Billie, Ella, Sarah, Carmen: Are they the four greatest jazz singers of all time?
In my opinion, yes. But I wouldn't choose any one of them over the other three! Let's take a look at all four: Billie Holiday's tragic life and destructive decisions are, unfortunately, central to her music. Her suffering and that of African Americans of her era, is clearly evident in such titles as "God Bless The Child", "Strange Fruit", "My Man" and many others. Billie did not possess the pure and perfect vocal quality of the others, but she told the story of a lyric perhaps as no one, before or since. She also worked nearly exclusively in a jazz context, only bowing to vanilla, stringy arrangements very late in her short life. Her music is as timeless as can be, and as years pass it will occupy a growing importance in jazz history. Ella Fitzgerald was blessed with an uncanny ability to scat and to fit in as another instrument in the band. To this, add her beautiful, natural vocal quality, her longevity in the business, her modesty, and her obvious love of what she did, and it's easy to understand why she was dubbed "The First Lady Of Song". Peerless on a ballad but ever swinging with partners like Oscar Peterson, Lou Levy, or Paul Smith, Ella Fitzgerald will long be remembered for how nearly perfect she really was. Sarah Vaughan was also blessed with a heavenly vocal quality. But in addition she had a range that surpassed nearly everyone. She also was able to capture the following of both pop and jazz audiences, something the others could not accomplish. Some of her pop material suffered from syrupy strings, but Sarah was good enough to prevail even there based on talent, poise, chops and built-in brilliance. In the jazz world she worked with everyone from Charlie Parker to Sir Roland Hanna; from Duke Ellington to Jimmy Rowles; and from Count Basie to Jimmy Jones to Miles Davis. She was easily the diva among jazz singers, always "one of the guys" on the bandstand or in the studio, and if one of these four could be described as a goddess, it would be Sarah. Carmen McRae came along a bit later than the others, hitting her stride in the fifties with some "okay" orchestral backing and some superb jazz sides, mainly with pianist Ray Bryant. She idolized Billie but never tried to sound like her. A wise decision because like Billie, Carmen delivered the meaning of a lyric as though she lived it. She was also a natural and creative scat singer, and the latter half of her career was spent in high octane jazz settings. I loved Carmen's hipness and her ability to reach new musical heights all the time. She was in many ways one of a kind. I am personally grateful for the honor of interviewing her at the 1986 Mt. Hood Festival Of Jazz.Five favorite recordings of Billie, Ella, Sarah and Carmen:BILLIE:1. The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia, 1933-44 (10 CD's)2. Rare Live Recordings 1934-59 (5 CD's) - ESP Disk 3. The Complete Commodore Recordings (2CD's)4. Songs & Conversations - Paramount5. The Complete Billie Holiday On Verve, 1945-59 (10 CD's)ELLA:1. Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie - Verve2. Ella At Duke's Place - Verve3. Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George & Ira Gershwin Songbook (3 CD's) - Verve4. Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook (2 CD's) - Verve5. The Intimate Ella (originally released as Let No Man Write My Epitaph) - VerveSARAH:1. No Count Sarah - Emarcy2. Sarah Vaughan (with Clifford Brown) - Emarcy3. Count Basie & Sarah Vaughan - Roulette4. Sarah Vaughan At Mister Kelly's - Emarcy5. Sarah Vaughan & The Jimmy Rowles Quintet - MainstreamCARMEN:1. Carmen Sings Monk - Novus (RCA)2. Bittersweet - Koch Jazz3. Carmen McRae Sings Lover Man - Columbia4. Live At Sugar Hill - Time5. Carmen McRae & Ray Bryant - Complete Recordings - Gambit