Born Lillie Mae Jones, May 16, 1930, in Flint, MI; children: two sons. Studied piano as a teenager at the Detroit Conservatory of Music; won a talent show at Detroit's Paradise Theater, 1946; while still in high school, sat in on gigs with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and other bebop musicians visiting Detroit. Toured with Lionel Hampton's band, 1948-51, Miles Davis, 1960, and Ray Charles, 1960-63; performed in Japan, 1963, London, 1964, and France, 1968. In 1969, began to work with her own trio and founded her own record company, Bet-Car Productions. In 1975, appeared in Howard Moore's musical Don't Call Me Man. Continues to perform and record with her trio. Addresses: Home-- Brooklyn, New York. Media information-- Polygram Classics, 810 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019.

"Idon't hear anybody out there now who really scares me, who makes me think, 'Betty, you got to push a little harder,'" Betty Carter once told the Daily News Magazine. "So many of the good ones straddle the line between jazz and commercial. They think they can do both. But when I see someone straddling, I know I got nothin' to worry about."

"Straddling" has no place in Carter's aesthetic. While many of her contemporaries went the commercial route over the years, striving for the money and fame that a hit record might bring, Carter stuck to what she set out to do as a teenager--sing jazz, her way. In the end her perseverance and talent paid off. Though she's self-taught and considers herself not a "true" singer, she's earned a place alongside such jazz divas as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan. In jazz, after all, what matters is not so much training and technique as originality--which she has plenty of.

As noted in the New York Post, she's a "singer who can take a standard and--without relying on facile 'shoo-be-doo-be' scat--reinvent it on the spot by reharmonizing the melody, changing the emphasis of the lyrics, and toying with the tempo and rhythm." (Older-generation critics have accused her of losing the theme in the complexity of her interpretations; younger ones are usually floored by her inventions.) Each time she performs, whether standards or originals, she seems to stretch the concept of improvisation to a new limit. She's known for taking ballads at tempos that are impossibly and mesmerizingly slow. Then there's her inimitable contralto--deep, sensuous, and husky. And she has a character whose strength underlies the power of her voice. Throughout her four-decade-plus career she's done things her way from start to finish, even though it meant struggling for many years. "A lot of people don't like dealing with an independent black female, who takes care of her own business and holds her head high," she told AP writer Mary Campbell. "But I've never thought about quitting. I've been discouraged maybe but something would always happen to make you think you'd be a star in the next six months."

Carter was born Lillie Mae Jones on May 16, 1930, in Flint, Michigan. She grew up in Detroit and as a high school student studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory of Music. It was a time when a brilliant and bold new music was sweeping the country--bebop, the postwar jazz style that was being pioneered by the great saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, and horn player Dizzy Gillespie. Lillie Mae was immediately turned on to it. She often "played hookey at the soda joint across the street from my high school and listened to the jukebox, which was filled with bebop singles," she told Pulse! "We would sit around and learn the solos, and go to see them whenever they came to town--we met Bird and Dizzy when they came to our school." Soon she was singing Sunday afternoon cabaret gigs; by the age of 18 she had sat in with Bird, Dizzy, trumpeter Miles Davis, and other greats. Her first employer, though, was not a bebopper but a veteran of swing music--the vibraphonist and bandleader Lionel Hampton. In a 1988 interview with AP writer Campbell, Carter recounted their first meeting: "I went with some classmates to hear Lionel's band. We were standing in front of the bandstand. A guy said, 'Why don't you let Lillie Mae sing?' That was my name then. He said, 'Can you sing, Gates?' I said yes. He said, 'Then come on up, Gates.'"

The impromptu audition landed her a job. From 1948 to 1951 she toured with Hampton, standing in front of his big band and scatting (improvising with nonsense syllables) segments of the tunes they played. "I didn't get a chance to sing too many songs because Hamp had a lot of other singers at the same time; but I took care of the bebop division, you might say," she told Pulse! with a chuckle. "He'd stick me into songs they were already doing, so I was singing a chorus here, a chorus there; I didn't realize at the time what good training that was. And I had the late Bobby Plater teach me to orchestrate and transpose, which I really needed later on." While she was learning from Hampton she was also learning from his wife. "I had this role model of Gladys Hampton to emulate. She took care of the band, saw to it that everything ran smoothly, that everybody got paid and such. That was the first time I'd ever experienced dealing with a woman who was the boss--and she was a black woman. It was very unusual at that time, and still is."

