Abbey Lincoln – Jazz singer and political activist

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When Abbey Lincoln (1930-2010) died, a lot of people were surprised to find out she was actually 80 years old.  The reason for this of course is that most of her best loved, best selling albums came out during the 1990’s, and she was maybe looked upon as a jazz singer of the newer generation, and a contemporary of Dianne Reeves and Diana Krall. Her reputation as one of the great jazz ladies largely rests upon these records. She has also been called a protest singer by some, and she does deal with topics in some of her lyrics that might be looked upon as written by a protest singer. But to me it has a lot more to do with how she sings, the protest is lodged in her voice, and vocally she is every bit as much a soul singer as she is a jazz singer. You get the feeling that she has personal knowledge of everything she sings, and that every emotion she vocally transmits comes from her own experiences.

Like most Afro-American girls, little Anna Marie Wooldridge started out singing gospel in her local church. At the age of 22, she took the stage name Gaby Lee and worked in bars and night clubs around Hollywood and in Honolulu. After doing this for 4 years, she was spotted by a talent agent who gave her the new name of Abbey Lincoln, and also a recording contract. Her image at this point was that of a sexy, slinky night club chanteuse with all the trimmings; diamonds, tight dresses showing off a lot of cleavage, high heels, mink stoles etc.

Abbey in the late 50’s
 Her first album “Affair… A Story of a Girl in Love” came out 1956. The sexy cover might suggest that here was a singer in the mould of Eartha Kitt, purring through romantic ballads. So not, as Abbey even at this point had found her true voice – devoid of kittenish sexiness – and diving into the material in full voice, doing great versions of “The masquerade is over” and “This can’t be love” among others. She also made her first movie, guesting as a singer in the Jayne Mansfield movie “The Girl Can’t Help It”. Abbey performs the song “Spread the word, spread the gospel” wearing a sexy dress that had been used earlier by Marilyn Monroe! Part of the story is that sometime later, Abbey actually burned that dress to finally kill her image as a sexy night club singer!
During the next three years, she made three more albums similar to her debut album; “That’s Him” (1957), “It’s Magic” (1958) and “Abbey Is Blue” (1959). They have all been re-released on CD and can be downloaded from iTunes also.  Put together, these four albums give you the formative years of Abbey, and shows off a soulful singer doing jazzy versions of songs mostly from The Great American Songbook. But it does not in any way prepare you for what came next!
Working with drummer Max Roach (whom she married in 1962), she was the featured vocalist on their landmark 1960 album “We Insist – Freedom Now Suite”. The album consists of 5 long songs, and for the first time it shows that new Abbey-image. No longer cute & sexy, this singer is now a vocal warrior and a civil rights advocate. Her vocals on tracks like “Driva man” and “Prayer/Protest/Peace” proves that this girl means every word she sings, and she’s a force to be reckoned with! 1961 saw the release of another great album, “Straight Ahead” which is regarded as a classic, and I strongly suggest you check it out. Among the stand out tracks are “When Malindy Sings”, “African Lady” and “In the red”.
After this, Abbey took a very long break from recording, although she was still performing live. She starred in the 1968 movie “For the love of Ivy” with Sidney Poitier, playing the title role and receiving a Golden Globe nomination for it.
During the 70’s and 80’s she made only 4 albums, starting with the 1973 “People In Me”, and then she made her wonderful tribute to Lady Day, “Abbey Sings Billie” in 1987. After another 3 years away from the studios, she signed with Verve and made her first album (“The World Is Falling Down”) on that label in 1990.
From 1990 until 2007, Abbey made ten studio albums for Verve and one live album:
  • 1990: The World Is Falling Down
  • 1991: You Gotta Pay the Band
  • 1992: Devil’s Got Your Tongue
  • 1992: When There is Love
  • 1993: The Music is the Magic
  • 1994: A Turtle’s Dream
  • 1996: Who Used to Dance
  • 1998: Wholly Earth
  • 2000: Over the Years
  • 2003: It’s Me
  • 2007: Abbey Sings Abbey

Each and everyone of these albums is highly recommended, they are all good. All of them show off Abbey in good voice, doing great material, surrounded by very talented musicians – so just get them!! 

 Abbey endured open-hearted surgery in 2007, and for the next years her health deteriorated badly, and she was in a Manhattan nursing home at the time of her death in August 2010, twelve days after her 80th birthday.
Abbey once said: “when people leave this Earth, they spread their wings of miracles in a blaze of light and disappear…”
Musically, Abbey spread miracles and light through everything she did with her wonderful voice during her more than 50 years of singing…. and I often put some of those vocal miracles into my CD player.

Abbey on stage, ca. 1998


Anita O’Day – Through the years

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Anita O’Day (October 18, 1919 – November 23, 2006) was one of the greatest jazz singers of the 21st century. She also had one of the longest careers in music history: She made her first record in 1941, the last one in 2006 – a time stretch of 65 years! Having had a throat operation at a young age, during which the doctor accidentally cut off her uvula, you’d think that singing was off limits. Anita herself stated that it only meant she was unable to hold long notes and that she sings without vibrato. So she developed a singing style based on rhythm and singing short notes only. This made her an ideal bebop singer, but listening to any of her records, the missing uvula is not something you think much about. Anita has a warm, slighty husky voice and during the years she sang pure jazz, ballads, standard material, some latin-tinged songs – and all of it very well!

