Abbey Lincoln: Spirited and Spiritual

R.J. DeLuke By

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Lincoln began singing as a girl in school and church. The family moved from Chicago to Michigan, and Anna Maria Wooldridge continued singing a bit, but it had slowed down until a friend urged her to try out for a show in Kalamazoo, Mich., "Band Follies," where she performed for three years. "I did not know there was such a thing as a career until I was about 20."

One of her brothers was living in California, and on one of his visits back home, Abbey sought permission to go back with him and live on the west coast. Off she went. It took her on a whirlwind part of her career that included getting film parts and being captured in photographs as a sex symbol, including a magazine cover. She continued to sing, changing her name to Gaby Lee for a time.

"I met a photographer who took pictures of me. I was a pretty girl, they said. Sexy Sepia. And I had my fill of that. My management got me a movie called The Girl Can?t Help It (1956) in Marilyn Monroe's dress, a dress that they said she had worn in 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,'" says Lincoln, almost chuckling as she looks back. "They put me in this dress. That wasn't my thing. [laughs] Roach saved me from that too. He said, 'Abbey, I don't like that dress.' Cause I toured in it. So I had a chance to be a sexy glamour queen, Sepia, or to be what Billie Holiday was. It wasn't hard to figure that out.

"I will always remember seeing [Holiday] standing on the stage in a relaxed stance, with her hands like a little doll, looking from one side of the room to the other. Nobody spoke. She sang, ' Hush now, don't explain.' She stole my heart and I think of her always. She was the one who was social. Bessie Smith, before Billie, sang: Up on Black Mountain a child will smack your face/ Baby?s crying for liquor and all the birds sing bass/,' she said, 'I'm going up on Black Mountain with my razor and my gun/ I'm gonna shoot him if he stands still, and cut him if he runs..

"The same truth about our world. Well, we live in it. But the best thing that you can do for yourself — I know because I've seen a couple psychiatrists — all you have to do is just be real and tell yourself what you're doing. You don't have to tell anybody else. Tell yourself what you've been doing," she says with a chuckle.

Lincoln's career developed "as a very natural thing. I didn't know there was such a thing as a career," she says, adding in a sly voice, "I was looking for a man to take me to heaven."

"My life took me where I'm at and where I've gone, with the help, always, of my mother. She didn't try and influence me either. But in those days a woman didn't need a job; she didn't need to be successful in money. She married a man who was. I'm partial to that approach," she laughs. "My first recording was with Benny Carter and Bob Russell, ( Abbey Lincoln's Affair: A Story of a Girl in Love, 1956) who wrote the words to 'Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me.' He was the first great lyricist that I ever met in my life. 'Don't Get Around Much Anymore.' 'Crazy He Calls Me.' I met the cream of the crop, the great Bob Russell."

It was Russell who renamed her Abbey Lincoln and became her manager for a time. "That's how I knew what a song was. This was when I was 26 or 27. But I didn't starve along the way. And I wasn't pregnant [laughs]. I wasn't a junkie. I didn't go through none of this crap that I see people go through nowadays, acting like they're crazy."

Lincoln met Roach in California, and upon moving to New York City in her 20s, she ran into him at Small's Paradise. The pair got involved and eventually wed. "Slowly, I got a hold on the music from that perspective, because I got a chance to spend some time with it. Roach introduced me to many brilliant musicians. Thelonious Monk., for one. So I had a chance to meet and know, on a certain level, a bunch of masters. They really are. And the young ones are just like the elders. I don't miss the old men. The men I work with are brilliant. But we need patronage. All people do. If you have a serious form of anything, you need patronage. Someone who'll help you to live and keep you from being luckless and lost. And there are many people with money today who could be paying back what they got from the crowd they were hanging with. Basketball players, football players and any other kind of players. They got it at home. They ought to bring some of it home."

She adds with a sparkle, "If I had any magic, I'd snap my fingers and do it."

"We're not healthy and the reason we?re not healthy is that we were sacrificed for slavery," she says of the jazz world. "And nothing has changed. And the country doesn't want to make it well. They want everything they have. You know why it's a ball in Europe, to go there for a little while. They didn't bring the Africans to their shores to enslave. They brought them over here to America, but they don't have any history of that in France or Germany. They knew better than that."

Her time with Roach included helping black causes like CORE and the NAACP. Roach was noted for his activism in the 1960s, with civil rights on the front burner. "He was all the way wide awake, Max was," she says. Lincoln participated in Roach's famous recording We Insist: Freedom Now Suite. During that period, "Nina Simone was singing, 'To Be Young Gifted and Black.' It was a time when Dr. King was on the stump. We did some things for Malcolm X and for Dr. King, even though I never met Dr. King. It was a movement that helped all our lives."

Fighting for rights is still important today, she says, but with the right approach. "We don't need anybody to complain against. We need to look inside and see what it is we're doing wrong. That's all we need to do. And leave everybody alone and stop blaming other people for your crap."

In the 1970s, life shifted again for Lincoln. Her marriage broke up and she was back in California, where she made films like For Love of Ivy with Sidney Portier.

"I taught school in the 70s and also I did a play at the Ebony Showcase Theater. I found things to do. I was the first performer with a name to work the Parisian Room, which was up the street from my house. I created an atmosphere for myself. I didn't go there and lay low and not know what to do. Improvised theater. I did things for Alice Childress, when she was here. If you can't create an atmosphere for yourself, it's too bad. I found that from my mother and my father. My dad was the first generation from slavery. He didn't wait for somebody to see to him. He knew how to see to himself. And his children. That's where I came from. My greatest asset is really my ancestors."

Her career has had the solid support of Verve since 1990, which she calls "a blessing." The company has always been accommodating to the types of projects she wants to do and the music she creates, she said. She tours when she wants and has plenty of offers. But in overall American society, "they're trying to kill the music here. It should be obvious to everybody."

In the meantime, she continues to be creative and hopes the world will wake up soon, "brought down front," so that people learn respect for one another and learn to cherish high forms of artistic expression, like jazz.

"The people are ungrateful and filled with jealousy and worship god in other people's images," she says, even though the answers are really not far away and can be found if people know where to look. "The people who wrote and told us what we should and should not do, and lived thousands of years ago. It wasn't to save our souls. Our souls are brilliant and beautiful. It was to keep you from falling into the hole, dummy. Do you understand? To keep you safe. [But] we didn't get it yet."

Lincoln is aware she's one of the last of the early great singers. "I think about it. Everybody's gone. Betty Carter. Etta Jones. Most everybody's gone." But she knows there are outstanding young musicians on the rise, including singers. "Cassandra (Wilson) is working on it. And Diane Reeves. But the thing that concerns me sometimes is sometimes the singer sounds like they're imitating the horn of musicians. But she has the words and she shouldn't do this because the musicians don't have words to use."

From Lincoln's vantage point, she has risen above the turmoil, if not unscathed, at least no worse for the wear. She has kept herself above the abyss. "I'm a fortunate woman. I'm a movie star, I had a famous marriage, I have many, many songs and the company's named Moseka Music. I don't have a thing to worry about. I followed my heart and my heart brought me home. Besides," she adds with another sly glimmer, " it's time for Abbey."

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