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February's Hidden Voice SpotLight: Abbie Mitchell

September 25, 1884 - March 16, 1960

Abriea “Abbie” Mitchell was born to an African-American mother and a Jewish-German father on New York City’s Lower East Side. Her childhood was fraught but filled with opportunity; at only 14 years of age, she was discovered as she was singing from the fire escape of an aunt’s apartment in NYC. She was discovered by Will Marion Cook and Lyricist Paul Laurence Dunbar who were writing a one-act musical comedy Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk (1898). The success of Clorindy led to a lead role in Jes Lak White Folks (1899) by Cook, whom she married that same year. His production of The Southerners (1904) was also a vehicle for her talents. International recognition awaited her in the musical Dahomey, produced in London (1903) by George Walker and Bert Williams. Based on Mitchell’s performances, she and the Company were invited to appear in a Command Performance for King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at Buckingham Palace. Later, she appeared with Black Patti’s Troubadours and in the operetta The Red Moon (1908), and in New York City on the concert stage and in opera. Broadway beckoned, and she appeared in In Abraham’s Bosom (1926), Coquette (1927), and The Little Foxes (1939). She is best known for performing the role of Clara in the premiere of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), which was her last musical role onstage. She became a singing teacher and speaking voice and diction coach, and she taught at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, an HBCU. The first recording of “Summertime” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the role Mitchell created, is available on YouTube. There is a short film, “Songs of Yesteryear” (1922) by Lee De Forest, where Mitchell is singing, and it is preserved in the Maurice Zouary film collection at the Library of Congress.

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