Irene Kral was born to Czechoslovakian parents in Chicago. Her earliest musical influence was her brother, Roy, who at 18 formed his own big band and would rehearse the group in their parent's basement. While watching her brother and his band, she decided that she wanted to sing. She was 8 years old at the time. Her brother, Roy, became well known later as half of 'Jackie and Roy', a highly influential bebop vocal duo, well-respected in jazz circles.
By the time she was 16, she was singing and accompanying herself on piano, performing at school and the occasional wedding. Her vocal skills impressed her professional musician brother enough for him to take her by the hand to audition for a swinging Chicago big band, led by Jay Burkhardt. Burkhardt's band had been the starting point for two other singers, who went on to bigger things, Joe Williams and Jackie Cain (who later married her brother, and was the 'Jackie' of 'Jackie and Roy'). A series of jobs with other bands came and went, over the next few years, including a brief stint with Woody Herman.
In 1954, she landed a job singing with a jazz vocal group called the Tattletales. She played drums, and sang lead with the group, which traveled from coast to coast, and to Canada, Bermuda and Puerto Rico. The group recorded for Columbia Records, but nothing much came of the records. She stayed with the group for a little over a year. Following her heart to stretch out as a solo artist, she left the Tattletales and began picking up the occasional weekend solo job, and auditioning for any band that she thought might be going places.
When she was 25, in 1957, her friend Carmen McRae recommended her to band-leader Maynard Ferguson. The next time Ferguson came through Chicago, she got up on the stand and sang one tune with the band. After Ferguson heard Kral finish singing 'Sometimes I'm Happy', he hired her on the spot and she started that night with no rehearsal. In Fergusons' band she met Joe Burnett, a trumpet and fluegelhorn player, whom she married in 1958. She stayed with the Ferguson band for nearly two years, recording one album with them, before she was offered her own contract to record solo. Her phrasing, timing, and intonation were impeccable, and her interpretations timeless, parsimonious, and sincere.
Here's "Nothing Like You" from 1965 album "Wonderful Life."
After getting married and settling in Los Angeles, Kral did not work for a while. In 1964, she sang on Laurindo Almeida's Grammy Award-winning album, Guitar From Ipanema. The following year, she recorded an album of her own, called Wonderful Life, on the small Mainstream label. In addition to her usual choice of great songs, unfortunately, the company insisted that she record three tunes aimed at the Top 40 'teen' market. On these songs, she seems like a fish out of water. Nothing came of the attempt to make her more 'commercial', and the songs stand as the only blemish on her recorded output of classy material.
Ten years passed before she recorded again. From 1974-1977, she recorded three exquisite albums for Choice and Catalyst, including two duet sets with pianist Alan Broadbent (Where Is Love and Gentle Rain), that are considered classics; her rendition of "Spring Can Really Hang You up the Most" is definitive. Sadly, Irene Kral was struck down by cancer at the height of her career at age 46.
Her recordings (for United Artists in 1959, a 1963 date for Ava, a Mainstream session in 1965, and the Choice and Catalyst albums) are all currently out of print, although a live set from September 1977 put out by Just Jazz in the mid-'90s is available on CD.
Her career never “took off” in terms of fame and fortune, partly because of her untimely death.Irene Kral died on August 15th, 1978 at age 46, in Encino, CA, after having battled breast cancer for 6 years. She had performed up to three weeks prior to her death. Roy Kral says "she managed to express her pleasure at finally being acknowledged when she said to me, 'It looks like we've finally made it.' "
Irene was made more famous posthumously when Clint Eastwood used her recordings in his 1995 movie, The Bridges of Madison County. (Info edited from various sources mainly danacountryman.com)