african american soprano

View of soprano Leontyne Price in Puccini’s opera, “Tosca.” Stamped on back: “NBC photo.” Handwritten on back: “Miss Price in Act II.”

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library

Kay Davis, circa 1945

Kay Davis (5 December 1920 – 27 January 2012) was a classically trained coloratura soprano who majored in voice and piano at Northwestern University in Illinois, USA, one of only six African American students there at the time. She joined Duke Ellington’s orchestra as a vocalist in 1944 and appeared with them in a number of (short) films, amongst which Symphony in Swing (1949) and Salute to Duke Ellington (1950).

During a concert in Carnegie Hall on November 13, 1948, Kay Davis was the first person ever to sing, for an audience, the legendary melancholy jazz ballad Lush Life, though the song had already been written more than a decade earlier by Ellington’s musical arranger and pianist Billy Strayhorn when he was only 16 years old.

Although she did sing conventional jazz songs with lyrics in a non-operatic style, she’s best known for weaving haunting wordless soprano tones through elaborate, sometimes filmlike Ellington arrangements. Jazz scholar Richard A. Wang, associate professor emeritus of music at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said of Ms. Davis’ singing: “She had a purity of tone and accuracy of intonation that added another instrumental voice to the Ellington palette. If one made a classical reference, it would be the sounds in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise – also a wordless vocal.”

In the early 1950s, after two European tours with Ellington, Davis got married and retired from singing. She and her husband moved to Florida, where she became a trained Cordon Bleu cook and had one son. Kay Davis’ best known recordings with Duke Ellington are the wordless vocal numbers Transblucency, On A Turquoise Cloud, Minnehaha, and Violet Blue.

serafino-finasero – 20160315 – [more Ellington singers here]

Kay Davis and Duke Ellington, late 1940s | photo William P. Gottlieb / Library of Congress

Portrait of soprano Veronica Tyler. Printed on front: “James J. Kriegsmann, N.Y.” Stamped on back: “Veronica Tyler, soprano.”

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library

Happy Birthday Martina Arroyo! (born February 2, 1937)

American operatic soprano.

Portrait of soprano Martina Arroyo. Printed on front: “Robert C. Ragsdale, f.r.p.s.” Stamped on back: “Robert C. Ragsdale Limited, photography. 21 Avenue Road, Toronto, M5R 2G1, (416) 967-3326. Please credit Robert C. Ragsdale, F.R.P.S.”

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library

Outdoor portrait of soprano Leontyne Price. Stamped on back: “Leontyne Price. Personal management, Larney Goodking, 30 East 60th St., New York 22, N.Y., Room 1202, ELdorado 5-6560.”

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library

View of soprano Ellabelle Davis posing with harp bow and drum. Printed on front: “Ellabelle Davis, soprano. National Concert and Artists Corporation, 711 Fifth Avenue, New York 22, N.Y.” Label on back: “Musical hobbyist. A doubly appropriate hobby is that of Ellabelle Davis, the celebrated American Negro soprano, who will be heard in concert at the [blank] in [blank] on [blank]. Proud of her race’s long musical tradition, Miss Davis has spent many years assembling a collection of African instruments, ranging from crude bone flutes to beautifully shaped drums and exotic stringed instruments. Photo: Robert M. Lewis.”

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library

Betty Allen (17 March 1927 – 22 June 2009) 

Renowned American operatic mezzo-soprano who had an active international singing career during the 1950s through the 1970s. Allen was part of the first generation of black opera singers to achieve wide success and is viewed as part of an instrumental group of performers who helped break down the barriers of racial prejudice in the opera world. She was greatly admired by Bernstein and the conductor notably chose her to be the featured soloist for his final performances as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1973. After her singing career ended, she became a lauded voice teacher and arts administrator. (Wikipedia)

Portrait of mezzo-soprano Betty Allen. Stamped on back: “Betty Allen, mezzo-soprano.”

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library

Portrait of mezzo-soprano Doris Mayes. Handwritten on back: “Doris Mayes, see also clips on American houses (Germany).”

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library

Portrait of soprano Theresa Greene-Coleman. Printed on front: “J. Abresch, N.Y.” Stamped on back: “Theresa Greene-Coleman, soprano.”

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library

Portrait of soprano Alpha Brawner. Printed on front: “Alpha Brawner, soprano. Exclusive management Ludwig Lustig, 111 West 57th St., New York 19, N.Y.”

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library

View of mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett performing in Gluck’s opera, “Iphigenie en Tauride.” Label on back: “Iphigenie in Tauride, Paris Opera.” Handwritten on back: “[copyright] Daniel Cande. 8, avenue Charles de Gaulle, 92100 Boulogne.”

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library

Happy Birthday Irene Oliver! (Nov 15, 1937 - May 21, 1998)

Portrait of soprano Irene Oliver. Handwritten on back: “Irene Oliver, 2nd Bess.”

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library

Happy Birthday Maria Ewing! (born March 27, 1950) American opera singer, born in Detroit, Michigan.

Portrait of mezzo-soprano Maria Ewing. Stamped on back: “Copyright by Oliver Herrmann, Grolmanstr. 58, 1000 Berlin 12, Tel. 030, 312 53 66.”

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library