Betty Carter was born Lillie Mae Jones in Flint, Michigan, on May 16, 1930. At a young age, she began the study of piano at the Detroit Conservatory of Music, and by the time she was a teenager she was slready sitting in with Charlie Parker and other bop musicians when they performed in Detroit. After winning a local amateur contest, she turned professional at age 16, hooking up with the Lionel Hampton band by 1948, billed as Lorraine Carter. Hampton was the man who hung the nickname 'Betty Be-Bop' on her (a nickname she hated, as she found bebop limiting and wanted to do more than just scat), but it stuck, and ultimately she changed her stage name to Betty Carter. At the age of 21, she traveled to New York with the Hampton band and set up home there.
Betty spent the early 1950s as a singer with different group. She did several shows at the Apollo, playing with such notables as Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie, toured with Miles Davis in 1958 and 1959, and spent much of the rest of the time on the outskirts of the jazz scene. Her refusal to adopt a more mainstream jazz style led to difficulty in finding bookings and making recordings. She made her first recordings in 1955 with a then-unknown piano player named Ray Bryant. The album, Meet Betty Carter and Ray Bryant, was little received, and her second set of recordings, with the Gigi Gryce band in 1956, languished unpublished until 1980.