Betty Carter's career spanned more than fifty years and made a lasting impact on the history of jazz. She was best known for her "scat" singing, a vocal style that mimics instruments such as the trumpet. Carter was quickly recognised by her contemporaries as one of the best jazz singers of the twentieth century.
Betty Carter was born in Michigan and grew up in Detroit, the birthplace of Motown, a type of Blues and Jazz music. Carter’s father led the church choir and as a child she learnt to play the piano and to sing by accompanying him; she also studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory. She later discovered be-bop music and developed a passion for jazz. Carter began to imitate the sounds and to attempt to reproduce the instrumental lines she heard around her, especially the solo lines played by the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie offered Carter her first professional work in 1946. She was soon spotted by Lionel Hampton. Carter and Hampton toured together but had a stormy working relationship, with Hampton firing her seven times in two and a half years. She eventually left his band to work with other groups. She had built a great reputation as a singer in the jazz world and was able to record as a soloist in the 1950s with great jazz artists such as Max Roach and Miles Davis, and with the Ray Briant Trio.
Betty Carter's career began to lose momentum in the 1960s and 70s, despite the success of her 1961 recordings with Ray Charles (under the guidance of Miles Davis) and their rendition of the track "Baby, It's Cold Outside", a successful tour with Sonny Rollins in Japan, and numerous recordings with ABC-Paramount and United Artists. In 1970, Carter decided to dissolve her record label Bet-Car, with which she had produced several of her most famous albums, including "The Audience with Betty Carter" (1980). She also started working with young artists, even hiring her band from among them. In 1987, Carter signed with Verve, which redistributed her back catalogue of recordings. It was not until the end of her career that Betty Carter gained international recognition: she received a Grammy Award in 1988 and a few years later was personally invited to the White House by President Bill Clinton.
Six Landmark Dates in the Life of Betty Carter
1958: Made her first recording under her real name, Out There with Betty Carter for Peacock.
1961: Recorded Baby, It’s Cold Outside with Ray Charles
1970: Founded her own label, Bet-Car
1988: Won a Grammy Award for her album Look What I Got!
1996: Recorded her final album with Verve, I’m yours, you’re mine
1997: Received a National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton