Irene Kral was not just another jazz singer. She had a delicate style, yet every note was placed with deliberate aim, and she always hit her mark with unerring accuracy. She had a brilliant flair for picking tasty, little-known material, often by up and coming young, jazz-influenced songwriters. She recorded only a small number of albums, often on small, jazz labels and she never sang in a show-off way, never scatted, never belted or raunched out her voice. Most aficionados of female vocalists have never heard of her, and she remains largely forgotten in the jazz history books. Yet her work deserves to be searched out, for her intimate style and purity of tone.
Irene Kral was born to Czechoslovakian parents on Jan. 18th, 1932 in Chicago. Her earliest musical influence was her brother, Roy, who at 18 formed his own big band and would rehearse the group in their parent's basement. While watching her brother and his band, she decided that she wanted to sing. She was 8 years old at the time. Her brother, Roy, became well known later as half of 'Jackie and Roy', a highly influential bebop vocal duo, well-respected in jazz circles.
By the time she was 16, she was singing and accompanying herself on piano, performing at school and the occasional wedding. Her vocal skills impressed her professional musician brother enough for him to take her by the hand to audition for a swinging Chicago big band, led by Jay Burkhardt. Burkhardt's band had been the starting point for two other singers, who went on to bigger things, Joe Williams and Jackie Cain (who later married her brother, and was the 'Jackie' of 'Jackie and Roy'). A series of jobs with other bands came and went, over the next few years, including a brief stint with Woody Herman.
In 1954, she landed a job singing with a jazz vocal group called the Tattle Tales. She played drums, and sang lead with the group, which traveled from coast to coast, and to Canada, Bermuda and Puerto Rico. The group recorded for Columbia Records, but nothing much came of the records. She stayed with the group for a little over a year. Following her heart to stretch out as a solo artist, she left the Tattle Tales and began picking up the occasional weekend solo job, and auditioning for any band that she thought might be going places.
When she was 25, in 1957, her friend Carmen McRae recommended her to band-leader Maynard Ferguson. The next time Ferguson came through Chicago, she got up on the stand and sang one tune with the band. After Ferguson heard Kral finish singing 'Sometimes I'm Happy', he hired her on the spot and she started that night with no rehearsal. In Fergusons' band she met Joe Burnett, a trumpet and fluegelhorn player, whom she married in 1958. She stayed with the Ferguson band for nearly two years, recording one album with them, before she was offered her own contract to record solo.