Natural Delivery "A singer is really naked in a way that other musicians are not."

By Lee Hildebrand

Published: Friday, May 18, 2001

ROBIN GREGORY

Our writers tell you what's hot this week. The heel of Robin Gregory's golden slip-on shoe taps a steady 4/4 as she and pianist Bliss Rodriguez swing though "S'Wonderful." It serves as an anchor against which the vocalist subtly syncopates the Gershwin brothers' French-flavored standard. Swaying her arms while standing on the stage at Anna's in a tan Chinese-style tunic ensemble--a mop of casual curls framing her round, almond-hued countenance--Gregory draws the attentive listeners in the front rows of the tiny Berkeley bistro into the romance of her music. The chatter of diners in the back fails to break her concentration.

"We're having an intimate conversation," the Oakland-based singer says about this gig with only her pianist. The bassist and drummer with whom she usually performs--and who play on the just-issued CD debut Honeysuckle Rose on her own Wildbird Records label--are absent. She and Rodriguez, a blind pianist with an elegant concept of harmony and an assured sense of time, make for a commanding duo during a set that includes such other old favorites as "Day by Day," "Our Love Is Here to Stay," and Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll," which Gregory dedicates to the memory of the recently deceased Ellington vocalist Al Hibbler. Two from the '60s --"Quiet Nights" and "Watch What Happens" --are among the most modern in the singer's extensive repertoire. Gregory's dusky, richly resonant contralto brings the late Betty Carter to mind, though some hear Anita O'Day in her singing.

Restaurateur Anna De Leon, herself a fine jazz vocalist, had been singing every Friday and Saturday night at the cafe, but recently turned Saturdays over to Gregory. De Leon is the former wife of bluesman Taj Mahal and met Gregory through Taj's brother, Oakland art gallery proprietor Samuel Fredericks. Longtime friends, Gregory and Fredericks recently became engaged.

Born 55 years ago in Washington, DC, Gregory has been singing all her life--though she began performing for audiences just seven years ago after passing an audition for the Oakland Jazz Choir. "I was friggin' petrified," she recalls, "but the Oakland Jazz Choir was what got me able to stand up and sing in front of people."

Working with just a rhythm section was another matter, and she turned for help to El Cerrito hypnotherapist Ken Fox. "His theory," she says, "is that stage fright really has nothing to do with the actual act of standing up and singing in front of people. It's a whole bunch of other stuff, and then when you stand up, it all comes out. A singer is really naked in a way that other musicians are not. There's nothing in front of you, and you have to show your emotions and all that kind of stuff. It's frightening. I've never talked to any singer, even veteran singers, who told me they didn't have it. You don't get to the point where you don't have it; you get to the point where you just let it be there and you go on and you don't let it intimidate you."

Gregory was surrounded by jazz as a child, both at home with her parents in Washington and during summers at her grandparents' house in Atlantic City. In Washington, she met John Coltrane at a club when she was sixteen and frequently attended jazz and R&B shows at the Howard Theater. "You could go to the Howard Theater after school, and for three dollars you might see Quincy Jones' orchestra, Miles Davis, Nancy Wilson, Herbie Mann--you know, five or six people, all on the same bill," she remembers.

Gregory managed to overcome her shyness enough to be talked into running for Howard University homecoming queen in 1966 during her senior year as an art major. Her win made national news in black media, including Jet magazine, because she was the first woman with a "natural" hairstyle to ever be so crowned at the prestigious African-American college. She remains a footnote in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, her achievement duly recorded in a segment of the PBS television documentary Eyes on the Prize .

"The whole homecoming queen campaign was a social protest," Gregory explains. "These guys from Howard's law school wanted to make a statement about black pride and black beauty, and they asked me if I would run. I was like one of maybe two people on campus who had an Afro hairstyle at the time. There was one other person who was in the fine arts department with me who had one; she was Stokely Carmichael's girlfriend.

"Black people were ashamed of their hair, so we decided to campaign on that issue alone. It was very controversial, and people were very shocked when I won. It was not according to Hoyle. In fact, they would have these faculty teas for the homecoming queen, but they didn't have one for me. And the sororities would do something for the homecoming queen, but they didn't do it for me. When they could exclude me, they did."

Today, the light-complected vocalist finds irony in her victory. "I know it wouldn't have happened if I wasn't light," she says. "The next year we decided to run a dark person, and she didn't make it." Gregory moved to the Bay Area in 1969 with her then-husband to be a "black revolutionary" but soon found herself teaching art at an elementary school in Sausalito and raising two daughters. Her oldest girl, thirty-year-old Aisha Tyler, is an actress and comedian whose fame has skyrocketed since she was hired last year to host Talk Soup on cable TV's E! network.

A claims manager for a workers compensation insurance company for the past sixteen years, Gregory is now in the process of launching her own career as an entertainer. There's nothing trendy about her music, however, and she sees herself in the tradition of the singers she grew up listening to, among them Billie Holiday, Betty Carter, Dakota Staton, Gloria Lynne, Nat King Cole, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald.

