A singer who performed with Duke Ellington in both the '40s and '50s, Betty Roché was famous for her strong, dramatic way of putting across blues material, a talent that not every vocalist with this big band had. Ellington, who was sometimes prone to hire vocalists with stilted, nearly classical delivery, described Roché with typical grace: "She had a soul inflection in a bop state of intrigue and every word was understandable despite the sophisticated hip and jive connotations." She was born Mary Elizabeth Roché and began her career by triumphing at an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. In 1941, she sang with the Savoy Sultans, then joined Ellington two years later. It was a tough assignment, replacing one of the bandleader's most popular vocalists, Ivie Anderson, just days before Ellington's first concert at Carnegie Hall. She rose to the occasion, scoring highly with both the critics and audience in her featured section of the Ellington suite "Black, Brown and Beige." Her vocal on this number comes on during the blues sequence, and was the composer's interpretation of the feelings of urban blacks at the start of the 20th century. It became one of Ellington's greatest pieces for a singer, an ambitious slab of scoring that showed the skill with which the composer was able to make use of the basic feeling of the blues as part of a sophisticated, advanced musical structure. To give credit where credit is due, there were many vocalists who worked with Ellington who would not have been able to pull this number off as effectively as Roché did. Nonetheless, her concert recording rendition was not released until the '70s. Ellington could not make a studio recording of the suite until 1944, by which time Roché had already been replaced by Joya Sherrill. In a similar bit of bad career luck, Roché sang the Ellington signature tune "Take the A Train" in the 1943 film Reveille With Beverly, the entire band packed into a film backlot version of a train car. Again she did not come up with a studio version until nearly a decade later on the bebop-flavored album Ellington Uptown. One can blame these misfortunes on the second World War and the subsequent ban on all recording activity, which kept Ellington from documenting much of anything in 1943. The singer herself blamed her propensity for tardiness, which apparently botched a few recording sessions she was involved in. Roché also performed and recorded with pianist Earl Hines, trumpeter Clark Terry, and funky singer/pianist Charles Brown. In a strange coincidence, the latter performer died only one week after Roché.
She cut three sides under her name for the Bethlehem and Prestige labels in the late '50s and early '60s. In the mid-'50s, she was part of the studio cast recording of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, singing alongside greats such as Mel Tormé. The impression she made on the jazz scene is actually larger than many think, as she is credited with being a major influence both on bebop singers and the public's ability to deal with that kind of musical adventure. Again, the lack of easily available documentation of some of her activities has hindered full understanding of her career. The name of the club Minton's for example, would be much more recognized among bop fans than Roché herself, yet she was a singer in the house band at this club for almost three years, working with such stalwarts of the new bop scene such as Thelonious Monk on piano and Kenny Clarke on drums. ~ Eugene Chadbourne