Abbey Lincoln: Spirited and Spiritual
"I'm the 10th of 12 children. My father midwifed my mother for the last six. He built the house I was born in and grew up in. He also secured a piano for us, because momma didn't work, except in the house, taking care of the children. And she was spiritual. She was beautiful. I was allowed to sit at the piano when I was five years old. I didn't go to it until I was about that age. My mother and father never said to me, 'Anna Marie get off the piano' or 'Anna Marie, play the piano.' They left me alone there. My own space. And none of my brothers and sisters bothered me. They didn't dare.
"I was given this at home. I wasn't abused. I wasn't raped, I wasn't cursed. I got everything I'm wearing right now at home, through my mother and father. I think of my mother every morning. She taught me how to live here, save my soul and not be a victim."
Lincoln began singing as a girl in school and church. The family moved from Chicago to Michigan, and Anna Maria Wooldridge continued singing a bit, but it had slowed down until a friend urged her to try out for a show in Kalamazoo, Mich., "Band Follies," where she performed for three years. "I did not know there was such a thing as a career until I was about 20."
One of her brothers was living in California, and on one of his visits back home, Abbey sought permission to go back with him and live on the west coast. Off she went. It took her on a whirlwind part of her career that included getting film parts and being captured in photographs as a sex symbol, including a magazine cover. She continued to sing, changing her name to Gaby Lee for a time.
"I met a photographer who took pictures of me. I was a pretty girl, they said. Sexy Sepia. And I had my fill of that. My management got me a movie called The Girl Can?t Help It (1956) in Marilyn Monroe's dress, a dress that they said she had worn in 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,'" says Lincoln, almost chuckling as she looks back. "They put me in this dress. That wasn't my thing. [laughs] Roach saved me from that too. He said, 'Abbey, I don't like that dress.' Cause I toured in it. So I had a chance to be a sexy glamour queen, Sepia, or to be what Billie Holiday was. It wasn't hard to figure that out.
"I will always remember seeing [Holiday] standing on the stage in a relaxed stance, with her hands like a little doll, looking from one side of the room to the other. Nobody spoke. She sang, ' Hush now, don't explain.' She stole my heart and I think of her always. She was the one who was social. Bessie Smith, before Billie, sang: Up on Black Mountain a child will smack your face/ Baby?s crying for liquor and all the birds sing bass/,' she said, 'I'm going up on Black Mountain with my razor and my gun/ I'm gonna shoot him if he stands still, and cut him if he runs..
"The same truth about our world. Well, we live in it. But the best thing that you can do for yourself I know because I've seen a couple psychiatrists all you have to do is just be real and tell yourself what you're doing. You don't have to tell anybody else. Tell yourself what you've been doing," she says with a chuckle.
Lincoln's career developed "as a very natural thing. I didn't know there was such a thing as a career," she says, adding in a sly voice, "I was looking for a man to take me to heaven."
"My life took me where I'm at and where I've gone, with the help, always, of my mother. She didn't try and influence me either. But in those days a woman didn't need a job; she didn't need to be successful in money. She married a man who was. I'm partial to that approach," she laughs. "My first recording was with Benny Carter and Bob Russell, ( Abbey Lincoln's Affair: A Story of a Girl in Love, 1956) who wrote the words to 'Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me.' He was the first great lyricist that I ever met in my life. 'Don't Get Around Much Anymore.' 'Crazy He Calls Me.' I met the cream of the crop, the great Bob Russell."
It was Russell who renamed her Abbey Lincoln and became her manager for a time. "That's how I knew what a song was. This was when I was 26 or 27. But I didn't starve along the way. And I wasn't pregnant [laughs]. I wasn't a junkie. I didn't go through none of this crap that I see people go through nowadays, acting like they're crazy."