Hers is likely the slowest, but also the most playful, witty and inventive of all recorded versions of Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most – a “jazz standard” with a most unlikely inspiration source.
Betty Carter (1929-1998) was an astonishing improvising vocalist; according to another great one – Carmen McRae – Betty was in a sense the only jazz singer.
T.S. Eliot died (in London) nearly fifteen years before Betty (in San Francisco) gave the December 1979 concert which yielded her landmark double-album The Audience with Betty Carter.
What could possibly connect the gloomy opening line of one of the 20th century’s most famous poems to one of jazz’s most deliciously perky performances?
For anyone who does not already know, that question is best answered after hearing Betty Carter, accompanied by pianist John Hicks, double bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Kenny Washington.
If you are unaccustomed to – or “allergic” to – real jazz singing (as distinct from “jazzish” pop/MOR/crooning) your first encounter with Betty in full flight could prove a delightful revelation, a disconcerting shock, or an irritant.
If your initial response is one of the latter kinds, I urge you to persist. First, try a really fine, more “straight” version of the song – Ella Fitzgerald’s, for instance…then have another close listen to Betty’s take.
I am not alone in considering this cut one of the greatest improvisatory vocal flights ever recorded, nor in rating the album in question as perhaps the most remarkable jazz vocal release, period.
T.S. Eliot unwittingly sparked the song.
In 1922 he published The Waste Land.
Its opening (northern hemispheric-centric) lines:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Circa three decades later Fran Landesman and her husband Jay Landesman were in a club where Tommy Wolf was playing piano.
Tommy – jokingly, she thought – asked Fran (a friend – maybe, lover too – of Jack Kerouac) to try making a hip song, based on the beginning of The Waste Land.
She replied, “how about spring can really hang you up the most?”
Wolf immediately responded on the piano, and insisted that she develop her line into a full song.
A few days later, as he was at his piano, she slipped the full lyrics – her first song – into his pocket.
It proved the first of a number of enduring, much-covered combinations of her words with his music.
Another is Ballad of the Sad Young Men, most memorably sung by Mark Murphy.
On his 1981 album Bop for Kerouac Murphy added a little recitation from Kerouac’s On the Road and reinvented Ballad… as an elegy for the Beats.