McRae was born in Harlem, New York, on the 8th April 1920, and studied piano as a child. As a teenager she came to the attention of Teddy Wilson and his wife, the composer Irene Kitchings Wilson. Through their influence, one of McRae’s early songs, “Dream of Life”, was recorded by Wilson’s longtime collaborator Billie Holiday.
By the late 1940s she was well known among the modern jazz musicians who gathered at Minton’s Playhouse, Harlem’s most famous jazz club, where she was the intermission pianist. But it was while working in Brooklyn that she came to the attention of Decca’s Milt Gabler. Her five year association with Decca yielded twelve LPs.
The musicians she sang with include Benny Carter, Mercer Ellington, Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr, Dave Brubeck, and Louis Armstrong. She was married once (and briefly), to drummer Kenny Clarke.
McRae died on the 10th November 1994.