News World News

Sunday 22 April 2018

Abbey Lincoln

Influential jazz singer and songwriter who repudiated her early glamorous image to campaign for black civil rights

Abbey Lincoln, who died on August 14 aged 80, was an influential jazz singer and songwriter renowned for a raw and passionate style redolent of Billie Holiday, from whom she drew inspiration.

Launched as a seductive chanteuse -- she was known as "the black Marilyn Monroe" -- Abbey Lincoln cut records and acted in films in the 1950s and 1960s, when she was depicted on album covers in slinky dresses, and appeared briefly in a Jayne Mansfield film wearing the revealing gown worn by Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She saw her career revive in the 1990s when she found success as a prolific songwriter.

As a singer, she displayed no great technique and, unusually, never improvised; she did, however, wring a lyric for its emotional content, while bringing a searing, dramatic quality to the musical line.

Early in her career her rich, sustained contralto register -- sometimes pierced by sudden impassioned cries -- echoed the style of her idol Billie Holiday; in turn it inspired a generation of younger artists such as Cassandra Wilson.

Lincoln acted with Sidney Poitier and collaborated musically with the jazz drummer Max Roach, whom she married in 1962 and later divorced. Under Roach's influence, she repudiated her earlier glamorous image in favour of a more radical one, campaigning for civil rights, dressing in African-style clothes, wearing her hair Afro-style and infusing her music with a more political edge.

She collaborated with Roach and Oscar Brown Jr on We Insist! (Freedom Now Suite) in 1960, an anti-racism polemic that included a wordless, sometimes screeching duet with Roach's drumming.

In the early 1990s Lincoln released chart-topping albums including You Gotta Pay the Band (1991), which she recorded with Stan Getz, and Devil's Got Your Tongue (1992), in which she rebuked some rappers, comedians and film makers for profiting from the coarsening of black culture.

Explaining her image change, Lincoln recalled being featured on the cover of Ebony magazine in 1957 as "The Girl in Marilyn Monroe's Dress" and said her appearance had threatened to undermine her career. "People in the audience were looking at my exposed breasts and the shape of my body, and it didn't have nothing to do with the music..."

She was born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago on August 6, 1930, the daughter of a handyman, and grew up with 11 brothers and sisters in rural Michigan. She discovered music as a child, teaching herself piano and singing gospel music at school.

As a teenager she worked as a maid but continued to sing, eventually working her way on to the nightclub circuit in Honolulu, appearing with Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, before playing supper clubs in Los Angeles in the early 1950s; she performed under the name Gaby Wooldridge, and then Gabby Lee. Her manager and songwriter came up with the stage name Abbey Lincoln -- apparently inspired by coupling Westminster Abbey with Abraham Lincoln -- and packaged her as a sultry vamp in an orange dress. A record deal followed, as well as a cameo role in the film The Girl Can't Help It (1956).

In the 1960s she took a starring role in the independent film Nothing But a Man (1964), about a black railway worker in love with a preacher's daughter, and played opposite Sidney Poitier in For Love of Ivy in 1968. In the meantime she had started writing her own songs.

Lincoln's career waned in the 1970s and 1980s, after her divorce from Max Roach. She recorded on small independent labels, but found new fame in 1990 when she signed with Verve Records and released The World Is Falling Down.

In 1999, when she was nearly 70, she made a rare appearance in London, in a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

"When not singing," noted one reviewer, "the undemonstrative Lincoln sat by Marc Cary's piano, pulling absently at her plain black skirt and top, and looking for all the world as if she were wondering where she'd left her book."

In 2003 the National Endowment for the Arts presented her with its Jazz Masters Award, America's highest jazz honour.

She underwent open-heart surgery in 2007. Latterly she lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side, in an apartment filled with her own paintings and drawings.

Abbey Lincoln divorced Max Roach in 1970. She never remarried, and is survived by two brothers and a sister.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News