She sang Calypso, danced with Alvin Ailey, and made music with greats including Ashford & Simpson and Wynton Marsalis
Even though they weren't lyrics, Dr. Maya Angelou's poems were always musical -- full of rhythm, melody, cadence buoying her powerful words. It's little wonder that the brilliant wordsmith, who passed away today at age 86, not only began as a musician -- a songwriter, singer & dancer -- but carried on a life-long love affair with and involvement in music that included a critically lauded calypso album, seven songs alongside Ashford & Simpson, and collabs with fellow geniuses like Wynton Marsalis.
Long before becoming known as an author and poet, Angelou started out as a dancer who teamed up with Alvin Ailey in the early '50s. She began her career as a musician singing calypso mid-decade and made a name for herself on the nightclub circuit, a fact that Billboard picked up on when reviewing (pictured) her 1957 album, "Miss Calypso," which cites her "nitery dates" as the reason her "name value is a rising commodity."
With "oldies" including "Stone Cold Dead in the Market," Billboard declared that all of the songs "are handled with finesse." A listen to the album bears that out, the tuneful, distinctive voice that would serve her so well in later years as a spoken word artist grooves along with understated bongos on both that track (a breezy ditty with a heavy story) and "Run Joe." Listen to both for yourself below.
STONE COLD DEAD IN THE MARKET
Much later, long after her rise to international fame as a writer, especially with the 1969 publication of "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings," she returned to music in the late 80s, co-writing a song with Roberta Flack, "And So It Goes," which appeared on Flack's 1988 album "Oasis."
Other musicians and celebs certainly honored Angelou after that point: the verses Janet Jackson recites in the 1993 film "Poetic Justice" are Angelou's, and famously, Angelou won her first of three Grammy for "On the Pulse of the Morning," the poem she performed at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration.
But her biggest splash back into music came alongside R&B legends Ashford and Simpson soon thereafter. The poet invited the duo to her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. for Thanksgiving 1994 after dancer/choreographer George Faison introduced them. During the meal, Nick Ashford decided to "mess around" with a piano in the basement. "I told Val to play piano and Maya to add something" Ashford told Billboard in 1996. "We started singing and something stared to happen - and they didn't know I had a tape recorder going underneath the piano." Angelou got "so excited," at the resulting snippet (which turned into the song "I Remember All"), that the collab quickly developed into an entire album.
1996's "Been Found" includes Angelou appearing with Ashford & Simpson on seven of the 11 songs. The album, which also heralded the launch of the duo's Hopsack and Silk label, was responsible for Angelou's first and only three Billboard chart appearances. It reached No. 49 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. Single "Been Found" hit No. 80 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, while "What If" notched a No. 94 placement on the same tally.
"She taught us not to go into a room and close the door and be afraid to make mistakes," Ashford told Billboard in 1996 of working with Angelou. "When you write in a spontaneous way, you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself because whatever comes out of your mouth, a lot of times, is stupid. But she'd have people come in and sit around like an audience while we worked, and it became like a seminar."
It wasn't Angelou's last foray into music. In 2007, she teamed up with jazz great Wynton Marsalis to write the song "Music, Deep Rivers in My Soul," which actually traces the lineage of African-American music (Listen to it here). "He had me at hello," Angelou told PBS of the ease of the Marsalis collaboration. "He heard what I was saying about the music and he enlarged it. The poem on its own is alright, and maybe his music on its own is alright. But when the two are together they are really quite wonderful."
"It was interesting how she got the entire history of Afro-American music and the meanings and things in there. So it was very easy to write music to it," Marsalis told PBS of working with Angelou. "To me the poem IS music."
Angelou, who heard the melody in all words, never stopped loving and creating music. Just a year ago, she revealed her affinity for country music to The New York Times. "I’m a serious aficionada of country music — Reba McEntire, Toby Keith, Montgomery Gentry. I’ve even written some songs. They haven’t done anything of mine yet. But it's only a matter of time."