I first dug Abbey Lincoln in the late 1950s when she was a top jazz singer and I was a teenager trying to become a jazz musician. She was not only a great musician (she used her voice the way many of the jazz musicians of the time used their instruments) but she was gorgeous.
I had a giant crush on her, but it was a time of deep segregation, legally in many places in this country and de facto in others, including on TV. Nat King Cole's TV show was one of the only shows that allowed "black" and "white" performers of opposite genders to perform together on TV in any way that suggested more than a professional music relationship, i.e. actual friendship and personal closeness.
Which is why his show was cancelled. But Steve Allen used his enormous popularity at the time on his Tonight Show to showcase great talent of any "race" or creative approach (he famously had Lenny Bruce on as well as Jack Kerouac, etc.). Including the clip below of Lincoln taking over the stage and the TV show with her enormous talent, charisma, confidence and sex appeal.
The latter was obviously appreciated by the audience, listen to their response as she exits and the camera follows her from behind, or in Allen's reference to her as "the beautiful" Abbey Lincoln. That beauty and sex appeal gave her many fans among the white music critics that dominated the media then, as well as new movers and shakers like Hugh Hefner and his budding Playboy empire etc.
But just as that wave was about to crest as the 1950s gave way to the '60s, and give Lincoln the kind of popular presence and impact that would have put her on a level with Nat King Cole say, her civil rights activism and consciousness led her to change her hair style to a "natural" look, a kind of cropped afro before afros, and many white critics and white fans and white club promoters etc. took it as not only a political provocation but as a deliberate attempt to alter her sexual charisma from popularly accepted—if not publicly admitted—to confrontational and contrary to popular taste at the time.
She became a pioneer and along with jazz drummer Max Roach and other collaborators (Roach was also her partner for a while) altered the direction of contemporary jazz at the time (see his FREEDOM NOW SUITE with Lincoln as one of the ensemble) but also influenced contemporary styles of not just political action but fashion.
She suffered the consequences of her actions and never regained the trajectory of national popular stardom she'd been heading for but took a different direction (others followed, like Nina Simone et. al.) into a more limited popularity but a wider influence. Including co-starring in the 1964 film about a "black" couple in the South, the only film up to that time to focus on the realities of being "black" in the USA in the early 1960s, especially the South, and with an almost all-black cast.
She wore a straightened wig for the performance, because her natural hairdo would have been too much of a political statement for her character and too unusual at the time though by then Lincoln's influence in that area was having a big impact at least in the "black" community.
Two years later I wrote one of the few "Letters to the Editor" out of the thousands I have written over the years to ever get published. It was in response to a review of NOTHING BUT A MAN, which took those two years to even get a showing at the University of Iowa (it was mostly seen in art movie houses, where I first saw it, or universities that dared to). The reviewer was Nicholas Meyers, who went on to write THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION and write and direct movies. But at the time we were both students at Iowa, him in the graduate school, me an undergraduate, even though I was older after four years in the service.
In my letter I point out that Meyer “refers to Abbey Lincoln as ‘a beautiful, yet unglamorous newcomer…’ and states that in his opinion when she overcomes something he calls an ‘acting mannerism'…she should go on to better things still...Nicholas Meyer is obviously a newcomer. Abbey Lincoln has been a popular and well known jazz vocalist since 1954, made her first movie in 1957 (‘The Girl Can’t Help It’), had the leading role in the stage show ‘Jamaica,’ and has been singing and acting professionally since the mid-forties. She also has conducted lectures along with her husband Max Roach, famous jazz drummer, composer, and band leader, on behalf of ‘naturalism’ which is their version of a return for Negroes to Negro standards and values such as ‘natural’ hair (which she had under the wig in the movie)...Abbey Lincoln has performed on stage and screen and record both here and abroad and has gained a well earned international reputation for all her fine talents. Meyer should have said Abbey Lincoln was a newcomer to him.”
Here's the clip from the Tonight Show before she went "natural"—and listen to the first part of Allen's introduction closely for the obvious deliberate strategy of pointing out her attractiveness as a given (he says she's "lovely" to "look at" etc.), almost revolutionary at the time (I'm assuming this is from the late '50s).
[PS: Just read this pretty good obit for Abbey in the NY Times]