brooklyn, New York, McRae was an only child who grew up in Harlem. She studied piano from an early age, and her parents hoped she would become a classical concert pianist. McRae had other plans, however, and at age 17 won a talent contest at the famed Apollo Theater that launched her career. She began singing in New York City nightclubs, and met Billie Holiday , for whom she wrote "Dream of Life." She would later record an album in tribute to that great singer, Carmen McRae Sings 'Lover Man' and Other Billie Holiday Songs.

For a time McRae worked as a secretary by day while singing at night. In 1944, she joined the Benny Carter Orchestra, and her piano skills later got her a job as the intermission pianist at Minton's Playhouse in New York, considered the birthplace of bebop. McRae also sang with Count Basie during this year. She was signed to the Decca label in 1954 and recorded the first of what would eventually be close to two dozen albums on various labels, including Bittersweet, Woman Talk, Just a Little Lovin', The Great American Songbook, I'm Coming Home, and Carmen Sings Monk. Also in 1954 she won Down Beat magazine's new singer award, and the following year tied with Ella Fitzgerald for best female vocalist in a Metronome magazine poll.

McRae sang with her own trio from 1961 to 1969, and over the course of her career recorded duets with Betty Carter , the hugely successful "Take Five" with Dave Brubeck, a tribute album to Sarah Vaughan, versions of "God Bless the Child," "I've Got you Under My Skin," and even Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind." She also appeared in several movies, including the film version of Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans (1960), Hotel (1967), and Monterey Jazz (1968). In her later years, she lived in Los Angeles, where she appeared on the occasional television program or in a feature film. In 1990, McRae suffered respiratory failure during a performance at New York City's Blue Note, and never sang in public again. Early in 1994, she was named a "master of jazz" by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which praised her "instinctive feeling for rhythm, her skillful vocal technique, her innovative scat singing, as well as her relaxed manner of presentation." Carmen McRae suffered a stroke in October 1994 and died a month later.


Current Biography. January 1995.

The Day [New London, CT]. November 12, 1994.

Lees, Gene. Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz. Firefly, 1992.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan