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Abbey Lincoln: African Queen in a Top Hat

Joan Gannij By

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She shakes her head, then continues: "I didn't plan any of this. My life is really a happening. I didn't ask my mother for a piano when we moved, but she got one for me. The others didn't play cause they didn't want to. They left me alone, they didn't tell me when to stop or to start. I never planned my life or planned to do anything. When I was a younger woman I dreamed of meeting a man. I never knew I would have this career. I guess I was made to do this. It's not for money. It's for the sake of my spirit. I can say that I've been fortunate all my life. There's always been somebody who has helped me, who said: 'What do you want to do, Abbey'?"

Lincoln set off for Honolulu when she was 22, where she would stay for two years, singing in nightclubs and meeting up with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, whose singular approach to singing would eventually reflect in her own unique song renderings. She then headed west to Los Angeles where she crossed paths with Bob Russell, "the great lyricist who named me Abbey Lincoln," in dual homage to Westminster Abbey and the 16th President who brought an end to slavery. She also met Eddie Beale, a coach who she says, "took away all of the habits I learned from listening to other singers like Ella and Billie. He told me: 'I don't want you to sing it as it's written on the paper and don't make a variation unless you feel it.' Billie, Sarah, Dinah and Ella did that. Bob Russell taught me what a great song was. He said: 'It's a story that hopefully not covered by anyone else; succinct and to the point. It's an original story, a thought that hasn't been explored by another writer.'"

In 1956, she made her first record, Affair...a Story of a Girl in Love (Liberty) and soon appeared in her first film which was a vehicle for Jayne Mansfield, The Girl Can't Help It. Her second album, That's Him was released in 1957 (Riverside) and included Sonny Rollins on tenor sax and the bebop drummer Max Roach, who was also a vocal civil rights activist. They began a musical partnership of sorts with We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite (Candid), on which Lincoln signified Oscar Brown Jr.'s searing lyrics. This would be considered an early masterwork and was the beginning of Lincoln's detour into radical terrain and vocalizations that included howling, moaning, shrieking and the occasional screech. A year later, Lincoln wrote her own lyrics to a song called "Retribution" that had some well-known reviewer dismiss her with a racist jibe as being "a professional Negro."

When efforts continued to focus on establishing her as a potential pinup image, she eventually told a clique of career-building sycophants "to all go to hell." It started with a very low-cut dress that had once been worn by Marilyn Monroe. She bristles at the memory and says: "When I was hangin' with Roach he finally said, "I don't like that dress. So it went into the incinerator. They were expecting me to be a big popular star but I didn't come to California to make a spectacle of myself and to be sexy with my titties shaking. So I fired everybody, and told them I'm not a jazz singer, and someone said: "Well, you're black, aren't you?"

She married Max Roach in 1962, and says: "Living with Roach, I learned a lot about an approach to music. Like my mother and father, we were more than musicians. I'd been writing lyrics and Roach wrote the melody and gave me credit for it, ("Abbey is Blue," on the Reversible recording). In these evolutionary times, she was not only confronting racism head on, but also being confronted with what she calls "a male chauvinist society." "Everybody always treated me like I was somebody, and suddenly it was Abbey takes a husband, not Roach takes a wife. He didn't form me or discover me, I already was a cover girl, in the movies, and I already had a recording. But that's the way it is in this work sometimes, and that's life. People resent you or just don't like you. Jon Hendrix did an interview saying if it wasn't for Roach I wouldn't have made it."

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