Singer Abbey Lincoln dies at 80

Vocalist and actress became civil rights activist

Vocalist and actress Abbey Lincoln, who morphed from torch singer to uncompromising musical-political firebrand at the height of the civil rights movement, died Saturday in New York. She was 80.

Lincoln’s health had been declining for the past year. Her passing was confirmed by friend and filmmaker Carol Friedman, who has been making a documentary about the singer.

Born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago, Lincoln materialized on nightclub stages in the mid-’50s as a shapely bombshell promoted as much for her looks as her rich voice. In Frank Tashlin’s 1956 comedy “The Girl Can’t Help It,” her film debut, she belted out a gospel number wearing a gown previously worn by Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

In 1957, she made her first record with jazz drummer Max Roach, whom she would marry in 1962. The couple’s work together culminated in the 1960 album “We Insist! (Freedom Now Suite),” in which Lincoln interpreted potent lyrics by the black singer-songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. The couple divorced in 1970; Roach died in 2007.

Early in her career, she took leading roles in the features “Nothing But a Man” and (opposite Sidney Poitier) “For Love of Ivy,” for which she received a Golden Globe nomination in 1969. She acted intermittently on TV and in films throughout her life; Spike Lee gave her a featured role in his 1990 pic “Mo’ Better Blues.”

But it was as a vocalist that Lincoln made her enduring mark. Writing about ’60s performers in his book “Jazz Singing,” critic Will Friedwald calls her “the most perfect singer of the era.”

Her early career was distinguished by such models of interpretive singing as “That’s Him” (1957), “Abbey Is Blue” (1959) and “Straight Ahead,” with saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Eric Dolphy (1961).

She recorded little during the 1970s after splitting with Roach, but began to find her voice anew with two albums of Billie Holiday material recorded for the German jazz label Enja Records in the 1980s.

Writing her own pointed material, she received some of the best notices of her career with several releases on Verve Records in the early ’90s: “The World is Falling Down” (1990), “You Gotta Pay the Band” (1991, with tenor player Stan Getz and pianist Hank Jones) and “Devil Got Your Tongue” (1993).

She received the Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003. She issued the last of her 10 Verve albums, “Abbey Sings Abbey” — a collection of her own material — in 2007.

She is survived by two brothers and a sister.

(Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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