Anita spent her childhood in Chicago, raised by her single mother. Her mother is described by Anita in her autobiography as not being very nice. For years, she told Anita that she was born on Christmas Eve (to avoid buying presents probably), and when Anita in her early twenties needed a passport to go on a tour of Japan, she was shocked to find that she was actually born in October! At 15 she took off from home, earning money as a marathon dancer. She must have been a sight back then, as even very late in life Anita was a slim, stylish woman who carried herself with grace and always looking younger than she was.

Early Years: Her work as a dancer got her in touch with a lot of musicians, and she married drummer Don Carter in 1937. By 1941 she had secured a job singing with Gene Krupa, and with his band she made her first record in 1941. She immediately has a big hit with “Let me off uptown”, and up to 1943 when she left the band, she was a big juke box star with several other hits like “Thanks for the boogie ride” and “Stop! The red light’s on”. Her complete recordings with Krupa have been released on CD, and they show the hottest drummer in the world perfectly complementing the voice of the hardest swinging jazz girl ever!

She worked with Stan Kenton’s band 1944-45. The obviously had a good relation ship, as she could sing as hard as he could swing. And he also probably had a thing for girls from the mid-west who sang in the cool jazz style, as some of his other singers were Chris Connor and the late, great June Christy. With this band, Anita had a big hit with “And her tears flowed like wine” and some other notable sides she made during this period are “I’m going mad for a pad”, “Tabby the cat” and “The Lady in red”. She briefly re-joined Gene Krupa in 1945/46, before starting her solo career in 1947.

From 1947 until 1950, she recorded various singles for a lot of small labels and some of these are very good. “Hi ho Trailus Boot Whip” is a wordless scat-masterpiece, her versions of “How high the moon” and “Malaguena” are both great, so is “Key Largo”, “I told ya I love ya – now get out!”, “Harriet” and “Chickery Chick”. The 4 CD Box Set “Young Anita” contains all her songs from 1941-50, including her work with Krupa, Kenton, Count Basie and some air checks recorded for radio. It’s a great collection, and it gives you a wonderful insight of her formative years.

Anita was then signed to Norman Granz’ Verve label and for the next 10 years she consistently made one great album after the other, and the years 1952-62 show once and for all that the Verve records alone would be enough to secure Anita a place in jazz history, and also proves that she was one of the best female singers in her field.

The Golden Years: Most of her albums for Verve have all become classics, almost all of them have been re-released on CD and are available as digital downloads. Verve also made a 9 CD Box Set, “The Complete Anita O’Day Verve-Clef Sessions” which includes all her albums for them, plus some previously unreleased stuff. It’s expensive, but well worth every penny if you can get it! For Verve she made two swinging albums with Billy May, one with Cole Porter songs, the other with Rodgers & Hart songs. Other great albums on Verve are “Anita Sing The Most”, “Anita Sings The Winners”, “Cool Heat”, “Trav’lin’ Light”, “Waiter, make mine blues”, “All The Sad Young Men” and “Incomparable”. The early 2000s saw the release of “Anita Live In Tokyo”, which was recorded live in 1962.

Her contract with Verve ended 1962, and for the next 10 years or so, Anita performed very little, recorded nothing and according to her book did a lot of drugs and alcohol and almost died of an overdose in 1968. By 1970 she had cleaned up her act, detoxed and given up most of her bad habits, and her appearance at the 1970 Berlin Jazz Festival showed that she was still a force to be reckoned with. She also did a couple of films in the early 70s; “False Witness” (1970) and “The Outfit” (1974).

The last 30 years: After a 12 year absence from making records, Anita was back in the studio in 1974 making the album “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, and with rapid tempo followed with other, very good albums : “My Ship” (1976), “Mello’day” (1977), “Angel Eyes” (1978), “In A Mellow Tone” (1989), “Rules Of The Road” (1993). This last album includes Anita doing her version of the James Bond theme song “Nobody does it better” originally performed by Carly Simon. Check it out, and you’ll see that the title fits Anita like a glove! The album also shows the legendary voice beginning to lose some of it original luster, but at age 74 she still has what it takes. After a 13 year retirement, Anita came out on the scene again in 2006, making her very last record “Indestructable!”. Personally, I’m not sure what I think of this album, as it clearly shows an over-the-top 86 year old singer whose voice is very much past its prime. On the other hand, it also proves that her feeling for the material and her ability to go deep into the lyrics were undiminished, and as such it’s not all bad and you have admire that she actually went ahead and did this project! One of the songs, “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby” was featured in the opening scene of the cult movie “Shortbus”. In some strange way, the slurred and sultry O’Day voice blends in very well with the strange, sexually graphic scenes displayed in the movie, and Anita (known for her salty humour) probably thought it hilarious.

If you’re a fan, you probably own every Anita O’Day record already. If you’re curious about her – get one of the Verve albums and check her out. Whether you like jazz singing, or you’re just a fan of great vocalists, her singing can be enjoyed by all music lovers as there is not a bad song among all the stuff she recorded during the 65 years she spent with microphone in hand!

Anita in the 1970's

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