All-American African-American Divas

Thursday, July 03, 2014 - 11:00 AM

Diana Ross in concert in 2013 Diana Ross in concert in 2013 (Diana Ross Facebook Page)

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)


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Comments [12]

Fred Plotkin

To Joanne Theodorou: In those years (1968-75) I saw Josephine Baker, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, the young Bette Midler, Marilyn Horne, Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett, Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek, Ethel Merman, Carol Channing,Gwen Verdon.... And no ticket ever cost more than $10.

Jul. 10 2014 03:32 PM
Joanne Theodorou from NYC

Good article, thank you. A real shame about "After Midnight" closing, they did everything possible to keep tickets affordable, What went wrong? This is timeless music with some remarkable performances. Yes, I know I am preaching to the converted with a lot of cliches, but gotta get those young "millenials" to listen or this music will fade away.
Can't believe you saw Josephine Baker in action, at that point in my life I was catching Joplin at the Garden....her rep is still going, but what a bout Baker's legacy here in the USA? I hear when she was here in NYC prior to the 1970 Palace appearance, it was a bust, no one "got her."

Jul. 08 2014 10:48 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York

To D.R. Greene and Say What?: Yes, there have been many African-American operatic divas. If you go back into my articles you will find that I have written about many of them in numerous contexts. In some cases (Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Martina Arroyo) I have devoted whole articles to one artist. In other cases these singers have been featured when I deal with an operatic topic that is not necessarily about African-Americans. I think it is important that these marvelous singers be described as often as possible in the context of their artistry and not the color of their skin. Then, I did some articles about the history of black opera singers and one story (last August, I think) about Martin Luther King and his relationship to opera. Then, in my recent articles about 40 talented young singers, some of them were "of color," a term that covers a broader range than African-American. I had Africans and singers of South Asian background. That said, I don't think there are many (if any) black divas on the horizon. This is because divas are rare at any given time and the talented young black female singers are doing great work but are not necessarily on a diva track. In general, I don't see too many at all. This is because the role of the opera singer in the profession and public life has changed. The only two artists who I would say are on a diva track right now are Joyce DiDonato and Anja Harteros.

Jul. 08 2014 01:43 AM
Say What? from Long Island New York

Yes there are African-American opera divas. An article on Kathleen Battle, Harolyn Blackwell, Shirley Verrett, Leona Mitchell, Barbara Hendricks, Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson and Jessye Norman would merit a similar title.

Jul. 07 2014 10:43 AM
Fred from Brooklyn

Great article, but I'm only sorry you didn't mention my favorite: Darlene Love. Here is an immensely talented woman of similar age, with an inspiring personal story, and still rocking out the house!

Jul. 07 2014 08:55 AM
D.R. Greene from Phila. metro area

When I first read the headline All-American African-American Divas, I mistakenly presumed it would be a look at our opera performance world. Therefore, an unanswered aspect of this piece by Mr. Plotkin was a look at today's African-American divas.

Are there any and do they deserve mention? Yes! And my hope is Plotkin or others will bring attention to these talented divas.

Jul. 06 2014 05:04 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Dear DD. I always hear Nessun Dorma. It could be that Puccini wrote it that way. When I get a chance, I will read the copy from my c.d. as well as other recordings I have. The correct Italian is Dorma. But then I could be wrong.
Best wishes

Jul. 05 2014 09:47 AM

@ Concetta, I always thought it was Nessun Dor-a-ma. That's what I usually hear. :-)


Jul. 04 2014 04:24 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Fine article Fred. Thanks. I remember Aretha singing Nessun Dorma. Valid effort.

Jul. 04 2014 08:47 AM
MAK from the Freeway of Love

That would be a pink Cadillac, I presume?

Thanks for the great vibe-Fred....Dancing in the kitchen right now!

Jul. 03 2014 05:27 PM
Rebecca Rankin

I Truly enjoyed and appreciate this wonderful, informative articlc. I grew up listening to these talented divas and am a fan of each. I have their music in my library. These artists have thrilled millions through the years and each generation embraces them with such respect and love. Thank you for a gem of an article!

Jul. 03 2014 05:02 PM
Fred Plotkin from Heaven

And, by the way, did you realize that Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Diana Ross and Tina Turner are all past 70 and doing glorious work?

Jul. 03 2014 01:39 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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