Betty Carter: Fiercely Individual

In the late ’80s, Betty Carter achieved sustained recognition upon signing to a major label, which also reissued much of her back catalog.

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For nearly 50 years, Betty Carter was an irrepressible and incomparable practitioner of the jazz vocal tradition, with an intense, adventurous style and a booming voice. The fiercely dedicated and demanding vocalist was a pioneer in the music business, paving the route for scores of younger musicians.

Carter was born in a strict Baptist household in Detroit, a city with a rich jazz community. She began singing in her high-school choir, and was later exposed to bebop, a style just emerging in her teenage years. She loved it instantly, and while still in her teens, she had the opportunity to sing with bebop pioneers Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

Her first big break came when she joined drummer Lionel Hampton’s big band, a gig she held for two and a half years. Their relationship was always rocky, though, and Carter was fired numerous times. But with the help of Hampton’s wife, Gladys, they always managed to get back together. “Any time that Hamp and I got into it, [Gladys] was always backing me up and making sure that I didn’t leave the band too early,” Carter says. “She wanted me to wait and get some experience and then leave the band.”

After leaving Hampton’s band in the early ’50s, Carter headed to New York, where she was determined to make a name for herself. “It was very important in those days for a musician or a singer to become an individual,” Carter says. “You had to be yourself if you were going to succeed.” Throughout the 1950s, Carter created her own musical identity through her singing, composing and arranging.

In 1961, she was asked to record with singer Ray Charles. Their version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” took the country by storm and made Charles a household name. During the early ’60s, Carter also married and had two sons.

However, as the ’60s progressed, Carter struggled with managers and record companies and developed a reputation as troublesome. So in 1969, she started her own record label, Bet-Car Productions, and by 1970 she released her first album. She began hiring and mentoring young musicians — a service some have called The University of Betty Carter. Playing in her band offered on-the-job training to drummers Clarence Penn and Lewis Nash, pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Benny Green, and bassists Chris Thomas, Michael Bowie and Curtis Lundy, among others.

During the ’80s, Carter’s album Look What I Got became the first independently produced jazz album to win a Grammy, and she collaborated with vocalist Carmen McRae and pianist Geri Allen. Late in her career, Carter also conducted an annual writing and performance workshop for budding young musicians all over the country.

Betty Carter continued touring, mentoring and recording until her death of pancreatic cancer in 1998.