“….I never got any offer from the Americans. They figured I was dangerous or something.”
May 14, 1996
By phone from her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan
Abbey Lincoln was more than a remarkable singer and songwriter: She was a remarkable person, who made a mark as a civil rights activist, actress (starring opposite Sidney Poitier in “For Love of Ivy” in 1968) and, most notably, fiercely independent musician.
Lincoln, who died in 2010 at age 80, was 65 when this interview took place near the start of her late career renaissance. After her early success in the late ‘50s, she only recorded sporadically until she signed with Verve in the early ‘90s and, working with French producer Jean-Philippe Allard, began to record her original songs.
She explained to me that she had to delay our interview, originally scheduled for the day before, because of the death of her brother, Robert R. Wooldridge, a Chicago judge. “I’ll miss him,” she said. “We all have to lose one another.”
We spoke once before in 1986 when you were playing at a little bar in Cambridge, Charlie’s Tap [now known as Green Street]. It seems like your career has taken off since then.
I was surviving. Now things have changed. I feel a lot more comfortable about my career. I feel rewarded. I’ve been installed [laughs] as one of those who have added something to the music.
Do you credit your producer, Jean-Philippe Allard, for your current success?
Yes, all of that has everything to do with it. But…he came to get me in 1989. but I’ve been singing all my life. And I’ve been practicing the arts. When I wasn’t singing, I was painting. So I was true to my spirit and my muse. I believe that that’s why eventually Jean-Philippe came and called me on the phone and asked me what I wanted to do. This is the first time I’ve been marketed as a singer and that makes a difference. [At the start of her career, Lincoln was hyped as a sultry sex kitten; in the Jayne Mansfield movie “The Girl Can’t Help It,” Lincoln turned up in a dress once worn by Marilyn Monroe.]
Right. I do what I please and he helps me to do it.
It’s kind of sad that American talents need Europeans to recognize and aid them.
I know. They said a long time ago that you’re not a prophet in your own hometown. The music is great and is recognized as such all over the world except here. The audiences are small. But you know, it doesn’t really in the final analysis matter. Because it is a music that we are possessed of. And we have to bring it. There are some who are possessed and some who just use it for careers and are not true to the form. And there are others who die for it. And we remember their names forever. Charlie Parker. John Coltrane. Bud Powell. Thelonious Monk. So I’d rather bring something that is useful than waste my time here.
Did you feel when you were toiling in obscurity in the mid ‘80s that your time would come?
I never really gave it much thought. It wasn’t anything I worked for. If I wanted to be a superstar and have everybody know my name and be rich I never would have come to this musical form. I would have stayed an actress and done anything they asked me to do. But I didn’t come to the work for this. I didn’t know this. It was a development of my life. But I know this now. There is something that is a lot more important to me. I don’t want people to know my name anyway. It is an uncomfortable position to be in. You don’t know them and they know you. And they watch you do what you do and sometimes you make a fool of yourself. The people remember you for what you did. If you are true to them, they are true to you. They are like lovers. I saw Billie Holiday’s statue in Baltimore when I was just there. Looked just like her with a gardenia in her hair and everything. She’ll live forever.
There’s been a lot of talk about the difficulty black actors have in trying to succeed in Hollywood today. Did you feel race hurt your acting career?
The men don’t do badly. Sidney Poitier, Billy Dee Williams, Denzel Washington, they team up with white actors and do shoot ‘em ups and everything. It’s the black woman who’s at the bottom of the barrel here. Nobody is interested in producing her. She’s expendable somehow. It’s too bad, because it would increase the black man’s holdings if he would remember who he was and where he got all his stuff. He should be trying to do some things with a woman and tell something about the world we live in. But that’s not the way it is. I watched Dorothy Dandridge die waiting for a movie. I watched Cicely Tyson struggle to maintain a standard as an actress. So I didn’t go that way because I don’t care. Really I don’t. I never dreamed of being in a movie. I never dreamed of any of this. So all this is a bonus. I just do what I want to do. I may not do everything I want to do, but what I do do, I want to do. And if nobody is around, I can paint and maintain that same spirit that gives me a feeling of security and increases my understanding of what and who I am. Because that’s what the arts are for: to help us understand better what the human being is. For me it’s a holy experience, an experience that makes me feel whole. I don’t have to call anyone’s name but my own and the others that came before and sacrificed and brought this beautiful musical form.
