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First Time I Saw...

Betty Carter Remembered

By Published: May 13, 2006

The music I came from, all you had to do was listen and learn from it, Carter continued. "But when it got free, it was easy. Any musician can get up there and play free. It's no big thing. All the white critics jumped on it and said, 'this is it'. They were scared to say it wasn't it, 'cause they had said Charlie Parker wasn't it, you understand. So they weren't gonna take a chance and say Ornette Coleman and his thing wasn't it. They called it 'jazz' and it scared most blacks away.

She shrugged her shoulders in angry resignation and said emphatically, "Nobody could dance to the stuff Ornette Coleman was playing.

After struggling along her musical path in near public obscurity, 1960 was a good year for Betty Carter. With guidance from Ray Charles, she signed a deal with ABC Paramount and recorded The Modern Sound featuring the Richard Wess Orchestra. Also in 1960, Carter married and started a family. It didn't take long to bring two sons into the world. It was also in 1960 that she toured with Ray Charles. This culminated in June of 1961 with the release of their historic duet album, featuring the Marty Paich Orchestra. After the success of this album, and especially with the popularity of "Baby It's Cold Outside, everybody became aware of Betty Carter. Fifteen years in the business and Betty Carter moved from a cult following to international fame.

This innovative vocal icon was not simply another talented vocalist, she was a blossoming entrepreneur. After recording 'Round Midnight (Atco, 1963) and Inside Betty Carter (United Artists, 1964) she released Finally (Roulette, 1969), considered to be one of her very finest works. Still, Carter found herself falling short of the popularity her duet with Ray Charles had produced.

Disillusioned with record company executives and producers, in 1971 she established her own Bet-Car Record label. Finally, she was in total control of her productions, her song choices, and her own unique musical arrangements. The result was that Carter produced a string of wonderful albums. She not only anchored her name and presence as a jazz musician, but also established a successful, female-owned and operated music label. Another claim to fame was the way she embraced and introduced vibrant, young talent. Betty Carter polished them during her live performances and used them on her recordings. She showcased new talent such as John Hicks, Mulgrew Miller, Cyrus Chestnut, Dave Holland, Stephen Scott, and Kenny Washington.

In August of '74, Betty Carter experienced a new upsurge of interest when she appeared in the Broadway play, Don't Call Me Man. She referenced a two-page review of the play by Mark Jacobson that appeared in the Village Voice. Carter swore this did more for her career than any of her managers had ever done.

Then in 1988, Verve Records was scooping up under-appreciated jazz singers like Abbey Lincoln and Shirley Horn. They offered her a deal she couldn't refuse.

"I finally got with a major record company that offered to give me some money and let me keep my integrity, Carter said. "You know, I would record for a record company for no money, if I could just keep my integrity and do what I wanna do. That's difficult. People don't want you to do. They want their egos stimulated. They need to say, ' I made that. I groomed that person.' I, I, I, all over the place!

Always innovative and pushing the boundaries of creativity, Carter continued exploring many artistic paths as diverse and upbeat as her music. She became a prolific songwriter, made guest appearances on the Bill Cosby television show and even appeared in a Coca Cola commercial. While her discography is extensive, mention must be made of Carter's live album, Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Duets (Great American Music Hall, 1987) pairing her with the equally renowned jazz vocalist, Carmen McCrae. Then in 1988, Carter finally won a Grammy Award for Best Female Jazz Vocalist for her album Look What I Got (Verve, 1988).

During an interview with Detroit Jazz disc jockey, Ed Love on WDET public radio, Carter discussed promoting jazz in the current video market. This was long before it had been considered.

"The first thing the record companies say, Carter explained, "is, 'It's a jazz album? It's not going to make any money.' They refuse to put in new marketing ideas to promote the art form. We could turn on so many young people to jazz if we could introduce new videos. Now I know John Lee Hooker's been around a long time. He's no young lover boy! But his video showed young, strapping men with beautiful women. It showed John Lee Hooker playing his instrument, or sometimes just his smile. Same thing can be done in jazz. But keep the music in tact, the way it was recorded. Just think about what could be done visually with Moody's Mood for Love.

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