All-American African-American Divas

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When I was coming up, my family schooled me in opera and classical music, but also made sure I experienced extraordinary performers in all fields. I saw most of the great Broadway stars of the 1960s and also heard many of the top musicians in jazz (Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald), blues, rock and other genres. One was the genre-defying diva Josephine Baker (1906-1975) who had glamour, could sing, dance, act, tell jokes, and saw to it that her political and social ideals were honored, often at great personal cost.

My mother took me to see Baker at New York’s Palace Theater in about 1969 or 1970, the same time I heard Janis Joplin and Tina Turner in rock concerts, Aretha Franklin in solo performances and Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne garner delirious ovations in Norma at the Met.

Baker, well past 60 and on a rare visit to her native country from her home in France, roared onstage on a motorcycle dressed in tight jeans and a studded denim jacket. She wowed the crowd with her singing, dancing and glamour. I vividly recall she later came onstage wearing nothing but a white fur and high heels. I would learn years later that she wore a body stocking. I remember Baker tossed the fur to the ground and walked all over it with seeming disregard, to the audience's delight. It all made a huge impression on me. I know now that all the women listed above had something in common. They were divas.

I first described my concept of what a diva is and what a prima donna is in the third article I wrote for you on the Operavore blog (this one is the 315th). In it, the comment of mine that was singled out was, “A diva is someone we sense has suffered and a prima donna is someone who might well have caused suffering in others.” Make of that what you will. But another sentence I wrote is, I believe, as important and less acknowledged when divas are defined: “A singer achieves diva status in the act of performance and when audiences perceive her as such.”

New York just hosted two of the greatest living divas in concert: Aretha Franklin (Radio City Music Hall, June 14-15) and Diana Ross (the Theater at Madison Square Garden, June 21). Both were wonderful in their unique ways. Franklin is in a category of one: She does not so much defy genres as embrace them all and make them her own.

Franklin has a rare gift that is described by the almost untranslatable Italian word estro. It means a sudden inspiration, touched with genius, to create something extraordinary where it was unimaginable before. Musicians with estro seem to go places that appear wrong or mistaken to us mere mortals but become stunningly right and gratifying as we listen. Aretha has estro. Marilyn Horne had it in Handel and Rossini. Ella Fitzgerald had it. And, in his compositions, so did Mozart.

An example of Aretha’s estro can be found on this clip which, though roughly recorded, is very telling. We see what is known as a throwdown, an improvisational moment that comes either in singing or preparing a meal using what is on hand. It is a performance of "Respect" from a 1994 gala in which Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole, gospel diva Cissy Houston and her daughter Whitney and others do their takes on the song. Then, from the audience, we hear Franklin do a fabulous riff on her most famous tune that leaves the other ladies in awe.

Diana Ross has blazed a different path, brilliantly. She is not about estro but about using her talents incredibly well. Her singing is pure and clear, her diction straightforward and she benefits from having a catalogue of songs she introduced that is among the best pop music ever composed. Ross has a charisma that could not, with even the most diligent sartorial and tonsorial intervention, be achieved were it not already there.

And yet she knows that her audience expects glamour the way earlier generations did from Baker. She appeared in a series of very flattering gowns of one color, with matching earrings and fan.  Among the colors were red, green, yellow, purple-black and royal blue in which she sang songs associated with Billie Holiday, whom she so memorably portrayed in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues.

Ageless diva Tina Turner, as evidenced in a live performance in 2009, can still sing thrillingly and dance like no one else. Mick Jagger got most of his moves from Turner.

The Broadway show After Midnight closed last week because it could not sustain an audience. This was a shame. It was my favorite musical of the current season, with superb choreography and singing of standards by Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Harold Arlen and other great composers. The show operated on a policy of featuring guest stars who sang the standards such as “Stormy Weather” in their own way. They included Fantasia Barrino, Vanessa Williams, Toni Braxton, K.D. Lang and Patti LaBelle. I was waiting for next week, when Gladys Knight was supposed to take over with Natalie Cole coming later in the summer. I planned to see the show with Knight and write this article after. To have heard her sing “Stormy Weather!"

Gladys Knight defies time in that she still has the “pipes,” energy and ability to really move an audience, all undiminished by decades of performing. I think the only reason she is not mentioned in the same breath as Franklin and Ross is that she has always been about the music rather the other two ladies’s more iconic status.

There is another, younger, artist in our midst who has achieved diva status: Audra McDonald. She has memorably done drama, comedy, Shakespeare, classic musicals and new works, opera, art songs and just about anything else she turns her attention to. Her performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is one of the greatest I have seen by any performer. It will be in the theater until August 31 and a recording comes out on July 15.

All of these artists make me proud to be an American and fill me with respect for the tenacity and genius of African-Americans who have contributed so prodigiously to our country for centuries. 

It was only as I drafted this article that I realized that some of the great divas are from Detroit, the Motor City. It made me think of them in automotive terms. Diana Ross is like a Porsche, moving with smooth beauty and no bumps.  Tina Turner is a red hot Ferrari. Gladys Knight is akin to a Mustang with all the original parts and ready to roll. Aretha Franklin is gloriously American, like a Cadillac.


Photo: Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston at the Folies Bergère, Paris, in 1926 (Wikipedia Commons)