Abbey Lincoln was known for her earthy, passionate vocal style and glamorous image. She was sometimes called ‘the black Marilyn Monroe’, but in the latter stages of her career presented an dignified, earnest, almost sombre performance style inspired by her heroine Billie Holiday.
She was born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago in 1930 and grew up with 11 brothers and sisters. She quickly became interested in music and taught herself the basics of piano. She sang some gospel songs at school, and as a teenager started to make her way in the Honolulu nightclub scene before finding herself on the supper club circuit in Los Angeles, performing with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.
Her manager played up her glamorous, sultry image, which she sometimes found uncomfortable, once saying, ‘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 famously appeared in the 1956 film ‘The Girl Can’t Help It‘ wearing Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes‘ dress. But her voice was developing into a rich, sustained contralto , and she used it to stunning effect on her collaboration with drummer (and husband between 1962 and 1970) Max Roach and vocalist Oscar Brown Jr., the revolutionary 1960 album We Insist! (Freedom Now Suite). The anti-racist, civil rights-affirming project, with sometimes furious vocals from Lincoln, precipitated a major change of image and career direction. She aligned herself with the uncompromising jazz masters of the day like Monk and Mingus rather than the Hollywood mainstream and in 1961 recorded Straight Ahead with a phenomenal lineup of Coleman Hawkins, Booker Little, Mal Waldron, Eric Dolphy and Roach.
Like many jazz artists, her career waned slightly through the late ’60s and ’70s, but she was working on her own compositions during this time and, in 1990, she emerged with a striking new album for Verve, The World Is Falling Down, featuring pianist Hank Jones and trumpeter Clark Terry. Further albums You Gotta Pay the Band (1991), which she recorded with Stan Getz, and Devil’s Got Your Tongue (1992) followed, the latter gaining some controversy for Lincoln’s ticking off of some rappers, comedians and film makers for profiting from the coarsening of black culture. She also had a small role in Spike Lee’s film ‘Mo Better Blues‘ in 1990.
Released in 2007, her final album Abbey Sings Abbey was a heartfelt collection of originals and covers such as Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Lucky To Be Me’, an acapella ‘Tender As a Rose’ and a crafty reimagining of ‘Windmills of Your Mind’ featuring Joe Lovano on sax.
Abbey Lincoln inspired a new generation of jazz vocalists such as Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves. 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.
She is survived by two brothers and a sister.
Abbey Lincoln (Anna Marie Wooldridge), singer, born 6 August 1930, died 14 August 2010