Were you not as interested in acting as in music?
Yes. But [the difficulties facing a black woman in Hollywood] were a factor too. Because it’s another form and it’s creative and everything. But one of the reasons I like this musical form is that the black woman is valued in this form. She’s the singer. She’s big momma. Yeah. It makes life easier. I don’t like working under difficult circumstances where I have to go through hell.
A lot of critics called [1994’s] “A Turtle’s Dream” your best work to date. Do you agree?
Yes I do. I just recorded another album [“Who Used to Dance”] and I believe it’s on the same level. Max Roach [Lincoln’s husband from 1962-1970] said to me years ago that when your work reaches a certain level it only goes so far down or up. It’s like you fly at that level. Well, I have reached a certain height and it’s up there somewhere. And the older I get, the better my instrument becomes. When I got home Sunday I discovered that my teacher, David Collyer, had passed away and it hurt me too. He was a great teacher and he gave me my voice in that he showed me how to use my instrument. I don’t think he intended me to use it in the way that I do because he was a classical singer. But he showed me what my instrument was and really added a lot to my life.
Some critics have complained that you don’t have a great voice like an Ella [Fitzgerald] or Sarah [Vaughan].
It’s a lie. It’s just a lie. We all have about the same range of a couple of octaves. They never said Billie Holiday didn’t have a range even though she used a small one. They never said that about Carmen McRae. All of those women scat. i don’t do that. If you scat, you can take another octave. but I can do anything I please and the songs are difficult to sing. You have to have a range and an understanding of your instrument and the song. So it’s just a lie. But people like to say things and they just repeat them [laughs]. It’s part of the deficit of being whatever it is I am. I don’t really care.
Fans and critics argue over what was Billie Holiday’s greatest period. There are those who maintain that even though her voice became rougher, her later years were her best. Was the latest the greatest?
They’re right. I heard her sing “For All We Know” on an album called Lady In Satin.” I was sitting in a bar and it made me weep. She was a great singer. I knew she was planning on leaving soon, that’s the reason she chose that song. Otherwise she wouldn’t have sung it. All of her periods were great. She was the greatest. She was vulnerable. She always did the best she could do to sing a song. And I do. I learned that from her. Whether her throat was raspy or not, she told the story and it would bring tears to your eyes. Yeah, “Lady In Satin.” That’s one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s hard to listen to sometimes because it’s so deep.
Do you feel that like her you’ve gotten better as you’ve gotten older?
Yes, I’ve gotten better. But I didn’t self-destruct like Billie did. So my instrument is stronger now. It’s deeper and it’s wider. I’m a better musician today than I was.
The song, “A Turtle’s Dream,” is that you you’re singing about? Slow but steady wins the race?
Yeah. How I got this song, Jean-Philippe brought me this lead sheet from Laurent Cugny, one of his artists from Paris. It was titled “A Turtle’s Dream” and Laurent told Jean-Philippe it was probably going to be the saddest song in the world [laughs], because most people looking at me think I should be sad because I should be a superstar by now. So I never thought of myself as a turtle. I thought of myself as a lion. But I thought, I can hear that, yeah, a turtle. So I wrote a song about a sea turtle that swims the ocean. I was bragging about being a turtle [laughs]. “It’s deep and wide and in the house above me abide.” Yeah. So that’s how I found that song.
Is the acclaim you’re receiving now vindication?
Yes it is. It says that if you keep right on doing what you’re doing people will eventually hear it. I’m fortunate. I didn’t have to die for them to hear it. I’m still here. And they reaffirm for me, make it easy for me to live. I’m glad that in these years they help me to live. Because they are the ones who buy the album, come to the clubs, and bring the money that makes it possible for us to do this. I’m glad that there is a significant crowd that has an appreciation for my music.
I read that you worked as a teacher when you were living in L.A.
