Betty Carter Remembered

Dee Dee McNeil By

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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.

Betty CarterToday, Betty Carter's prophetic opinions are consumer available. Progress has been made, especially by the BET (Black Entertainment Television) Jazz Cable Network. She must be up there smiling down on us, pleased that her creative idea of incorporating jazz into popular videos has become a marketing reality.

Even now, I wonder how she did it all! In a world dominated by male musicians and record executives, staying true to herself had to be a great sacrifice. At a time when she was using her voice as an instrument, instead of settling to become another polished nightclub singer, she made a conscious decision to go against the grain. The world is blessed that Betty Carter worked and struggled to bring us the best of herself. The Carter recordings remain an extraordinary and musical jazz inspiration. Surely she will always be remembered as a volatile, outspoken, opinionated and strong female artist; one who was not afraid to explore the universe of her voice and the outer-limits of her creativity.

Selected Discography:

Lionel Hampton, 1949-1950 (Classics, 2001)
Betty Carter, I'm Yours, You're Mine (Verve, 1996)
Betty Carter, Feed the Fire (Verve, 1993)
Betty Carter, It's Not About the Melody (Verve, 1992)
Betty Carter, Droppin' Things (Verve, 1990)
Betty Carter, Look What I Got (Verve, 1988)
Carmen McCrae/Betty Carter, Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Duets (Great American Music Hall, 1987) Betty Carter, What Happened to Love (Verve, 1982)
Betty Carter, The Audience with Betty Carter (Verve, 1979)
Betty Carter, Now It's My Turn (Roulette, 1976)
Betty Carter, The Betty Carter Album (Verve, 1972)
Betty Carter, At the Village Vanguard (Verve, 1970)
Betty Carter, Finally (Roulette, 1969)
Betty Carter, Inside Betty Carter (United Artists, 1964)
Betty Carter, 'Round Midnight (Atco, 1963)
Ray Charles/Betty Carter, Ray Charles and Betty Carter (ABC, 1961)
Betty Carter,The Modern Sound of Betty Carter (ABC, 1960)
Betty Carter/Ray Bryant, Meet Betty Carter and Ray Bryant (Epic, 1955)

Related Article
Open The Door: The Life and Music of Betty Carter

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Jos L. Knaepen
Bottom Photo: Sue Storey

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