Betty Carter Biography

Lillie Mae Jones, 16 May 1929, Flint, Michigan, USA, d. 26 September 1998, New York City, New York, USA. Growing up in Detroit, Carter sang with touring jazzmen, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In her late teens, she joined Lionel Hampton, using the stage name Lorene Carter. With Hampton she enjoyed a love-hate relationship; he would regularly fire her only to have his wife and business manager, Gladys Hampton, re-hire her immediately. Carter’s predilection for bop earned from Hampton the mildly disparaging nickname of ‘Bebop Betty’, by which name she became known thereafter.

In the early 50s Carter worked on the edge of the R&B scene, sharing stages with blues artists of the calibre of Muddy Waters. Throughout the remainder of the 50s and into the 60s she worked mostly in and around New York City, establishing a reputation as a fiercely independent and dedicated jazz singer. She took time out for tours with packages headlined by Ray Charles (with whom she recorded a highly regarded album of duets), but preferred to concentrate on her own shows and club performances. She also found time for marriage and a family. Her insistence upon certain standards in her recording sessions eventually led to the formation of her own record company, Bet-Car. During the 80s, Carter continued to perform in clubs in New York and London, occasionally working with large orchestras but customarily with a regular trio of piano, bass and drums, the ideal setting for her spectacular improvisations.

Taking her inspiration from instrumentalists such as Parker and Sonny Rollins rather than from other singers, Carter’s technique drew little from the vocal tradition in jazz. Her kinship with the blues was never far from the surface, however complex and contemporary that surface might be. In performance, Carter mainly employed the lower register of her wide range. Always aurally witty Carter frequently displayed scant regard for the lyrics of the songs she sang, her inventiveness was ably displayed on performances such as ‘Sounds’, a vocalise excursion which, in one recorded form, lasts for more than 25 minutes. Despite such extraordinary performances and the breakneck tempos she employed on ‘The Trolley Song’ and ‘My Favourite Things’, she could sing ballads with uncloying tenderness. In concert, Carter dominated the stage, paced like a tigress from side to side and delivered her material with devastating attack. The authority with which she stamped her performances, especially in vocalese and the boppish side of her repertoire, helped to make unchallenged her position as the major jazz singer of the 80s and 90s.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.