Born Anna Marie Wooldridge on August 6, 1930, in Chicago, IL; performed variously under names Anna Marie, Gaby Lee, and Aminata Moseka; changed name to Abbey Lincoln, 1956; married Max Roach, 1962; divorced, 1970. Education: Studied music with prominent vocal and dramatic coaches, Hollywood, CA, early 1950s. Addresses: Record company--Verve Records, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019, website:

Abbey Lincoln "is a culture bearer," jazz singer Cassandra Wilson told John Leland in Newsweek. "There's certain people inside the African-American experience that act as griots, bearers of the culture, and they help to carry on the traditions and transmit knowledge and understanding of our heritage. Paul Robeson was something like that. And so is she."

For four decades Lincoln's life has been a constant transformation of experience, of awakenings into growth, of the communication of what she has witnessed. She has grown through many stages: a naive young lounge singer; a movie and jazz club sex kitten; a vocal African-American with a deepened cultural awareness; a sensitive actress contradicting cultural perceptions; an artistic and cultural exile; a poetic jazz sage. She has gone by many names, finding and then defining herself individually, culturally, and humanistically. Lincoln's music, which at first served as an escape from the life around her, grew into a means of expression, understanding, and communication with others.

Lincoln was born Anna Marie Wooldridge on August 6, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents soon moved the family to Calvin Center, Michigan, her mother believing a rural area was the best place to raise a family. Since the family was poor, the children often had to entertain themselves with singing, but as the tenth of twelve children, Lincoln had a hard time distinguishing herself. "I preferred to sing alone--to be the centerpiece," she recounted to Francis Davis in High Fidelity. "The living room piano was my private space, once I discovered that singing could win me attention and admiration." She also sang in school and church choirs, often as a soloist. Her musical approach, however, was mainly influenced by recordings of singers her father borrowed from neighbors: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne. "I was particularly impressed with Lena Horne; for a while I totally emulated her style and voice," Lincoln explained to Gary G. Vercelli in Down Beat. "Then I had the opportunity to see Lena perform. It was then that I knew I no longer wanted to be like Lena, 'cause her message was so loud and clear to be yourself."

Walked the Bar

Lincoln proved her own singing capabilities by winning an amateur contest when she was 19 and began her musical career by moving to Los Angeles to sing in nightclubs. By 1952, she had moved to Honolulu to perform as a resident club singer under the stage name Anna Marie, but she still hadn't developed her own identity as a singer. "I sang songs I heard Rosemary Clooney sing, songs that were popular on the radio," Lincoln told Lisa Jones of the New York Times. "Singers would walk the bar back then, hollering and screaming like instruments, really entertaining the people."

Lincoln returned to Hollywood in 1954 to sing at the Moulin Rouge, a nightclub with a French-style revue featuring elephants and pink-dyed poodles. Wearing feathered hats and dresses with daring slits, she became Gaby Lee, a name the owners of the club thought sounded French. In 1956, under the advice of her manager, lyricist Bob Russell, she changed her name to Abbey Lincoln--a combination of Westminster Abbey and Abraham Lincoln. That year, she also recorded her first album, Affair: A Story of a Girl in Love, appearing on the cover in a centerfold pose. "I went along with [the cover pose] because I didn't know any better," she related to Davis years later. "I didn't think of myself as a serious artist--or as a serious person either. All I wanted was to be thought of as beautiful and desirable." Later in 1956, Lincoln solidified her sexy image by playing a bit part in the film The Girl Can't Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield. In the film she wore a dress that Marilyn Monroe had worn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and she subsequently appeared on the cover of Ebony in June of 1957 as "The Girl in Marilyn Monroe's Dress."

