Abbey Lincoln, who was born Anna Marie Wooldridge, in Chicago, died on Saturday in Manhattan at age 80, after an acting, singing and composing career that spanned some five decades.
When she first came on the scene, many people thought Lincoln was just a pretty face in a famous dress. (She was known for wearing Marilyn Monroe's beaded gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the 1956 film musical The Girl Can't Help It, in which she had a singing part.) Lincoln went on to have success as a lounge singer—she spent much of her time in the Blue Note in New York—but sought a greater purpose for her emotional contralto voice and became involved in the civil rights movement in the early 1960's.
Around the same time, Lincoln showed she was unafraid to break barriers. She showed television audiences her afro, instead of conforming with the norm for black women which was to straighten their hair. "I had an image as a glamorous woman, and when I wore my hair natural it made an impression. We freed ourselves up to wear our hair any way we wanted to wear it," she told WNYC's Leonard Lopate in a 1995 interview. Lincoln recorded some of the vocals on We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite album around that time with jazz percussionist (and then husband) Max Roach, to whom she was married for eight years, according to National Public Radio.
In the '70s and '80s, after leaving New York and Roach in 1970 for California, Lincoln made fewer albums, but one of them was Abbey Sings Billie Vol. 1 & 2, a tribute to one of her biggest influences, Billie Holiday. In the 1990s and 2000s, Lincoln was back in New York composing her own work. Her career picked up when she signed with Verve Records, making eleven albums with Verve before her death, including 2007's Abbey Sings Abbey.
Lincoln's voice often sashayed behind the beat of her songs, guiding the listener's ear to the emotion and lyrics she explored in her music. “Her utter individuality and intensely passionate delivery can leave an audience breathless with the tension of real drama,” New York Times writer Peter Watrous wrote of Lincoln in 1989.
The Times reports that Lincoln is survived by two brothers and a sister—and, of course, by her music. Her musings about that music are especially poignant now that she's gone: "You can see the world through the music that you leave, something about the way things were."
The emotional power of Lincoln's voice as well as her notorious good looks are showcased in the tribute below, which is set to Lincoln's "Throw it Away".