For a year I taught theater at [California State University] Northridge. I never went to a university and I used to say to the students, “What are you doing here? I never went. If my mother told me I had to go I would have left home.” I don’t believe I was a great teacher, but the school subsidized the artists and I needed a job then. When I was down and out they helped me to live.
I would do lectures there. I would go to public schools and sing for the children and do lectures. Because there isn’t a lot of music in L.A.
Were you frustrated that you were not working as a musician?
No, I could have gotten work anytime I wanted to. All I had to do was put on a certain thing and I wouldn’t have any trouble being in the movies or anything else. But I couldn’t be who I am. I would have had to be some second rate human being. All I had to do was sing the songs that Billie Holiday sang, but I didn’t do that. I was singing my own songs. My concern was never really — it may sound strange — I was never concerned about anybody but myself. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to give my mother all the things I wanted her to have. She got tired and went home around 1977, but she didn’t want me to be anything but this. She taught me to be this. It’s not for a career I live. It’s not so people know my name. I survive because I know how to. I didn’t have to demean myself and take a job as a maid or something. I always practiced the arts and there was always a singing job for me eventually somewhere. In 1978 another Frenchman, Gerard, sent for me. That’s how I made that album [“Painted Lady”] with Archie Shepp. I went to Japan in ‘73 and made an album called “People In Me” that the Japanese produced. After I made “Straight Ahead” and “Freedom Now Suite” I never got any offer from the Americans. They figured I was dangerous or something.
Was your outspokenness and independence factors in hindering your career?
Yes, they wanted to discourage me. But thankfully this is a worldwide music and I don’t have to depend upon the Americans only. Still, I have a great audience here. The reason they like me in other countries is that I’m somebody here in America. I know it. I made three movies that are evergreen. “The Girl Can’t Help It” is a piece of fluff and it lives. “Nothing But A Man” and “For Love of Ivy.” I did that.
Were you ever tempted to move to Europe?
No. I know that people do that. But just because they’re making love to me, I’m not going to move in on ’em [laughs]. I’m going to stay here where my ancestors are in the ground.
Now you are receiving recognition not only as a singer but as a songwriter too.
I’ve been visible since 1957. That’s when I came through in “The Girl Can’t Help It” wearing Marilyn Monroe’s dress. Then I started working with Roach. That’s when I started writing words. My first song was on an album called “Abbey Is Blue,” a blues called “Let Up.” Roach wrote the melody and said that I had written it, but it really is his. And I put a lyric to Monk’s “Blue Monk” and John Coltrane’s “Africa” and to Villa-Lobos’s “Prelude.” I didn’t ask anybody, I just did this. Anyway, Thelonious Monk helped me. When they re-released “Straight Ahead,” the album I did with Coleman Hawkins — Max should have a&r credits because he really put the album together. Nat Hentoff produced it. After I did it I was attacked by a critic who said I was a professional Negro. I went through a lot of changes after the “Freedom Now Suite” and “Straight Ahead.” I wrote some lyrics for “Straight Ahead” but I hadn’t written a melody yet. So when the album was released, Max got quotes and Thelonious was quoted as saying, “Abbey Lincoln has to make it because she not only is a great singer and actress, she’s a great composer.” I finally heard what he was saying. He was saying you don’t have to write on other people’s song, you can write melodies yourself. I took him for his word. I’ve been composing my own songs ever since. I think on “A Turtle’s Dream,” “Down Here Below” is probably the best song I’ve written so far, if I was going to have to choose one.
So did Monk’s words give you confidence?
Yeah, I knew he wouldn’t tell me anything he didn’t mean. He was not insincere, he was trying to tell me something and I finally heard it. He said, “You can hear a melody. You are a composer.” That’s what he said to me. And I believed him. And when I heard “People In Me,” which is a simple child’s song, I believed in the song and recorded it [on her 1973 album “People In Me”]. I knew I was a lyricist, but I didn’t know I was a composer.
Looking back at your career with its ups and downs, did you think it worked out for the best in the end?
I do. And I’m thankful too. It cooled me out. I don’t have anything to prove.