Few singers have the emotional depth and versatility of Abbey Lincoln. With a voice capable of evoking the joys and pains of life, she carved a niche as a singer, songwriter and storyteller for more than 40 years. Up until her death this past Saturday at age 80, she still pursued new and creative ways to express herself. Born Anna Marie Wooldridge on August 6, 1930, in Chicago, Ill., Lincoln grew up in rural Michigan on a large farm with her 11 siblings. The family had a piano, and she developed an interest in music at an early age, when she began singing in school and church choirs. As Lincoln’s talent matured, she began learning to express the emotions behind the lyrics. She credits the recordings of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington with teaching her how to sing with conviction. To escape the harsh Michigan winters, Lincoln moved to California. At 22, she spent a year in Honolulu, singing at a nightclub under the name Gaby Lee. When she moved back to California, she met lyricist Bob Russell, who became her manager and renamed her Abbey Lincoln. After several years out west, Lincoln left for Chicago. While her singing career was beginning to build, she landed a role singing in the film The Girl Can’t Help It, wearing a dress once worn by Marilyn Monroe. But the glamorous life wasn’t sitting well with Lincoln, and she fired Russell and moved on.
In 1956, she recorded her first album, Abbey Lincoln’s Affair: A Story of a Girl in Love. The following year, she moved to New York City and worked at the Village Vanguard, which at that time was an intimate supper club, perfect for aspiring artists. While performing at the Village Vanguard, Lincoln met drummer, composer and bebop innovator Max Roach, whom she would later marry. It was Roach who introduced her to New York City’s jazz elite. He also played an important role in her development as a sociopolitical artist and activist. Lincoln and Roach began collaborating frequently during the end of the 1950s and throughout the 1960s.
During this time, the civil-rights movement was on the rise, and they, along with Charles Mingus, Oscar Brown Jr., John Coltrane and other jazz musicians, were right in the thick of it. Lincoln, Roach, Brown and others performed at benefits and fundraising concerts for the NAACP, CORE and other civil-rights organizations. In 1960, they recorded Roach’s masterpiece, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. In the mid-1960s, Abbey Lincoln starred in two more films, Nothing but a Man and For the Love of Ivy. At the end of the decade, she and Roach had divorced; Lincoln moved back to California and immersed herself in art. Even though she was experiencing some financial hardship during that time, singer Miriam Makeba offered her the chance to visit Africa.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Lincoln recorded on small independent labels such as Inner City and Enja. Her career got a major boost in 1989, however, when French producer Jean-Philippe Allard invited her to record for Verve Records/France. When The World Is Falling Down was released in 1990, the record propelled Lincoln back to stardom. Since then, she made a string of stellar, philosophical albums that continued to bring her critical and commercial success, all the way through the release of her final record, 2007′s Abbey Sings Abbey.