Everyone has a Carmen McRae story. Mine took place at New York's Blue Note club back in the early 1980s. I don't recall who was on piano, bass and drums—but I vividly remember what happened that night and the song Carmen was singing.
Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most is a song most singers dread. First, as a singer, you must plunge deep into the dewy mood of the Fran Landesman-Tommy Wolf song or your credibility as a singer is shot. So there's too much room for disaster.
Second, other than the title line, the lyrics never repeat. Spring is an eight-stanza story that starts with "Once I was a sentimental thing" and tells the tale of an ingenue nostalgic for a lost love when spring arrives. Most singers are relieved to reach the end of the song without blowing the lyrics.
Back to the Blue Note. That night, during the second set, the piano began a lush intro and Carmen, perched on a stool and lit by a hot spot, started to sing:
"Once..." (which came out like a gentle hiss followed by a thick pause) "...I was a sentimental thing; threw my heart away each—."
Carmen stopped short, as the piano continued for a measure or two until the guy playing realized Carmen wasn't going to continue.
Carmen then glared out into the audience. Looking right at me, she said, "Are you finished? Because if you're not, I'll wait. In fact," she said reaching for a glass on the nearby piano, "I've got all damn night."
I freaked. Did Carmen hear me move my chair closer to the cocktail table? I felt like an animal about to be skinned. "Yeah, you," she said. "That's right. You, in the yellow." I looked down at my shirt. It wasn't me. Relief. It was the woman just behind me who I heard softly chuckle at her first-date's inside joke as Carmen started. I didn't have the heart to turn around.
"Done?" Carmen asked. "I can start again? Yes? OK, good." Her trio laughed nervously. Carmen's rhetorical questions dripped with a unique contempt that reduced the offender to something stuck to a shoe. Carmen could be a bully in clubs, that's for sure.
But Carmen's complaint isn't the point of my story. instead of starting the song from the beginning, Carmen, clad in a dashiki, put her glass down and switched from diva to tragic lover. Then Carmen did the impossible—she picked up the song on the final word of the second line that she never finished and sang the word "—spring" right on key.
Carmen proceeded to sing the mine-field of a song flawlessly, from the third line on. How the pianist knew the chord changes from the third line is beyond me. All I could think of at the time is that if the guy had hesitated or screwed up, there would have been hell to pay.
As Carmen sang, wishing spring away with every ache in her heart, the entire club was on edge. The bar stopped pouring drinks, and whatever had been poured took on melted ice. Waitresses didn't dare tiptoe between tables to deliver them. At the end, Carmen got a standing ovation—probably two parts broken audience tension and certainly two parts admiration.
Carmen, like Sarah Vaughan, was a musician first and a singer second. Both played keyboards wonderfully and both could work every drop out of a song. They also were great friends. According to Leslie Gourse's book Sassy: The Life of Sarah Vaughan:
"Carmen loved Sassy's early recordings with B. [Eckstine], Dizzy and Bird, though at first she thought that Sassy didn't even know who she was. But one day, Sassy said, 'Hi Carmen.' Carmen recalled, 'That really knocked me out.' From that moment on, Carmen and Sassy became friends, hanging out together 'against the law, honey,' until 'six, seven, even eight in the morning. When I got tired, I split and went home. Sass never got tired."
Carmen had much greater knowledge of songs than Sassy and much better taste. Carmen also knew more songs than any other singer—mostly off-beat delights that were long forgotten or never recorded. She also felt the pain and passion deeply, more so, I think, than Sarah, who had terrific range and intensity but in many cases never got the same meaning or essence out of songs. Carmen sang as if she experienced the lyrics just moments earlier.
Miles Davis put it best. As the story goes, he was in San Francisco looking up at a billboard announcing that Ella was playing at the Fairmont's Venetian Room. The ad called Ella "The Queen of Jazz." Miles grunted and then growled, "If Ella Fitzgerald is the Queen of jazz, what the fuck is Carmen?"
Carmen remained just short of a commercial hit, probably because she looked, well, a little odd. She was pretty, but she had masculine features, more jolie laid than model-photogenic. Her nose was a little too pronounced and her nostrils flared just a little too much. She wasn't old enough to have made her mark in the 1940s and was too old to capitalize on the 1960s, like Shirley Bassey did.
Carmen even missed the commercial success that Dinah Washington experienced in 1959 with What a Difference a Day Makes. Even in her time, Carmen's image wasn't sexy-controllable, like Nancy Wilson's or Dakota Staton's. In photos, she never looked like a dumb date. She was in charge, and she never played the game.
But what Carmen had that no other singer seemed to possess back then was a musical intelligence that made her indisputably superior in almost every way. Carmen wasn't an entertainer or a blues belter or a soul singer. Carmen was a jazz musician, and she was always in a category of her own.
Wax tracks: Let's face it, there really aren't any bad Carmen McRae albums, only favorites. I mention my favorites here not as a claim that they are her best outings. I just fancy them for her sound at the time or the arrangements or the mood.
The first is Boy Meets Girl, with Sammy Davis Jr. (Decca/1957 and 1958). I love this album because Carmen is having a blast with Sammy. She's so good, in fact, that Sammy has to up his game, and he seems to love every minute of the competition. You can find this album at iTunes and here.
My second favorite has been hard to find for years but is now available as Carmen McRae: 1964 Orchestra Recordings. It's really two Mainstream albums in one—Second to None (1964) and Haven't We Met (1965). The CD features the arrangements of Peter Matz (who arranged Barbra Streisand's People that the same year) and Don Sebesky. You can find it here.
The highlight is The Music That Makes Me Dance, which features a terrific wandering open trumpet accompaniment by Johnny Bello, who played in many of the best West Coast bands in the late 1950s.
Now, if you want to hear what is perhaps the best recorded version of Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, go to iTunes and download the song off Irene Kral's album, Where Is Love. The whole album is great, but this version is tops, bar none.
Wax clip: For a look at Carmen's intimate delivery in the mid 1960s, check out Trouble is a Man here.