On a smoggy summer day in the mid-1970's, Soul & Jazz Record
magazine scheduled my interview with Betty "Be Bop Carter. Even then she was legendary. Lillie Mae Jones, soon to become Betty Carter, grew up traveling between Flint and Detroit chasing scat dreams. Ultimately, Lillie Mae would become the world's Be Bop Queen, donning her crown along with a new name.
In her hotel suite that morning, Carter had on a silky, lounge outfit and no make-up. When asked how it feels to be a vocal legend who weathered the musical storm from the be-bop era into the age of fusion jazz and what makes her approach so unique, a feisty Carter replied, "I don't see me like you see me. I've been doing this so long that it's natural for me. I thought it was okay to learn new music; learn how to write and to arrange your own stuff. It took a long time to realize that a lot of singers have other people doing their arrangements. But I wanted to do my own. So that meant I had to learn about the music. ...I did that when I was with Lionel Hampton.
Born May 16, 1929, this month would have been Betty Carters' 77th birthday. By the time she was a teenager, Lillie Mae Jones knew she wanted to be a professional jazz singer. A determined young woman, she was smart enough to make herself known to all the big-name jazz musicians who passed through Detroit. Even before she became Betty Carter, at sweet sixteen Lillie Mae sat in with Charlie Parker. Later, Lionel Hampton offered the young talent a job singing with his band. She was barely eighteen years old, but Lillie Mae didn't hesitate. It was Lionel Hampton who nick-named her "Betty Be Bop. Before that, she was billed as Lorraine Carter. That Betty Be Bop nickname stuck!
During her tenure with Hamp's band, a raw, inexperienced Betty Carter shared the stage with another fledgling singer. He too was destined for longevity and fame. It was none other than Little Jimmy Scott. Also in the band were two musicians who would later become giants in their own right; Charles Mingus and Wes Montgomery. Betty made only one recording with Lionel Hampton's band. It was a vocal version of "The Hucklebuck. Although she was not immediately embraced by the record-buying public, Carter made a positive impression on inner circle jazz musicians. When she recorded Red Top with King Pleasure, she surprised audiences by singing Gail Brockman's trumpet solo. Not only did it become one of her signature songs, it cast her "Be Bop title in stone. Even then, Betty's style and approach defied definition. She refused to be pigeon-holed into a category. This was evident when she was headlining at the Apollo twice a year from 1949 to 1965.
Carter would appear on the line-up at the Apollo with a diversity of musical names. Miles, Monk, Moody, Moms Mabley and me, Carter reminisced. "That was one show. Another show I did was John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Bo Diddley. All right! Is that a show for you? I did one with the Isley Brothers. The Flamingos. Now this is the variety that they have been able to put me on with through the years. So nobody could tell me that my thing wasn't going!
I couldn't do anything else if I wanted to, Carter continued emphatically. "I couldn't sing like Aretha Franklin. It's just not my bag. I was doing nothing but me. I think everybody's strong and survives in being themselves. I think that's what you were supposed to do in the first place. I think that's what 'the man' put you here for, to be yourself. You're an individual. He made everyone of us different!
And different she was! There are few voices that demand the respect and attention of Betty Carter's unique jazz style and phrasing. Carter's harmonics were fascinating, as was the way she could go outside boundaries of melody and time, yet always making it work.
In May of 1955, Betty Carter recorded with the Ray Bryant trio. The next recording came with Gigi Gryce's band in 1956. Unfortunately, this recording effort sat on some dusty shelf until it was released in 1980.
During the interview, an outspoken Batty Carter expressed anger about the avant-garde jazz of the day. As a product of Hampton's big band fame, she missed ballroom days, swing dancing and times when people enjoyed singing lyrics along with the music. Betty Carter didn't mince words!
"It's pathetic, Carter said, at this point, how much we don't know about our own craft. We did it to ourselves. A lot of our musicians did it to themselves. In the '60s, they became panicky. Coltrane came along, so everybody starts to play free. They didn't realize that is not black culture. The moment they did that, they alienated blacks. Whites began to absorb that free stuff, because they're classically trained. They know about dissonance. That's their culture. Blacks run from it, because none of our music would swing anymore. They were talkin' about this is the new music and I was scared to death!
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.