Lorraine Carter, as the young singer had begun calling herself, made quite a stir at New York's Apollo Theater. Jack Schiffman, son of the late Apollo owner Frank Schiffman, recalled his impressions for the Daily News Magazine: "Lionel Hampton introduced a small girl, hair bobbed short, eyes seemingly larger than her face, who burst out on stage, took a deep breath, and sang bebop riffs, a whole machine-gun load of them that turned the house upside down. I never saw an audience turned on so quickly to a new sound." Hampton began calling her Betty Bebop (which evolved into Betty Carter). But the relationship between the two was a stormy one; Hampton allegedly fired her half a dozen times for mouthing off to him. "I wanted to be with a hipper band--the guys playing bebop, not swing," Carter told Polygram. "But in retrospect I was right where I needed to be." She elaborated in the Daily News Magazine, "I couldn't see the advantage of his making me go out there and improvise every night. But without that training, I might not know how to be spontaneous now." "And suppose I had been with Dizzy's band," she told Pulse!, "The things that were going on there"--the use of heroin among the musicians--"were things I didn't need to come in contact with. But I didn't know that then."

In 1952, after two and a half years of "doing what Hamp wanted me to," as she told AP writer Campbell, "I struck out to find out what more I could do with myself. I came to New York and got work right away at the Apollo Bar, a couple of doors from the Apollo Theater." Thus began a grueling period of dues-paying. "I did the usual, playing dives and joints, wherever I could," she told Pulse! "There were a lot of places around to do the hustling then.... Besides all the clubs that were in New York, we had Philadelphia to work with, and Boston, and Washington, D.C.; all up and down the East Coast there were lots of places to work. And Detroit was still good then, and Chicago." It was a golden time of opportunity. "There was a big, beautiful music world for us in the '50s," she told the Daily News Magazine. "We played and learned together, because we all loved music and musicianship. It wasn't about money--we weren't making any of that--it was about a whole community. No one had to dominate. We liked each other. I'd hang around clubs with Sarah Vaughan or Ruth Brown. I played on bills with Sonny Til and the Orioles, the Temptations, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Miles Davis. It didn't matter what you did; you just had to be good at it. At the Apollo, you could play classical music if you did it well.... Someone should write a book about those days. There was such joy. We thought that world would never end."

Carter's hard work led to a theater tour with Miles Davis, which led to a tour with the famed gospel pianist and singer Ray Charles. In the midst of the latter, Charles asked Carter to do a record with him. "He asked me in Baltimore, in the hallway by the dressing rooms," she recalled in Pulse! "After he asked me, it got silent; I mean, he had 'Georgia' going, a bi-iii-ig hit record; he didn't need me.... I went to his house to work on the tunes, and then went back to the hotel numb because I was really gonna do it. I learned the tunes by thinking about it more than practicing them; we didn't go over anything more than one time, because I was capable of understanding everything he said to me about what to do and how to do it." The result was the 1961 classic Ray Charles and Betty Carter, which has been reissued by Dunhill on CD. "It was the one thing that kept my name out in front of people, because I didn't have any records of my own."

During the sixties jazz got undercut by rock music, and the industry pressured jazz musicians to commercialize. As Carter told the Daily News Magazine, "the business became about money. Lots of money. And when some jazz players see that, they want some of it. Instead of $500 a night, they think they can make $4,000 in the commercial world. And some do, for a while. But the commercial world is a trap. You have one hit, they want number two, and number three. If you don't get it, they drop you." Carter stuck by her own bebop-rooted music and tried to convince her peers to do the same. But as she told Pulse!, "nobody in jazz paid me any attention because I was female and a singer. Had it been a male who said what I said, we might have made a dent--the way [trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis is making a dent now, saying a lot of the things that I said a long time ago. I think we might have stopped a lot of jazz artists from switching to commercial stuff."

Refusing to change her style, Carter found herself shut out by record labels. "What do you do after you've tried to sell yourself and nobody wants to buy? That hurts, it really does. Anyway, I decided if I was ever going to record again I should do it myself." In 1969 she founded her own label, Bet-Car Productions, and, along with a female business partner, assumed control of not only the recording and producing but also the financing, manufacturing, and distribution ends of the business. "I had to do everything myself only because I could not be controlled," she told Jam Sessions. "I could not be produced by somebody else, telling me what to do; telling me how to be, how to think and how to move."

