Carmen Mercedes McRae, born April 8, 1920, was considered one of the most influential jazz vocalists of the 20th century. It was her behind-the-beat phrasing and her ironic interpretations of song lyrics that made her memorable. Born in Harlem to Jamaica immigrant parents, she began studying piano when she was eight. She met singer Billie Holiday when she was just 17 years old. As a teenager, McRae came to the attention of jazz pianist Teddy Wilson.
In 1948 she moved to Chicago with comedian George Kirby. She played piano steadily for almost four years before returning to New York. In 1954 Carmen was named Best New Female Jazz Singer by Down Beat Magazine.
Carmen McRae was a contemporary of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. As a result of her early friendship with Billie Holiday, she never performed without singing at least one song associated with "Lady Day", and recorded an album in 1983 in her honor entitled For Lady Day, which was released in 1995.
Carmen McRae sang in jazz clubs throughout the United States—and across the world—for over fifty years. McRae was a popular performer at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival, the North Sea Jazz Festival and at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Carmen McRae was forced to retire in 1991 due to emphysema. McRae died on November 10, 1994, from a stroke.