Christmas Songs: Ray Charles and Betty Carter, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” 1961
Well, it’s time of year again, and like last season, I’ll be presenting some holiday songs I’ve liked in the past, or have learned to love just recently.
Here is an old favorite sung by the fabulous Ray Charles with an assist from the equally fabulous Betty Carter. If you don’t know, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written and composed by Frank Loesser (of Guys and Dolls fame) as a love song to his wife, Lynn, in 1936. She considered it “their song” after they sung it together for friends, first at a housewarming party, and thereafter at various other private parties in Hollywood and New York. Until, of course, he sold it to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for one of their movie musicals, Neptune’s Daughter. Hollywood buffs know that Neptune’s Daughter was a vehicle for synchronized swimming beauty Esther Williams. This light musical also starred Ricardo Montalban (who first sang the wolf role to a reluctant mouse Williams). When it came to Red Skelton and Betty Garrett, the second-string love interest, they had the roles reversed for comic relief.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1949.
Brother Ray is “the wolf,” while Betty plays “the mouse” as Loesser indicated on the sheet music. “Wolf” in 1930s-1940s parlance equals “smooth operator” or in short, a womanizer. Also, a man who pays unwanted or undue attention to women. For example, the wolf call was actually a long, loud, yoohoo-like whistle (check your early Warner Bros. cartoons) in the hearing of other men or the woman in public, either to show his interest or to signal to others the presence of a particularly attractive woman.
From Carter’s website, it was trumpeter Miles Davis who suggested that Charles use the iconoclastic songstress for a tour in the late Fifties. Ray had such musical rapport with Betty that he invited her to New York to continue their duets–this time on vinyl.
For a wolf, Charles seems rather tender and cuddly, even when he growls, although I know in real life that dude was slick. And Betty was almost like a little girl–a little girl who could transform in an instant to a woman if the temptation was right. The Ray and Betty duet peaked at No. 91 on the Billboard Top 100, while the album peaked at No. 52 on the U.S. chart. The album from whence it came, Ray Charles and Betty Carter, was not released until 1966. Some critics complained that it was not necessarily one of their better albums from either artist, but for other critics and fans, it has retained a kind of cult status over the decades, because the artists were stylistically so different from each other but yet coming from the same idiom: jazz. Somehow, they made it work beautifully, and that’s the payoff. Charles himself remixed the results for the CD reissue in 1988, and then Rhino Records reissued another edition ten years later.
Someone–if they haven’t already–should make a compilation of the best of Betty’s duets with other singers and musicians during the Sixties, either in the studio or live performances. These duets kept her name out there far longer until she moved into her second wind during the Seventies and began recording new work. It should also give a clue to others–critics and fans alike–about how she began to rebuild her career. Although she released two albums with mixed results, she mostly spent her time raising her two sons and doing occasional tours, particularly in jazz-crazy Japan.
Betty Carter, born Lillie Mae Jones, died in 1998 at the age of 69. Betty Carter’s official website is here. Ray Charles, born Ray Charles Robinson, known more for his song interpretations than his songwriting, died in 2004 at the age of 73. His legacy website is here.