Abbey Lincoln dies at 80; jazz singer, actress, civil rights advocate


Abbey Lincoln, an acclaimed jazz singer, songwriter and actress who evolved from a supper-club singer into a strong voice for civil rights, has died. She was 80.

Lincoln died Saturday in a nursing home in New York, said Evelyn Mason, her niece. No cause was given, but she had been in failing health.

Lincoln built a career as an actress and singer in the late 1950s through the turbulent 1960s, then stepped away during the 1970s and, years later, returned to prominence as a singer praised for her songwriting abilities.


“There was a passion to what she did,” said jazz critic Don Heckman, who noted that Lincoln’s songwriting made her a rarity among jazz singers. “She was not someone who was just singing a song. She had an agenda, and a lot of it had to do with civil rights.... She expressed herself in dramatic and impressive fashion in what she said and how she sang.”

Her voice was a “special instrument, producing a sound that is parched rather than pure or perfect,” wrote the New York Times’ Peter Watrous in 1996. “But her limitations infuse her singing with honesty. More important, she understands the words she sings, declaiming them with a flare of memory that seems to illuminate all the lost love and sadness people experience.”

She was often compared with Billie Holiday, one of her early influences. Times jazz writer Leonard Feather, writing after a Lincoln performance in 1986, said he could see glimpses of Holiday. “Not so much vocally as visually — a slight toss of the head, a jutting of the jaw,” he wrote. “As Lincoln said, ‘We all stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us.’ ”

And Lincoln made an impact on the next generation.

“She opened up doors, not just in the sense of career possibilities but as empowerment to be myself when I sang,” singer Cassandra Wilson told the Wall Street Journal in 2007.

Lincoln was born Anna Marie Wooldridge on Aug. 6, 1930, in Chicago, the 10th of 12 children. The family soon moved to rural Michigan.

She moved to California in 1951 and performed in local clubs, then spent two years singing in Honolulu before coming back to Los Angeles. And she became Abbey Lincoln, inspired by Westminster Abbey and Abraham Lincoln. Her manager, songwriter Bob Russell, thought of the name.

Lincoln had a role in the 1956 film “The Girl Can’t Help It” in which she wore a dress once worn by Marilyn Monroe. The appearance, coupled with her first album, “Abbey Lincoln’s Affair: A Story of a Girl in Love,” gave her a glamorous image. That changed when she started working with jazz drummer Max Roach, whose music would reflect the coming civil rights struggle. They married in 1962.

“I started out being a sexy young thing in a Marilyn Monroe dress,” she told The Times in 2000, “And Max Roach freed me from that.”

The 1960 release “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” included Lincoln’s wordless, sometimes screaming duet with Roach and was a landmark musical statement of the civil rights movement.

Lincoln “was like an OK supper singer,” critic and producer Nat Hentoff told The Times in 1993. “Then I went down to the Village Gate here in New York where Max and she were doing the ‘Freedom Now Suite.’ It was just extraordinary, the power of it.”

Critics were divided. “We all paid a price, but it was important to say something,” she told the Wall Street Journal in 2007. “It still is.”

Movie roles followed, including “Nothing But a Man” in 1964 and “For Love of Ivy” in 1968, in which she starred with Sidney Poitier.

Lincoln “was a really gifted person and a truly wonderful actress. She was the kind of person you expected to live forever,” Poitier told The Times on Saturday.

“She was gifted in so many ways. She was quite productive, and it was quite rewarding for those of us who heard her sing and watched her act.”

Lincoln and Roach divorced in 1970, and she returned to California to “cleanse her spirit,” she told The Times in 1993. She taught at what is now Cal State Northridge, did some television work and performed only occasionally.

Her career took off again in the late 1980s, with works including two 1987 albums paying tribute to Holiday. Living in New York, she moved to the Verve Music Group and had commercial and artistic success with “The World Is Falling Down” in 1990 and “You Gotta Pay the Band” in 1991, in which she performed with saxophone great Stan Getz. Her final new release was “Abbey Sings Abbey” in 2007.

Lincoln is survived by brothers David and Kenneth Wooldridge and a sister, Juanita Baker.