As Carter recorded for Bet-Car in the 1970s and continued to perform, her audience grew. But as she told the New York Post, "I realized I was bottling up my musicianship, trying to accommodate, trying not to be too extreme. Because a lot of my peers were talking about, 'Why don't you stop doing the bebop? ... Why don't you get a hit record?' But why should I deal with something that was making me feel bad? ... I decided to just stick with my music, to try to improve it, and suddenly I started going to colleges and discovered that there was a whole new audience. And the more interesting it got, the more the audience liked it."

It seems appropriate that Carter began playing colleges, as she has always been an educator of jazz music. As Cash Box observed, she has been "one of the most eloquent drum-beaters for jazz. She sits on panels, she makes speeches, she has been very vocal in her opinion about what is jazz, what isn't jazz, and what's happening in this art form." What motivates her, as she told Cash Box, is her own "black culture. I want to make these young kids realize that it was the black people who started this wonderful music of jazz, and not Dave Brubeck." Since the 1970s, her most powerful tool as an educator has been to perform with young sidepeople, often kids straight out of college. "There's something about having young people play for young people that makes a better impact than, say, five old men," she told Mother Jones. "So it's three young musicians and this old person, Grandma, if you want to say, and we get on stage and we work together. The energy is there, the enthusiasm, the fun, the charisma--everything that youth wants. See, without that, there's no way I can compete with the hip-hoppers."

Carter's band members receive an education of their own. Drummer Kenny Washington, who played with Carter from 1978 to 1980, told the Christian Science Monitor that "you have to watch Betty all the time. She has it completely in her mind what she wants. But she doesn't say you do it my way or not at all. She thrives on suggestions. She wants you to speak what you feel and think. The minute you don't have any ideas and suggestions, you're gone." Carter probably wouldn't deny that. "I want my musicians to think all the time," she told the Daily News Magazine, "If somebody plays the same thing 10, 12 times, I'll say, 'Hey, I'm tired of that. What else you got?' The other day I gave my drummer some 7/4. He'd never played it before. It'll give him new tools.... When I improvise, I don't want a note. I want the note. My piano player is 18. Eighteen. And he knows how to get the note. My bass player sometimes hits a note. But he'll get it together. I may be the only musician today who'll tell somebody if I hear a mistake. That's the way it used to be. You told the truth and no one's feelings were hurt, because you did it in a positive way. You see potential, you help develop it."

In 1988, after nearly two decades of running her own label, Carter signed a deal with Polygram's Verve for both new recordings and reissues of Bet-Car titles. Look What I Got!, her first release on Verve, topped Billboard's jazz chart and earned her a Grammy nomination. Her latest release is 1990's Droppin' Things. She continues to play both the club and college circuits. In the spring of 1991, having been named "Jazz Legend" by the Southern Arts Federation, she lectured and performed at 11 southeastern colleges.

"There's no describing the joy of getting up on stage and doing your thing and having an audience respond to it," Carter told the Boston Globe Magazine. "No one has told you what to do. You haven't been produced by anybody. You're on stage because you have talent and you know what to do. And you do it, and the audience is out of their heads. That's what jazz allows you to do. It's the only art form that allows you to do that. Most commercial art forms are produced. Popular music is produced by someone who tells some kid how to sing the song. Not jazz. You're free. That's the difference."

by Kyle Kevorkian

Betty Carter's Career

Betty Carter's Awards

Earned Grammy nominations for the albums The Audience With Betty Carter, Whatever Happened to Love?, and Look What I Got! In 1981, Bet-Car Productions won an Indy Award as the nation's best independent label.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

ditto! I'm less than half your age, Cathy, but---I feel you. My life just began to "make sense" about two years ago when I first heard her recordings. = ) It's like I'd really always heard her somewhere... fiery blessings...

over 16 years ago

I'm 50 years old, and when I heard Betty one day not long ago I knew that my life made sense, with her tremble like voice and the wholeness that exuded from her singing or bee bop a looing. She really is a sensation. My folks listened to Kenton,and the big bands,but I never really recall the women singers. Betty is on fire. So glad I'm able to listen to her today.