On May 16, 1929, Betty Carter was born in Flint, MI. The jazz pioneer is best known for her improvisational style. Vocalist Carmen McRae summarized Carter’s legacy best when she said: “There’s really only one jazz singer-only one: Betty Carter.”
Detroit, MI was a jazz music hotspot throughout the 1940s and 1950s. As a teenager, Carter emerged as a local sensation. The husky-voiced bebop singer pushed the limits of jazz music, unpredictably changing her tempo and tone. By 16 years old, she was performing with jazz legends, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Her big break came in 1948 when drummer Lionel Hampton hired her to perform with his big band. Due to Carter’s penchant for riffing, Hampton often grew frustrated with the singer. Rumor has it he fired her seven times during their two-and-a-half year collaboration. Each time, Hampton’s wife convinced her husband to rehire the talented Carter.
In the early 1950s, Carter parted ways with Hampton and moved to New York City to launch her solo career. While in New York, she performed at the Apollo Theatre and recorded multiple albums, including her 1958 solo debut, “Out There.” From 1958 to 1959, she toured with Miles Davis, who recommended she meet his friend Ray Charles. In 1961, the Carter and Charles recorded their classic album, “Ray Charles and Betty Carter.” Their hit single, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” made Carter a household name. For most of the 1960s, Carter retreated from the spotlight to get married and have children. In 1969, she reemerged, starting her own label, Bet-Car Productions. She released her own albums on her label. Carter also became a mentor to a new crop of young jazz musicians.
By the mid-1970s, she began to gain more recognition for her incredible talent. She was a guest performer on “Saturday Night Live” in 1976 and she sang at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1977 and 1978. Then, in 1988, she won her first Grammy for her album “Look What I Got.” It was the first independently produced jazz album to win the award. Until she passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1998, Carter continued touring, recording and mentoring young jazz musicians.
Fiercely independent, Carter never wavered from her truth as a musician. Of her unique singing style, she once said: “If you’re sitting in that audience ready to fight me from the very beginning, I’m going to have a hard time getting to you. But if you’ve got a heart at all, I’m going to get it.”