Abbey Lincoln: A Woman Speaking Her Mind

Songwriting

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: How about Bob Russell?

ABBEY LINCOLN: He was my first manager.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: In California?

ABBEY LINCOLN: Yeah. He was a great songwriter and he taught me a lot about songs. That’s how I learned how to write. He was a lyricist and he taught me what a good song was. How to judge a good song, a great song, has something to do with being original, succinct in your description. Yeah, Bob Russell. He wrote “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” “(You Ain’t Gonna Bother Me) No More.” Yeah, that’s where I learned about great songs, was from Bob Russell. And I also knew the great Duke Ellington. He was a great songwriter.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Did you know Duke at that time or Duke’s music?

ABBEY LINCOLN: I met him during that time. Same time I met Bob Russell in Los Angeles.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Was it the band playing in Los Angeles, Duke’s band?

ABBEY LINCOLN: Of course! Whenever he wanted to play. He was a king there.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: What did you learn from Duke’s writing?

ABBEY LINCOLN: I didn’t learn anything else from anybody else’s writing. I knew what a good song was, but it was Thelonious Monk who told me I was a great composer. That’s why I started writing compositions. Thelonious was quoted as saying on an album [Straight Ahead] that I’d recorded— Max Roach did the liner notes, and he asked Thelonious for a quote, Ruby and Ossie Davis for a quote, like that. And Thelonious was quoted as saying that ‘Abbey Lincoln is not only a great singer and a great actress, she’s a great composer.’ And I started to write my own compositions. I started to believe what I heard and I wrote my own songs. My first one was called “People in Me.”

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Maybe we should fill people in on your acting as well, because some of the people reading might not be familiar with…

ABBEY LINCOLN: I don’t care if they’re familiar… I’m not really interested in everyone knowing everything about my life, if you want to know the truth. I didn’t come to the stage to be popular and to be known. I came to save me from the grief of living here. Yeah. And there’s a lot of grief here. So I sing songs about my life that help me to live. I don’t have to go to a therapist. I can write it down and remember where I’ve been. Yeah.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: You started writing lyrics before you started writing compositions.

ABBEY LINCOLN: Yeah. My first lyric was on an album with Riverside Records, and Max wrote the melody, but he said that I had written it anyway. It’s called “Let Up.” That’s when I was beginning to understand where I was in the world. All the trouble. I was having a relationship with Max Roach, who was married, and I wasn’t concerned for his wife or his children. I was thinkin’ about myself. I’ve forgiven myself over the years because I’m an African woman and I know that my ancestors practiced polygamy. I wasn’t supposed to feel shamed, I wasn’t supposed to be treated badly. He was supposed to give me the bride price and his first wife was supposed to be trying to help him get it! [laughs] I know that. His children are my children, I love them. And he was a wonderful husband in many ways and taught me a lot about this form that they call bebop and jazz. Yeah, Max Roach.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: What in particular?

ABBEY LINCOLN: Well, just witnessing his life. He would sit at the piano and compose; I had a chance to listen to him compose. Now I know how you develop something from a line. If you live in a house with a master, you learn who they are. That’s all it is. Yeah.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: What was he working on at the time when you first met?

ABBEY LINCOLN: I don’t remember anything about what he was working on. I don’t know what he’s working on now. He’s a great musician. Comes from the times, from Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and all that. All of these men became great bandleaders. The people that were with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. Yeah, they were all great, all of them. I didn’t meet Charlie Parker. He was gone before I got to New York. But this is the work of a spirit—the human spirit.