But this extensive popularity was at odds with her burgeoning social and artistic sensibilities. "It was a contradiction in my life," Lincoln described to Michael Bourne in Down Beat. "I was always a nice girl and now I was this siren! It was about to drive me crazy. I was scared." Feeling she really wasn't as good a singer as she appeared to be, that she was faking it, Lincoln decided to drop the affectations and pretenses that put her in the limelight. Further enlightenment came from the great jazz drummer Max Roach, whom Lincoln met in the late 1950s and married in 1962. He convinced Lincoln that she didn't need Marilyn Monroe-type dresses in order to succeed in music and in life. "Max taught me to invest all my creative effort into everything I approach in life, not only the music," she told Vercelli. "Many of the things I learned from him continue to serve me today, especially the technique of always practicing, even when you are away from your instrument." In a symbolic gesture, she reportedly burned the dress soon afterward.

Pupil of Roach, Rollins, Coltrane, and Monk

Through Roach, Lincoln met and began playing with and learning from such serious jazz artists as Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Wynton Kelly, and Kenny Dorham. She began composing her own music. She also came in contact with black artists in other fields, intellectuals concerned with the plight of African-Americans in American society at the time. "It was the early days of the civil rights movement, and we were all asking the same questions," Lincoln explained to Davis. "But they were asking questions that glamour girls weren't supposed to ask. As I toured the country, I noticed that black people everywhere were living in slums, in abject poverty. I wanted to know why."

Lincoln's interest was heartfelt, her questions searching and insightful. She became more aware of her cultural heritage; she began wearing her hair natural. Leland quoted Roach on Lincoln's social awareness: "She became a symbol for young black women because she was politically astute. [Writers] Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou and other people would all come up and we'd have these debate sessions. Because she had the kind of visibility and beauty that you appreciated, it was unsettling to a lot of us men, including me. Because her position would be, not harder, but more pointed than ours. She'd get right down to it."

Lincoln lent her newly emotion-filled voice to Roach's 1960 recording We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite, which became the jazz anthem of the civil rights movement. One piece on the album, "Prayer/Protest/Peace," a wordless duet between Lincoln and Roach that progressed from hopefulness to screams to peace, brought divided critical reaction. Because it was her voice that yelled at the listener, Lincoln was labeled a radical. But her recent change and growth had an impact, as Jones noted: "Her passage from a bouffant-coiffed starlet to a socially conscious jazz artist with an Afro presaged the course that black identity would take in the '60s."

Lincoln left music recording in the mid-1960s to focus on an acting career, but she continued to speak out against the oppression and stereotyping of African-Americans in that period, choosing to portray only fully fleshed-out characters. She starred opposite Ivan Dixon in the 1964 film Nothing But a Man and in 1968 played the title role opposite Sidney Poitier in the romantic comedy For the Love of Ivy. "Though very different, both films were landmarks because of their sensitive, nonpathological portrayals of love, sexuality, and intimacy between a Black woman and man," Jill Nelson wrote in Essence. Despite winning critical accolades for these film roles, Lincoln was relegated to minor television spots, never being allowed to fulfill her possible destiny as an accomplished and highly visible actress.

In 1970, frustrated by a stifled acting career and despondent over her recent divorce from Roach, Lincoln sought emotional relief, signing herself into a psychiatric hospital in upstate New York for five weeks. Over the next decade, Lincoln rarely performed in the United States, touring and traveling occasionally outside of the country. In 1972, while on vacation in Africa, Lincoln was given her African names. President Sekou Toure of Guinea presented her the name "Aminata" in recognition of her inner strength and determination. The name "Moseka," a gift from Zaire's Minister of Information, denotes the god of love in female form.

In 1979, almost 15 years after her last American release, Lincoln offered People in Me. She had spent the decade writing songs, training her voice, and finding inner peace. The results were evident on the album. "She shows an uncommon felicity with words," John S. Wilson wrote in High Fidelity. "Her settings and moods range from the expansive glow of 'Africa' to a satirical view of female vanity, from an imaginative duet with an inner voice to a listing--almost in Cole Porter fashion--of the mixtures of blood strains that flow through all of us." After almost ten years of self-exile, Lincoln had emerged as a "strong black wind, blowing gently on and on," poet Nikki Giovanni was quoted as saying by Vercelli. Throughout most of the 1980s, Lincoln continued "in the shadows, looking inward, taking the stuff of her own life--the loneliness, pain, and joy--and turning it into music," Nelson wrote.

