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Bess McCrary hails from Charlotte, North Carolina and was a performer from her first words, crafting stories and fibs so magnificent that her mother had no choice but to enroll her in acting classes as a toddler. Born into a musical family and bitten by the stage bug at age four, Bess acted professionally until she was ten, and began composing her own songs when she was 13. Bess was still writing songs while she studied Musical Theatre at Catawba College—her work as raw and sincere as it was bold and complex. After two years, Bess was eager to test the limits of her instrument and become a better musician, so she transferred to The University of North Carolina School of the Arts. There she trained classically as a mezzo-soprano and took to her training so well that she was cast by Piedmont Opera Theatre, becoming a professional singer before she graduated, in a genre she had only begun studying two years prior. During this time she perfected a voice powerful enough to fill an auditorium and yet persuasive enough to feel like she was sharing an intimate secret with each member of the audience. These were also the years that Swing and Jazz first made an appearance in Ms. McCrary’s musical history and left indelible impressions on her compositional style.
Bess McCrary’s earliest musical influences include Maria Muldaur, Betty Everett and Miss Piggy. A young Bess played (and replayed) Muldaur and Everett’s records, belting them out with her mother and even memorizing the skips from the vinyl. Over time, a teenaged, angst-filled Bess found Tori Amos and her haunting, quirky sound as a touchstone for her own experimentations with confession and discordance. The great female jazz vocalists, specifically Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald, still resonate with Bess on a daily basis as does the work and lifestyle of American modernist composer, Charles Ives. Bess sites the iconoclastic and vicious verse writing of Dorothy Parker as her strongest lyrical influence.
At the age of 24, it was time to turn all this study into a life, and it was time to leave the South behind. Bess moved to New York City to pursue her passion for singing jazz and swing. It was time to roar.
Her first years in New York found Bess gigging regularly with her band, The Drinks Are Cheap, as well as with a popular swing band. Her early professional years were challenging as her mother, Happy McCrary, lost her extraordinary life in 2008 after a long battle with four different diagnoses of cancer. Bess’s first commercially released studio album of original songs, “for Happy,” is dedicated to her mother, who was her best friend.
During post-production on “for Happy,” Bess McCrary received a jarring cancer diagnosis herself that threatened her ability to ever sing again. Bess tackled her treatment and the uncertainties that followed as any born performer would: she sang on, sometimes with no words, sometimes while cursing the sky, but always from her heart. Bess sings today in her new voice, one that while changed, is still potent, striking, and sublime. Bess knows that these heart-wrenching and head-wracking experiences have left her all the more ready to make her music and her mark. Her voice and art are the better for walking this ragged, yet rich road. Her songs don’t ask questions of the listener: they demand answers. Bess McCrary is back.
Bess resumed performing in the winter of 2013, and will be releasing her next studio album of original songs in early 2015. As for the songs, Bess channels the immortal Miss Piggy: “Express your feelings all the time unless you’re trying to hide something.”
“(Bess creates) …moments within her songs when you feel that all the layers of pretense have been stripped and what you are hearing is not so much her voice but the deepest expressions of a passionate soul. It’s vulnerability, but a vulnerability tempered by inner strength. It’s emotional honesty expressed with intelligence and wit. It’s paradoxical, indescribable and “it.” It also makes for an amazing listening experience.” — The Alt Rock Chick
Bess McCrary’s, “for Happy,” has the rare distinction of making its way into my three-CD dinner and wine party rotation, joining Sara Bareilles and Norah Jones. A collection of 13 original songs, there is a theatricality to her jazz that makes it unique, varied and catchy. From Dixieland and the throwback 20’s nightclub feel of “Every Time I Love You” to the mournful “Cry So Good” (with a chorus and bridge that refuses to budge from my head) to the 50’s do-wop of “Life’s Work,” the funky calypso of “Solidarity,” these songs have a contemporary melodic edge with a jazz underpinning. I’d recommend welcoming Bess and “for Happy” into your “best of” rotation.