"I think of myself as a storytelling singer," she says. "I don't think of myself as someone who wants to manipulate the changes of the song and do a bunch of vocal acrobatics. I want to tell a story when I sing, and I want to convey emotion and touch people's emotions. These songs speak to me emotionally, and I feel authentic singing them. I think the most contemporary song in my entire repertoire is 'On Green Dolphin Street,' and that's old."

©2005 New Times All rights reserved.

A special presentation of American Experience


EYES ON THE PRIZE

America's Civil Rights Movement 1954-1985

Produced by BLACKSIDE

 

Student and civil rights activist Robin Gregory was at the vanguard of change at Howard University, a long-established, conservative institution in Washington, D.C. with a tradition of educating black professionals.

Here, Gregory describes the awakening of black consciousness within her as she participated in civil rights actions, changed her hairstyle to a natural Afro, and ran for homecoming queen, becoming a symbol to the student body of a growing interest in black culture, history, and equality.

by Robin Gregory

When I first went to Howard it was in 1962. The first year was pretty uneventful. I was just studying. One thing I do remember was the sort of provincial mindset that was there. Like, one of the things that first happened when we went there was that all the women had a special assembly. Patricia Harris was the dean of women at that time, and we had this lecture on etiquette, and how we were supposed to dress, and how we were supposed to behave. And we were supposed to be ladies. I didn't quite accept that for myself, and I didn't feel like I had to conform to that sort of thing either, because I didn't live on the campus. I lived in Washington, D.C.

Most of the students were middle class and they wanted to be good. They wanted to succeed, and they wanted to have a good time. A lot of them were looking for husbands, I remember that. I felt that there wasn't a lot of deep thinking going on among the students that were there when I first went there.

That next summer, I worked on the March on Washington Committee, and I met a lot of people through that. I was in the strategic offices setting the whole thing up, before, during, and after. So that was my first introduction to the movement.

The summer of 1964 I was the liaison in the Washington, D.C., SNCC office for the voter registration project in the South, Mississippi specifically. The liaison part was that people would call me from Mississippi in the office to chronicle some of the incidents that would happen, so that I could contact the attorney general's office and report. That summer was the1964 Democratic convention. I went to Atlantic City, and some women from Mississippi came up and they were wearing their hair natural. I was real turned on by that statement. In the fifties I had an aunt who was wearing her hair in a natural. It was a real radical thing to do, and everybody in the family always talked about her, so it wasn't something that was completely foreign, the image itself, but it was exciting for me to see that somebody was going it. I felt it was an affirmation of being who we were. The energy was very high, emotion was very high. Getting a sense of who we were and what we were doing was really acute at the time. And I just decided that I was going to wear my hair that way, and make a statement that way.

When I came back home, and I was wearing my hair like that, my family was pretty horrified. And I got a lot of comments from people on the street. People got angry about it. It was like I was exposing a secret. That was the first reaction. That reaction went a long time, because I didn't have a lot of company. Maybe one or two other people were doing it. Well, there was one person in particular who had worn her hair like that for a year prior to that, or maybe even two, and that was Mary Lovelace, who was Stokely Carmichael's girlfriend at the time. So there was a precedent before that, but the response was pretty negative.

A lot of things were happening in 1966, in terms of where the movement was going. It was just beginning to be the dawn of the whole Black Power movement, getting away from the more conservative approach to change through the way the civil rights movement had been going, into Black power consciousness. And it was right on the edge of that. And there were a few students at Howard who were very politically involved in things, and I was one of them. But someone came up with an idea that we should make a statement around the homecoming, because it was such a superficial kind of thing that kept affirming old values that we were trying to resist or trying to overthrow. So I was approached by some men from the law school, actually, and they asked me if I would do it, because they wanted to make a statement about the black aesthetic. And they wanted to resist the whole image. It's kind of hard to describe the atmosphere of the way that it went, but the fraternities would nominate a candidate who would run for the position. It was a popular election, by the way. But you had to be nominated by some on-campus organization. And usually they picked someone who was as close to white as they could possibly get. I mean, it didn't have to be skin color. It was just the whole image of the person. And so they said, "Well, will you do this? We want to run somebody that has a natural hairstyle. We know that you're politically active. Let's take this particular context and use it to make a statement." And so I was willing to do that.

The coronation itself was a pivotal point, and it energized a lot of people, causing them to begin to question a lot of the issues that we were bringing forward. And one of the things that happened, that was a big incident on the campus, was the spring after the coronation, the spring of 1967. Someone had invited General [Lewis] Hershey to the campus. And General Hershey was the head of the draft board. And people were just becoming aware of theVietnamese war, and the fact that people were being drafted and sent to Vietnam, and that a large number of those people were black people. So, when we found out that he was being invited to speak, we decided that we didn't want that to happen, and we staged a demonstration. And, in essence, we didn't allow him to speak. There was a lot of shouting from the audience. There were a number of people that had placards that stormed the stage, and just booed him, essentially, out of the auditorium.

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