Renewed Acclaim

Lincoln's voice has ascended to that of her celebrated predecessors not only in content but also in timbre. It is a voice now often compared to one of her childhood idols, Billie Holiday, a "deep, rich voice ... probably truer to the emotional content of her songs than to absolute pitch," Leland noted. "It can be off-putting or powerfully engaging, but--never prettified--it doesn't allow listeners much room for neutrality." The persuasive conviction behind the delivery of her songs, mirroring her emotional attention to life, "can leave an audience breathless with the tension of real drama," Watrous described. "A slight, curling phrase is laden with significance, and the tone of her voice can signify hidden welts of emotion." The Holiday comparison is one that Lincoln, who recorded two albums of Holiday's songs, embraces.

With two releases in the early 1990s--The World Is Falling Down and You Gotta Pay the Band-- Lincoln earned both commercial and artistic success. Both are a testament to her life, her artistic vision, her overall empathy for humanity. The World Is Falling Down is a "discourse on life and love from a well-traveled, still passionate soul," Eric Levin wrote in a review for People. "When she sings in the title cut (one of her own), 'The world is falling down/Hold my hand, hold my hand,' the sound is of comfort offered rather than sought."

On 1991's You Gotta Pay the Band, Lincoln was joined by jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, who died shortly after its release. The music they created and communicated together transcended not only the simple joys of life but the pain at its very end. Down Beat's Owen Cordle called it "an album with bittersweetness and poignancy in the air. Lincoln's voice is the black earth, Getz's saxophone soft summer clouds. Knowing he was dying, how could they get through Lincoln's 'When I'm Called Home' without pity? Such is the triumph of great art, of which this album is an example."

"Consummate Storyteller"

Lincoln continued her prolific output through the 1990s, creating a large, distinctive catalog of new material on Verve Records. Beginning with The World Is Falling Down and ending with Over the Years, an album that serves as a summation of her long and varied career, Lincoln released seven albums on the label between 1990 and 2000, coming into her own as a composer and lyricist over the years. "She writes songs," Jill Nelson wrote in Essence, "that are not simply personal but also emblematic of women's search for power, love, community, for belonging with integrity." People's David Grogan called her a "consummate storyteller."

Lincoln's popular acclaim continues to grow with each new album she releases. She welcomes the popularity, confessing to Time writer Jack E. White, "I thought I was going to die in obscurity," in 1993. She presented a stunning three-night retrospective of her career at New York's Jazz at the Lincoln Center in March of 2002. As she grows older (Lincoln turned 73 in 2003), the realization of the importance of her music as a lasting legacy has hit her. "Sing a song correctly, and you live forever," Lincoln told Down Beat writer Jim Macnie. "Ella didn't go anywhere. She's right here with us. Same with Louis Armstrong. It's the greatest thing I've ever found to do in my life."

by Rob Nagel

Abbey Lincoln's Career

Worked as a maid, 1949-50; won amateur singing contest, 1950; moved to California to perform in nightclubs, 1951; performed as resident singer in a club in Honolulu, HI, 1952-54; returned to Hollywood to perform as a singer at various clubs, 1954-57; began recording career, 1956; sang as a soloist and with a group led by Max Roach, late 1950s-1960s; recorded and toured as a soloist, including tours of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Far East, 1970-; assistant professor of African-American Theatre and Pan-African Studies, California State University, 1974; released seven albums on Verve Records, 1990-2000; made guest appearances on television shows, including Flip Wilson, Marcus Welby, M.D., Mission Impossible, and All in the Family; performed in music and dance productions and in theater productions; directed and produced play A Pig in a Poke, 1975; appeared as lead or supporting actress in films, including The Girl Can't Help It, 1956, Nothing But a Man, 1964, For the Love of Ivy, 1968, A Short Walk to Daylight, 1972, and Mo' Better Blues, 1990.

Abbey Lincoln's Awards

Federation of Italian Filmmakers, Best Actress, 1965; First World Festival of Negro Arts, Best Actress for Nothing But a Man, 1966; All American Press Association, Most Prominent Screen Person Award for For the Love of Ivy, 1969; induction, Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1975.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…