Jazz chanteuse Gloria Lynne dies at 83


Gloria Lynne is seen posing for a portrait in this undated publicity image. (General Artists Corporation/General Artists Corporation)
October 18, 2013

If ever a song captured the allure of chanteuse Gloria Lynne at her peak, it was the improbable jazz-pop war horse “Birth of the Blues.”

Backed by a romping trio on her 1961 album “I’m Glad There Is You,” she transformed the tune into an electrifying tour de force. It began with a teasing gospel refrain before blasting completely unforced into the stratosphere, as Ms. Lynne remained in complete command of the performance.

The jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote that Ms. Lynne “shook it apart, disintegrating it and reintegrating it in revitalized shape.” The full-throated interpretation was all the more impressive because of her ability, on other albums, to channel great tenderness on torchy ballads such as “I Wish You Love,” which became a signature number, and “I’m Glad There Is You.”

Ms. Lynne, the jazz singer whose expressive style made her a staple of nightclubs from New York to Las Vegas in the 1950s and 1960s and who enjoyed a resurgence of critical recognition in the 1990s, died Oct. 15 at a hospital in Newark. She was 83.

The cause was a heart attack, said her son, Richard Alleyne, a rock arranger who works under the name P.J. Allen.

Ms. Lynne grew up in Harlem, where at 15 she won an amateur-night show at New York’s Apollo Theater. She was befriended by singers Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, both of whom helped guide her career at pivotal moments.

She made a jaunty and promising album debut in 1958 with “Miss Gloria Lynne,” backed by a band that included trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, saxophonist Sam Taylor, organist Wild Bill Davis and guitarist Kenny Burrell.

Her other notable albums of the early 1960s included “I’m Glad There Is You,” with the Earl May Trio; “At the Las Vegas Thunderbird,” backed by the Herman Foster Trio; and “Gloria, Marty and Strings,” with a big band arranged by Marty Paich. She also wrote lyrics to the song “Watermelon Man” by Herbie Hancock and “All Day Long” by Burrell, both of which she recorded.

A critical breakthrough was a 1961 appearance on a Harry Belafonte TV special, “New York 19,” reportedly seen by 30 million viewers. Writing in the New York Times, the television reviewer Jack Gould called Ms. Lynne “tearfully effective” on the ballad “He Needs Me” but singled out her “soaring” duet with the host on “Liza Jane.”

Ms. Lynne’s club and concert schedule continued apace for decades, though it was increasingly eclipsed by changing tastes in music and evolving jazz styles, as well as management problems and poor publicity for her albums. She spent periods working in a bank and as a physical therapist.

“The crash for me was when disco came in,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1994. “Disco seemed to have taken over the whole era in the ’70s, and singers like myself were put in the background. I just wasn’t able to change over.

“After that I found that the clubs were fading rapidly, and it seemed there were only a few quality houses left where an artist such as Carmen McRae or myself or Nancy Wilson or any of the singers who were on the borderline of jazz could get work,” she said. “Unless we had tours on the college scene or festivals, there wasn’t much work around. It’s kind of that way today.”

A revival of interest was sparked when her brassy 1966 R&B recording “Speaking of Happiness” was used in the soundtrack of the Brad Pitt-Morgan Freeman thriller “Se7en” (1995), director Oliver Stone’s “U-Turn” (1997) starring Sean Penn, and in a 1997 British commercial for the Ford Mondeo.

“Anyone going into this business needs to be told that it works in slow motion,” she once quipped about the delayed attention.

She released new albums in recent years, including “From My Heart to Yours” (2007), which featured David “Fathead” Newman on flute. A reviewer for the Web site Allmusic.com noted that her voice remains “powerful, soulful, and unwavering.” Among those to cite Ms. Lynne as an influence was the pop singer Patti LaBelle.

Ms. Lynne was born Gloria Mai Wilson on Nov. 23, 1929, in Harlem. Her father was a longshoreman. She was raised by her mother, who encouraged her daughter’s singing talents in church and then school glee clubs. She won the Apollo contest with a rendition of “Don’t Take Your Love From Me.”

Her marriage to Harry Alleyne ended in divorce. Besides her son, survivors include a brother. Ms. Lynne was living most recently in East Orange, N.J.

Her 2000 memoir, “I Wish You Love,” written with author Karen Chilton, documents hardships caused by record-company exploitation and denial of royalty payments. She received a $15,000 grant from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which honored her in 1997 for her “uninhibited vocal talents to gospel, blues, jazz and other musical forms.”

It was a bittersweet career, with her once noting: “Honest to God, every time I would try to stray away from it, it would come right back and grab me.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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