Considered by jazz aficionados to be among the top ten female vocalists of all time, Carmen McRae's distinctive behind-the-beat phrasing, impeccable vocal control, and witty, sometimes acerbic way of conveying a lyric are what set her apart as a singularly great singer. She considered jazz great Billie Holiday to be a musical mentor. But this Queen of Cool had her own sound and style; including an amazing ability to scat. The versatile McRae could swing hard when it was called for; next she could draw out a ballad, savoring each note and syllable without losing audience attention, she was in a class by herself.
McRae was fortunate enough to have been raised by a family prosperous enough to afford a piano and lessons. Early on she expressed a strong interest in an acting career. By age twenty, her interest in music had taken over and she began singing as well as playing the piano. Even at a young age, she was a woman with something to say and throughout her life was recognized not only for her musical talents but for her immense love for verbal expression through musical lyrics.
Her first break was getting hired as an intermission pianist at Harlem's world-famous Minton's Playhouse, a jazz club. She became acquainted with many of the top modern jazz musicians of the time. An important influence was songwriter Irene Wilson, who introduced her to Billie Holiday. Wilson continued to encourage McRae to write music; one of McRae's first attempts at songwriting, Dream of Life, was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939.