Songs and Events
My first experience with Carmen McRae’s forthright personality was early in my songwriting career and also relatively early in her recording career with Decca Records. My publisher and music business mentor, Sam Weiss, of Weiss and Barry Publishers, gave Carmen a copy of my song “You Don’t Have To Tell Me”. She decided to record it and submitted it to Decca.
It was not uncommon then for individuals somewhere in the chain of music production to attempt to add or even substitute their name as the songwriter, instead of giving credit to the true creators. In this case, the A & R (Artists and Repertoire) man assigned to Carmen (he shall remain nameless here) approved the song conditionally – and the condition was that he could add his name to the song credits as co-author.
It’s worth noting here that Carmen, at that time in her career, did not wield the influence she later acquired. Nonetheless, Carmen’s independent spirit quickly surfaced, and she flatly refused to record it with that requirement. Fortunately, she prevailed and I was properly credited as the sole author. The song was released as a single in 1955 and later included in an album of other singles she had previously recorded.
It was only later that I learned of her firm support, which she had given even though we hadn’t yet met. In 1959, Carmen recorded another song of mine, “Too Much In Love To Care”, written with James J. Kriegsman. It was included in the album “Nina Simone and Her Friends”.
My next encounter with Carmen came when I was the creative director for The White House nightclub in Laguna Beach, California.Carmen agreed to do a weekend gig there, but only if she had a Steinway piano. The venue’s upright piano was far from that caliber. I owned a baby grand, but it wasn’t a Steinway, meaning I would have to move quickly to acquire the piano I had readily promised Carmen.
I soon recalled the living room of a lady friend and the beautiful Steinway baby grand residing there. I knew it was the only such piano that might be available by the weekend. Fortunately, and just in time, I was able to persuade her to lend it to me, with firm assurances it would be very well cared for, particularly in transit from and back to her house.
Carmen never commented on the Steinway and had no idea of what I had done to meet her demand. She was performing with her usual group, the Marshall Otwell trio, with Marshall at the piano. For one opus, though, she chose to play the piano herself, and clearly was happy with the wonderful baby grand. Carmen’s nuanced and beautiful interpretations ensured a very satisfied audience that weekend.
By 1979, Carmen had become a major name in the jazz world and a sure draw for jazz fans. At that time, I was promoting jazz music and artists at every opportunity and my current project was to create the first Friends of Jazz festival at Laguna’s Irvine Bowl. Carmen was an ideal headliner and I was very happy when she agreed to appear, teaming up again with the Marshall Otwell Trio.
I had my next contact with Carmen, after the loss of her friend and fellow jazz artist, Sarah Vaughan in 1990. I was also a great fan of Sarah’s music and after her death at 66, I was inspired to write my song “Sarah” as a tribute. This was an unusual musical endeavor for me as I have only rarely written songs for specific people. I still had Carmen’s phone number, so I called her up and recited the lyric over the phone, thinking she would be the perfect person to sing it. “Is the music as good as the lyric?” she asked. I assured her it was. After hearing the melody, fortunately she agreed, and recorded the song as the co-title of her 1991 album “Sarah – Dedicated to You”.
Carmen was always a commanding presence, in person or in performance. She particularly disliked people talking while she was singing, even within the obvious paradox of performing in a supper club. I was often called upon to introduce the artists before their performances at Yoshi’s in Berkeley. One evening when Carmen was performing, I was enjoying her set when she abruptly stopped mid-song and admonished the audience, “I came here to sing. If you came to talk, I can go home”. Silence… She then continued her usual stellar performance to a satisfied if much chastened audience.
Carmen was a talented and sophisticated interpreter of songs and over her 60-year career grew to be one of the major, albeit under-recognized, stars of the jazz world. It was my privilege to have known and worked with her both early and later in our respective careers.
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