MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, “MOONGLOW”
Welcome to Afterglow, a show of vocal jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
This week, we’re highlighting one of the most celebrated jazz singers of the 20th century: Carmen McRae. McRae had one of the most consistent careers in jazz, stretching for about four decades. She first became famous in the 1950s, when she was already in her thirties. And even on those early records, she already had a well-developed jazz style, complete with a confident delivery, a pointed tone, and a natural gift for improvisation. On this program, we’ll explore those early years for McRae, focusing on her many albums for Decca Records in the late 1950s.
It’s Carmen McRae on Decca, coming up next on Afterglow
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “MY FUNNY VALENTINE”
Carmen McRae in March 1957 with the Rodgers and Hart song “My Funny Valentine.” That comes from her Decca LP title After Glow. Ronnell Bright is playing piano here along with Ike Isaacs on bass and Specs Wright on drums. McRae shows incredible melodic invention in this performance, with all the confidence of a seasoned jazz horn player, converting Richard Rodgers’ original melody into something fresh by extending phrases and altering notes. Yet, her intonation never wavers, and her grasp of the meaning behind Lorenz Hart’s words are never in doubt.
MUSIC CLIP - TEDDY WILSON, “I CAN’T GET STARTED”
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re focusing on some of the early albums by the great jazz singer Carmen McRae.
Back in April 2020, I seemed to have missed Carmen McRae’s centennial celebration—what would have been her 100th birthday. I might be forgiven a little bit: my son was born around the same time, so I was a bit preoccupied. And to be fair, that date has always been a little questionable. April 8, 1920 is generally considered to be her birthday today, but for years, her birth year was given as 1922 [which means, this year would be her centennial!]. But then again, she once told a biographer her birthday was in 1918. Nevertheless, we’re celebrating her now.
Regardless of her birth year, Carmen McRae was in her 30s when she made her first notable recording, a debut album for Bethlehem Records. Prior to that, she knocked around New York for many years, writing songs, playing piano, and singing. She worked briefly with Mercer Ellington (she was married to his drummer Kenny Clarke), and she hung out in hip Harlem nightclubs, like Minton’s, cutting her teeth with many of the best jazz musicians of the day. Charlie Parker was a friend, and she wrote new lyrics to his tune “Yardbird Suite.” A gig in Brooklyn led her to that recording contract for Bethlehem, but the Bethlehem label had trouble holding onto talent. In 1954, producer Milt Gabler recruited McRae to join Decca Records, where she would stay for the rest of that decade.
By this point, she was a rough contemporary of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra, who were all putting out some of their most stylistically mature content, after years in the music business. But McRae, at least in the studio, was a newcomer, and her output rivals those of other artists for its musical expertise. Jazz writer Will Friedwald called these Decca LPs “rank among the best of all vocal records” and that the albums, quote “take a back seat to no one.”
Let’s start with her first album titled By Special Request. This is Carmen McRae in 1955 with the Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin song “I Can’t Get Started,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “I CAN’T GET STARTED”
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR”
Carmen McRae in 1955 from her first album for Decca Records titled By Special Request. [Just now, we heard the Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn tune “Something To Live For.” Strayhorn was accompanying McRae on that track, a sign of her reputation as a singer, despite this essentially being her first major label album. Before that, ] we heard the Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin song “I Can’t Get Started.”
Carmen McRae’s next album for Decca, titled Torchy from 1956, featured a larger ensemble and put her in touch with two different arrangers with whom she would work closely over her years with Decca: Ralph Burns and Jack Pleis (“Pleece”). Let’s hear two songs from this album now, one arranged by Burns and one arranged by Pleis.
First up, this is Carmen McRae, recorded late in 1955, with a Jack Pleis arrangement of the Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen song “But Beautiful,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “BUT BEAUTIFUL”
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE”
Two songs from Carmen McRae’s 1956 album for Decca Records titled Torchy. Just now, we heard a song first made famous by McRae’s mentor Billie Holiday, the tune “Good Morning Heartache.” That was arranged by Ralph Burns. Before that, the jazz standard “But Beautiful,” arranged there by Jack Pleis. We’ll hear more arrangements by Burns and Pleis later in the hour.
Carmen McRae’s follow up album to Torchy was a more jazz-centric album, featuring straight-ahead jazz arrangements by Jimmy Mundy and Tadd Dameron. The album was called Blue Moon and was recorded early in 1956. Let’s hear the title track from that album now.
This is Carmen McRae in March 1956 with the Rodgers and Hart song “Blue Moon,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “BLUE MOON”
Carmen McRae with Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” the title track off of her 1956 Decca album Blue Moon, arranged by Jimmy Mundy and Tadd Dameron.
The next Decca LP for Carmen McRae was titled After Glow, a great album title if I do say so myself. On this one, the accompaniment is stripped back just to a simple rhythm section, similar to her first Decca album By Special Request. Ronnell Bright plays piano on four of the tracks, and Ray Bryant plays on four others. On the remaining four tracks of this twelve-track album, Carmen McRae is the one sitting at the piano, and she’s quite accomplished at the instrument. Let’s listen to two of those tracks with McRae accompanying herself.
First up, this is Carmen McRae on vocals and piano with the Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields standard “Exactly Like You,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “EXACTLY LIKE YOU”
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “PERDIDO”
Carmen McRae on both vocals and piano from her 1957 Decca album titled After Glow. We just heard the Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh song “Exactly Like You,” followed by the Juan Tizol song “Perdido.”
