Music Interviews

Abbey Lincoln: More Than Just A Voice

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In the latest installment of the series Tell Me More About Women's History, NPR's Felix Contreras salutes vocalist Abbey Lincoln.


And finally, we end today's program with our segment Tell Me More About Women's History. Today, NPR arts producer Felix Contreras honors vocalist Abbey Lincoln.

FELIX CONTRERAS: Abbey Lincoln's life is one of discovery. She was born Anna Marie Woolridge, raised in rural Michigan among 11 brothers and sisters. She would sometimes get lost in the crowd, but found a space for herself at an old piano in the family's living room. After singing in the church choir and competing in amateur contests, she headed out to join an older brother in Los Angeles and start her professional singing career. As Anna Marie, she was a sultry pop music song stylist, model, and sometimes actress. But she felt her identity was overwhelmed by the promotion of her sex appeal. She changed her name to Abbey Lincoln, met jazz drummer Max Roach and moved to New York. She abandoned pop music and started singing jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: In 1960, Lincoln and Roach produced "We Insist! Freedom Now," an album that put them on the front line of jazz musicians using their music to take on the racist status quo.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ABBEY LINCOLN (Singer): (Singing) (unintelligible) say we are free. (unintelligible) Can it really be?

CONTRERAS: Two years later, the pair married and became high profile activists who used the arts as a catalyst of societal change. Some took them to task for mixing art and politics. Abbey Lincoln fought back. Then she retreated back to California for film work, eventually landing a role in a film costarring Sidney Poitier, "For the Love of Ivy," and a small, unheralded independent film called "Nothing but a Man." Soon after, Abbey Lincoln sought the anonymity of the little girl she once was, lost in a crowd, away from the empty profit-driven gatekeepers of entertainment. And there she stayed for almost two decades. Then after a couple of sporadic albums in the 1980s, Abbey Lincoln reemerged in the early '90s.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: This time, her earlier work in music, film and the civil rights era was praised by her fans as influential, with some even bestowing upon her the title of Griot.

(Soundbite of song, "Throw it Away")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) I think about the life live, a figure made of clay.

CONTRERAS: Storyteller, historian, poet, musician - Abbey Lincoln's lessons of discovery made her all of these, and her own story is there in the music.

(Soundbite of song, "Throw it Away")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) Throw it away. Throw it away. Give of your love, live your life each and every day.

CONTRERAS: The albums from the late '90s and into this century established Abbey Lincoln as a storyteller in jazz time. With the occasional cover of the standard that helped tell her story, she has written most of the material on these albums. In 2007, she released "Abbey Sings Abbey," a dozen songs of self discovery.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: In 2007, Abbey Lincoln celebrated her 77th birthday, an age when many artistes are content to fall back on the familiar. However, "Abby sings Abbey" is remarkable - not just for the words. She has bravely challenged her own sense of self by recasting her story not with jazz musicians, but with string players, guitarists and fiddlers that give the music a soft, country-blues feel.

(Soundbite of song, "Being Me")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) All along the way, there were things to do, always some other someone I could be.

CONTRERAS: Since Abbey Lincoln's lyrics are perfectly suited to her own one-of-a-kind delivery, it seems unlikely these songs will become part of the jazz canon, but it hardly matters. In these times, when we all need a few encouraging words and reminders of hope, Abbey Lincoln's music and her life offers the magic of discovery mixed with the lesson of perseverance.

(Soundbite of song, "Being Me")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) Times I walked away, all the times I'd stay to see the drama of my life play.

CONTRERAS: Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Being Me")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) Being me again, just being myself aloneā€¦

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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