“You don’t see anyone answering the door for me, do you?” says Betty. “I’m doing it myself. Look” — gestures to towel around her head — “I don’t even have my wig hat on.”
Wig hat. Betty Carter’s been in show business since age 16, since leaving church choir, since her father died and mother stayed sad, Betty’s in show business, where she learned to be tough.
Betty auditioned for amateur night, ran around to hear traveling bands — ” like bees,” she remembers, we followed them like bees — and when asked if she could sing, said yes, yes I can, and so got her job with the Lionel Hampton Band.
Betty wore white terry cloth robe the morning we met. When she took towel from head, graying hair was short, not flowing mane tossed on stage.
No wig hat, no nonsense. Betty the warrior, instructing in things I needed to understand.
Mostly, she talked about business that morning. On stage that night, though, all love, wit, improvisation, daring; wide-legged, blue gown, gold high heels, ducking, bobbing, pivoting, gesturing, her body registering every note.
On stage Betty wore heart on sleeve.
Didn’t achieve it until middle age, though, didn’t free up the love until then.
Oh, she always won the audience “Even when I first started,” says, “I had a personality that was winning. Even with Hamp, there was nothing he could do to stop me; the audience demanded my appearances.”
But when she started, she hadn’t freed her body, hadn’t confidence to break ballads into cubist reflections of herself.
Because first of all she had to learn self-defense.
Hampton fired her seven times between 48 and 51, but every time hired her back, because Gladys, his wife, real force behind the band, Gladys insisted.
“She was my savior, my model,” Betty says. “Gladys saw something in me that Hamp didn’t, and the fact that I was cocky was OK with her, because she could understand the aggressiveness I had going for me at that age. Hamp didn’t, because most men do not understand aggressive women.”
So she had aggressiveness she’d need because nothing would come easy for Betty.
Toured in the ’50s she with small bands — wasn’t easy “Noisy audiences,” she says, “working in bars clanging glasses and still commanding attention — that’s not easy.”
Not easy, never easy. But had aggressiveness needed after she marriage, children, when pressure mounted from her husband, who didn’t understand, says, “why I couldn’t give up what I was doing to go for the money.” When pressure mounted, she just dug in.
“That’s me,” she says. “What you see is what you get.” No wig hat. No regret.
Aggressiveness … to get away from bad producers, record companies who didn’t understand, didn’t want her anyway get away from the ’60s, where her marriage ended bad.
“I’m not the only jazz singer who didn’t have a record label,” she reminds me. “Sarah Vaughan didn’t, Ella Fitzgerald didn’t So I decided to do it myself ”
The words echo in the hotel room, fly out windows into the sky. “Do it myself,” and the words are inscribed on mountain sides
Years later, when we meet again, she says, “I’m in control of my destiny now.” Bought a big house in Brooklyn, raised two kids . “I survived all these years doing nothing but what I want,” she says. “In the process, I developed my style.”
And nobody sang like Betty.
She’d make any sound, strike any pose whatever note, move, clothes .. whatever it took . Trapeze, tightrope flying over a chasm, way, way beyond just singing.
“Do something different with it,” she’d command young sidemen. “Make it a challenge.” Tightrope, trapeze.
an adventure to watch .
Unexpected pauses, aching rubatos, tension finally released in quick, tumbling clusters. Dips, slides, extends syllables in long glides. Low notes full, almost hollow. From whisper to shout she rises then goes so slow she jumps in and out of time, scats at speed or leaves long silence while we wait with bated breath
“I destroy a melody,” she says, “I just destroy a melody.”
And with her body — short, compact, not a dancer’s — dramatizes every note, acts out deconstruction. Never still, face plastic, arms reaching out, clutch, retract. Steps haltingly “Spring Can ..Really Hang You Up the Most,” she sings And nobody sang like Betty.
So swing over the chasm, Betty, challenge yourself, never make it easy tightrope, trapeze do it yourself, re-invent songs in your own image “I just destroy a melody,” she says
and in its stead gave us herself. Gave us love bottled up by women alone in a man’s business, on stage, to her audience “my audiences always demanded my appearances,” she says, “my audiences ”
And there I sit while Betty paces the room I’m her audience. After she’d crossed over in the ’70s, she says, to a white audience, it’s me she’s singing for. Knows she’ll have to instruct. But in a way pleased it worked out like this. Who knows, might have helped her express herself best.
Look! She’s pleased we’re clapping, tosses wig hat, aw-shucks, big smile.
Look! This is how she does it:
In business, no nonsense, no wig hat; then on stage at night, warrior becomes lover, everyone’s lover. If I look closely, I see her create a lover out of sound, clothes, body, then animate it with love bottled up by women alone in a man’s world, animate it with strength that enabled her to survive there.
Gold lame caftan, white silk pants, blue gown with silver spangles; turbans, scarves, wig hats; long eyelashes, mobile mouth A goddess I swoon.
“Get up,” Betty says.
But she’s hiding a smile. I think she’s happy with the way it turned out, a guy like me for her audience. And because of Betty, I now know what to do when I meet another warrior in singer’s clothing making a little social call.
Betty would be proud, I think.