MUSIC CLIP - DUKE ELLINGTON, “PERDIDO”
We’ll have more from Carmen McRae’s Decca years in the 1950s in just a bit. Stay with us.
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow
MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON TRIO, “EASY TO LOVE”
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been exploring the music jazz singer Carmen McRae recorded for Decca Records in the 1950s this hour…
MUSIC CLIP - CARMEN MCRAE, “WHATEVER LOLA WANTS”
That was Carmen McRae with the song “Whatever Lola Wants,” from the 1955 Robert Adler and Jerry Ross musical Damn Yankees. That was a brand new song when McRae recorded it as a single for Decca Records in February 1955 (her version was actually recorded a few months before Damn Yankees opened on Broadway!). Jack Pleis was the arranger, featuring the Dave Lambert singers in the background (that’s Dave Lambert of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross fame).
In addition to recording some marvelous jazz LPs for Decca in the late 1950s, McRae was also tasked with recording some pop singles for the label. “Whatever Lola Wants” was one of her better selling singles.
Let’s turn back to some of the Decca LPs now. One of the more unique records that McRae released for Decca was called Mad About the Man from 1958. It was an album of all songs by the flamboyant British songwriter and playwright Noël Coward. In the 1950s, Coward was having a bit of a late-career revival, after mounting a successful cabaret act in Las Vegas. McRae’s album is one of the few songbook albums for Coward—he wrote a couple of jazz standards, but most singers ignore the deeper parts of his catalog.
Let’s hear a track from this album now. This is Carmen McRae in 1957, with a Noël Coward song from the 1929 operetta Bitter Sweet, the song “I’ll See You Again,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “I’LL SEE YOU AGAIN”
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE”
Carmen McRae with the Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields song “All The Things You Are.” That unique arrangement featuring flute, clarinet, and bass clarinet was by Fred Katz, for McRae’s 1958 Decca LP titled Carmen For Cool Ones, a really hip record featuring some unusual arrangements of jazz standards. Before that, we heard the Noël Coward song “I’ll See You Again” for Carmen McRae’s all Noël Coward-themed Decca LP Mad About The Man, also from 1958.
In the late 1950s, record labels were known for pairing up some of their talent to help maximize their crossover appeal. Dinah Washington recorded with Brooks Benton for Mercury, Frank Sinatra recorded with Keely Smith for Capitol, Ella Fitzgerald recorded with Louis Armstrong for Verve, and Carmen McRae recorded with Sammy Davis Jr. for Decca. Carmen and Sammy seem like an unusual pair at first. Carmen is the epitome of understated cool, while overstated is Sammy’s whole schtick. But they find the right balance, especially when jazz is at the center.
The two recorded a few singles and two albums together, including Boy Meets Girl from 1957, and Porgy And Bess from 1958 (which was mostly a Sammy Davis Jr. record). Let’s hear a track from that first album now.
This is Carmen McRae and Sammy Davis Jr. with the George and Ira Gershwin song “Who Cares,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE AND SAMMY DAVIS JR., “WHO CARES”
Carmen McRae and Sammy Davis Jr. in 1957, from their Decca LP called Boy Meets Girl. That was the Gershwin song “Who Cares.”
Carmen McRae’s final solo LP for Decca Records was the album Birds Of A Feather from 1958. It’s a concept album, featuring all jazz standards about birds. It sounds a bit silly at first, but McRae is in top form, imbuing each song with the right amount of humor and backed marvelously again by Ralph Burns’s orchestra. Legendary tenor saxophonist Ben Webster is also featured on these tracks. Shortly after this recording, McRae made the move from Decca to Kapp records, and continued to release some of her best material. But we’ll have to save her work on the Kapp label for another time.
Let’s hear two songs from the Birds Of A Feather Decca LP now, beginning with the jazz standard “Bye Bye Blackbird,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “BYE BYE BLACKBIRD”
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “FLAMINGO”
Carmen McRae in 1958 with “Flamingo” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.” That comes from her bird-themed Decca album called Birds of A Feather, featuring arrangements by Ralph Burns, with special guest Ben Webster on tenor saxophone.
I want to close off this episode about Carmen McRae and Decca Records with one more track from her 1957 Decca album titled After Glow, and I’m not just picking this again because Afterglow is also the title of my show. Besides being the only Decca LP where Carmen McRae is also featured playing piano, After Glow is also the only Decca LP that features a song written by Carmen McRae. Early on in her career, she dabbled in songwriting, and was quite good at it, in fact. When she was a teenager, she became close with Billie Holiday’s pianist Teddy Wilson and Wilson’s wife Irene Kitchings, who also wrote songs for Holiday, like “Ghost Of Yesterday.” At age 19, Inspired by Kitchings, McRae wrote her own song called “Dream of Life,” which was first recorded by Billie Holiday. McRae held this song dear throughout her own career, and recorded it herself on the 1957 album After Glow, 18 years after Holiday’s original recording.
Let’s hear it now. This is Carmen McRae with her original song “Dream Of Life,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “DREAM OF LIFE”
Carmen McRae in 1957 from her Decca LP titled After Glow. That was her original song called “Dream Of Life,” first performed by Billie Holiday in 1939.
Thanks for tuning in to this Carmen McRae edition of Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - CLARK TERRY, “DO NOTHING TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME”
Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow.