Fresh Air Remembers Jazz Singer Abbey Lincoln Lincoln, the jazz legend who transformed herself from a supper-club singer into a powerful voice in the civil-rights movement, died Saturday. She was 80. Fresh Air revisits two interviews with the respected performer, actress and songwriter.
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Fresh Air Remembers Jazz Singer Abbey Lincoln

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Fresh Air Remembers Jazz Singer Abbey Lincoln

Fresh Air Remembers Jazz Singer Abbey Lincoln

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This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. Listening to Abbey Lincoln's records can move you to tears, because of her beautiful voice and her honesty when she sings of joy or pain. It made me really sad to hear she died Saturday. She was 80.

We're going to play excerpts of two interviews with Abbey Lincoln from our archive.

Lincoln started her career in the early 1950s as a nightclub singer, cultivating a seductive image, wearing evening gowns and singing romantic ballads. Her public image and self-image started to change in the late '50s when she met drummer and bebop pioneer Max Roach, who introduced her to modern jazz and a performing style influenced by the civil rights movement. They recorded a series of albums together and were married from 1962 to 1970.

Later in her career, she became known for the song she wrote as well as the ones she interpreted. Abbey Lincoln also had an acting career. She performed in the rock 'n' roll movie "The Girl Can't Help It," starred in the 1964 film "Nothing But A Man," co-starred opposite Sidney Poitier in "For the Love of Ivy," and was in Spike Lee's movie "Mo' Better Blues."

Here's one of Abbey Lincoln's early recordings, from 1956.

(Soundbite of song, "Love Walked In")

Ms. ABBEY LINCOLN: (Singing) Love walked right in and drove the shadows away. Love walked right in and brought my sunniest day. One magic moment, and my heart seemed to know that love said hello, though not a word was spoken. One look...

GROSS: The first of the two Abbey Lincoln interviews we'll hear is from 1986. She told me how she got interested in music.

Ms. LINCOLN: I'm one of 12 children, and there's an old piano in the house that my father furnished for us, and I was the only one, seemingly, who was interested in the piano. I found solace there and a companionship, just sitting and picking out a melody on the piano, because it didnt get on my mother's nerves, thank goodness.

GROSS: So the music you heard on the farm was mostly church music.

Ms. LINCOLN: I didnt hear much music on the farm. The music that I made, really, there was a Victrola and songs that seemed way far away somehow.

GROSS: Like from another culture?


GROSS: What songs were those?

Ms. LINCOLN: One was called - well, there's a man singing a song about, oh, a pal - oh pal, oh gal, you left me all alone, a sad song. And somebody told me that it was about a dog. But I thought it really could have been about a dog but it was somebody that he loved a lot, things like that, hymns that we learned in church. But that was not my inspiration for singing.

When I was 14, my sister brought a recording home of Billie Holiday and Coleman Hawkins, the same day. I heard them both. And he was singing "Body and Soul." I dont remember what Billie was singing.

GROSS: When you started singing in nightclubs, well, judging from the cover, anyways, of that same record, you were wearing like evening gowns...

Ms. LINCOLN: That's late into my career.

GROSS: Oh, that's later on? Yeah.

Ms. LINCOLN: Yes. I started as Anna Marie. That's the name my people named me. Anna Marie Woodridge is the name I was born to. And I met a man named Bob Russell who named me Abbey Lincoln and introduced me to the svelte chic world of the supper club.

GROSS: Was it hard to fit into it, having come from a farm in Michigan?

Ms. LINCOLN: Yes. Because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: ...I never really felt it. You know, they talked about my being sexy and they talked - they said all these things, because I had a press agent, of course, you know? And they decided that was the image that they were going to put forth, of this wonderful looking woman who didnt have much talent though. I mean she couldnt sing much. This is what I got. They were interested in making money and I was just biding my time until I found me a man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: But in the process of all this, I'm saying I learned to not trust myself because I wasnt studying to be truly an artist. By the time I met Roach, I was already - had made the cover of Ebony magazine and I had made a movie with Jane Mansfield called "The Girl Can't Help It," and I had a career that I hadn't planned. But still, I was there. And so I left that and went with Roach - with Max. He told me that I didnt have to do things like that.

GROSS: What did you think when he told you that?

Ms. LINCOLN: I was relieved.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Ms. LINCOLN: And I believed him because I knew he was a great artist. I had a chance to watch him perform in California. I didnt know anything about Max Roach or Charlie Parker or none of these people, because I wasnt approaching the music from that standpoint. I knew the people who were popular, who I'd hear on the radio, and I happened to like Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. There's a lot of people who I heard - and Lena Horne.

GROSS: So you met many other jazz musicians at that time...

Ms. LINCOLN: I met the jazz musicians when I met Max Roach. That's when...

GROSS: And you started recording with jazz musicians.

Ms. LINCOLN: I started recording. Yes, it always - well, I started to work with virtuoso musicians for the first time in my life. This is really what happened to me. I didnt know what a virtuoso artist was until I met this crowd of musicians and singers. Even though I was listening to Billie Holiday, I didnt know who she was, really. I was singing the best I could, but there's a kind of a culture that this music is, and I wasnt involved in that then.

GROSS: How did it change your singing? Did you find like your phrasing changed or that...


GROSS: ...that you would interpret a song any differently with the different kind of accompaniment?

Ms. LINCOLN: No. I'm still myself. I'm myself but I'm more myself now. There were pointers that, like for instance, Max would say to me, sing on the beat, because I had the tendency to sing a long line. And I knew where the beat was but I figured it was somebody else's business and not my own. And I would say to him, well, the band didnt swing. He'd say to me, youre supposed to swing. Youre supposed to be the rhythm section. Things like that.

GROSS: I'd like to play a 1957 recording that you made which features Max Roach on drums, and Kenny Dorham, Sonny Rollins, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers all perform on it. How did this session come to be?

Ms. LINCOLN: I had come to New York to do a screen test for "The Billie Holiday Story" - this is years ago. And they told me that after I'd come and taken an apartment and everything, they told me that they were going to use Lana Turner or somebody like that, or Ava Gardner. Really. Truly. This is the truth, Terry. But anyway, I was in New York and I was seeing Max Roach and he said to me, how would you like to make a jazz album? And I said I'm not a jazz singer. And he said, well, youre black, aren't you? That's when I started to see myself through the music on another level. I never thought of music on this level before.

I used to sing songs that Billie Holiday and Sarah and the other singers would sing, and I didnt know what I was saying, really. I was just singing. I would sing "My Man," but I discovered I didnt want that in my life. If I met a man like that, I know what to do for him. You just leave him alone, you know? I didnt want to sing sad songs, and this masochistic woman who tells all, it never appealed to me. So - and since it was done so well, I mean Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday and, well, Ethel Waters - many women have told this side of the story. Now there's something else to say and I believe I'm the one...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: say it.

GROSS: Let's listen to this 1957 recording with my guest, Abbey Lincoln.

(Soundbite of song, "That's Him")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) You can shuffle him with millions, sold to them for billions, I'd pick him out in the darkest case and hallways, I would know him always, beyond a doubt. Identification comes easily to me because that's he. You know the way you feel when there is autumn in the air, thats him, thats him. The way you feel when Antoine has just finished with your hair, thats him, thats him. You know the way you feel when you smell bread baking. The way you feel when suddenly a tooth stops aching. Wonderful world, wonderful you, thats him, thats him. He is as...

GROSS: That's Abbey Lincoln recorded in 1957. The interview we heard was recorded in 1986. Abbey Lincoln died Saturday at the age of 80.

We'll continue our tribute with a 1993 interview after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering jazz singer and songwriter Abbey Lincoln. She died Saturday at the age of 80. The next interview we'll hear with her from our archive was recorded in 1993.

Let me play one of the songs that you wrote that you recorded on one of your recent albums. And this is called "I've Got Thunder And It Rings."


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's a great song.

Ms. LINCOLN: Thank you.

GROSS: Tell me something about writing it, about what you wanted to say about yourself in this song.

Ms. LINCOLN: Well, there's a complaint about the woman - about the female, you know? Especially about black women. I dont know, I guess it's the same thing for all the women. But if you express yourself, they say you talk too much and dont know how to be feminine and youre a drag, you know? So I say, listen, this is all true. So run, because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: ...I'm not changing anything. I'm everything that you say I am, so dont come around here because love is an emotion that'll move you to do things, to say things and to be things, whether it pleases anybody or not.

GROSS: Well, let's hear Abbey Lincoln singing her own song, "I've Got Thunder And It Rings." And this is from her album "The World is Falling Down."

(Soundbite of song, "I've Got Thunder And It Rings")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) Some folks talk about my power. Some folks say I'm wild and strong. Others say my style of living makes a man go wrong. I'm a woman hard to handle. If you need to handle this, start(ph) to run, not start coming. I've got thunder and it rings. 'Cause love is an emotion; it'll move you to do things, do things, do things. Love is an emotion; itll move you to do things. I've got thunder and it rings.

Some folks talk about the love they're feeling, talk about the love they need...

GROSS: Thats Abbey Lincoln singing her own song.

When you started your career as a singer, you worked as a glamorous nightclub singer, evening gowns, the whole bit. As a matter - one writer described you as being packaged as the black Julie London. Do you think that that's appropriate?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: No, they used to compare me to Lena Horne. At that time everybody was trying to be beautiful as Lena Horne.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LINCOLN: And there was Eartha Kitt, who was supposed to be a kitten, and you were supposed to have a glamorous image. And for the first time, I was using my physical look to attract attention to me and to - it was a claim to fame. And it wasnt anything that I'd ever done before because we were taught not to do that anyway, it's vanity.

GROSS: Did it affect your relationship with men to be the sexy kitten on stage?

Ms. LINCOLN: Yes. Because they believe - men and women, we all believe what we see on the screen and people thought I was this, you know...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LINCOLN: I played that role. Why would they think anything else? So, I radically, I went from there to this warrior woman and that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: ...befuddled everybody, too, because they thought, oh, why dont you shut up? I think I've had that said to me more than anything in the world over the years when I was younger. You talk too much. You know, dont rock the boat. Even though they're miserable, people are miserable, theyll tell you this. But youre not supposed to say anything about it.

So when I discovered that there was the world of the artist, it saved my life because I could strive to be individual and as best as I could be. I didnt have to have money. I didnt have to have anything except my life. And I went for that and I'm glad I did.

GROSS: You said that when you discovered jazz and the world of the artist that you turned into a woman warrior.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: Yeah.

GROSS: Tell me a little bit about what you were like as the woman warrior then?

Ms. LINCOLN: Well, the first thing I did, I just started to wear my hair natural. That was a crime in 1960 - 1957, 1958. A black woman wasnt supposed to show that she had hair like she had. It was a disgrace to have this kind of hair that they called all these crazy names. So I just glorified my existence and I said, this is me and this is my beautiful self, you know? The beauticians thought I was going to ruin their business.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: They did. They said I was after their business and a lot of people said things. And I started singing songs that were more social. I started writing songs and I found songs that would express what was in my heart. Because, you know, Billie Holiday was like this, she didnt sing inane things. She sang about the life that she lived. She may have been masochistic and all these things but she sang "Strange Fruit," and "God Bless the Child That's Got Its Own." Its the same reason they remember Bessie Smith because these were social singers. They weren't just - it wasnt self-aggrandizement, standing in front of people saying how great I am, but they was singing songs about the people's lives.

GROSS: We're listening to a 1993 interview with Abbey Lincoln. She died Saturday at the age of 80. We'll hear more of that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering jazz singer and songwriter Abbey Lincoln. She died Saturday at the age of 80. Let's get back to our 1993 interview with her.

I want to play a recording that you made of a song very associated with Billie Holiday.

Ms. LINCOLN: Yeah.

GROSS: And it's a very masochistic song, "Don't Explain," but it's just such a - it's a beautiful song, nevertheless, you know.

Ms. LINCOLN: Yes, forgiving.

GROSS: Yeah, and its such a melody. And I love the way you sing it.

Ms. LINCOLN: Thank you.

GROSS: Tell me a little bit before we hear it about the influence Billie Holiday had on you. I think youre a very different singer than she is. Although...

Ms. LINCOLN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...I hear the influence that she's had on you. But, tell me a little bit about that influence and also if you knew her, if you met her?

Ms. LINCOLN: I met her when I was about 23 in Honolulu and she came to the bar where I was working. It was probably to get away from where she was working because the place was jammed with people. Anyway, she came to see me a couple of times and I'd run to catch her show and I saw her magic on the stage. This beautiful woman who would stand perfectly still with her hands like, she was a like a doll and her eyes would slide from one side of the room to the other. And the room was perfectly still.

And I fell further in love with her. This was my - because I was singing a lot of songs that she sang already so, that I learned on the radio -from the radio. But Billie Holiday was always honest. She didnt bend a note to make her voice sound good. She was - it was in conversation that she sang and she was sincere and honest, and she never made a record for money. And to me, she's the greatest singer of her era.

GROSS: So do you think what you learned from Billie Holiday wasnt how to phrase as much as it was that you should be yourself.

Ms. LINCOLN: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Let's hear your recording of "Don't Explain," back from 1957 from your album "That's Him," your first jazz recording.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Explain")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) Hush now, don't explain. Just say you'll remain. I'm glad youre back, don't explain. Hush now, don't explain. Youre my joy and pain. Skip that lipstick. Don't explain.

GROSS: That's Abbey Lincoln singing "Don't Explain."

You and Max Roach got married...

Ms. LINCOLN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...during the period that you were recording together.


GROSS: How did you like married life? And I'm wondering if your career ended up taking a backseat at all during the marriage.

Ms. LINCOLN: No. He's a great artist and would never ask another artist to do that. But, marriage is the pits. You know why?


Ms. LINCOLN: Because I'm a polygamist woman. I dont want to be everything to a man and I dont want him trying being everything to me. He's got his mother. I want to know if he loves his mother first. I want to know if he loves his first wife, if he got along with her or if he gets along with her. I just dont like this approach to marriage and I will never do it again. I dont want to be that to anybody. I dont want anybody coming into my bedroom as if its theirs. I have to have my own space. And he, I expect him to have his own. If he doesnt know how to have his own space I dont want him around me.

GROSS: So never again?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: No, not that style.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. LINCOLN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Right. On the liner notes of one of your early records, someone quotes Thelonious Monk as having said to you the first time he saw you sing, I like the way you stand.

Ms. LINCOLN: No, he never said anything like that to me. Thelonious Monk wouldnt say anything like that to anybody in the first place, he doesnt give a damn about the way you stand. Excuse me Lord. Thelonious Monk said to me, after listening to the words that I had written to his song "Blue Monk," he said to me, he came to where I was and whispered in my ear, dont be so perfect. And I said to Max Roach, you know Thelonious said to me? He said, dont be so perfect. What does he mean? And Roach said, he means make a mistake. And I didnt know what either one of them were talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So how do you interpret that now?

Ms. LINCOLN: It means that you must reach for something. You have to reach for the sky. If you dont make it, at least you reached for it. So your voice cracked, but you reached for it. You dont play safe. It's not Safe Jones. You take a chance on making a mistake. That's what they meant. And I do. I've learned to sing like that.

GROSS: Well, I just saw you sing in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago and...

Ms. LINCOLN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: It was a great performance.

Ms. LINCOLN: Thank you.

GROSS: And, I dont know, it seems like when I see you on stage that you really are feeling the material that you sing, youre not falling back on professionalism or...


GROSS: business or anything. You seem to really be reaching inside each time you perform.

Ms. LINCOLN: That's true. It's the way of the music. Thelonious Monk would be drenched in perspiration and absolutely possessed. Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, it is the - and Charlie Parker, even though I didnt see him, but I hear it in his music, it's the possession. It's the muse. They talk about the muse. I'm possessed of a muse and I belong to her and she belongs to me. And as long as I sing and I am real and I do nothing to betray the trust, this is what I do. And it's a wonderful experience to come to the stage and to know that everything is all right.

GROSS: That interview with Abbey Lincoln was recorded in 1993. Her final album, "Abbey Sings Abbey," devoted to her original songs, was recorded in 2006. When it was released in 2007, she was recovering from open heart surgery.

Here's the final track of that final album. The song is called "Being Me."

(Soundbite of song, "Being Me")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) All along away there were things to do. Always some other, someone I could be. All the things to know, all the ways to go. To fly a spirit for the stage show.

It wasnt always easy learning to be me. Sometimes my head and heart would disagree. Times I walked away, other times I'd stay to see the drama of my life play.

Being me again...

GROSS: Abbey Lincoln died Saturday at the age of 80.

I'm Terry Gross.

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