Grace Bumbry (1937 – )
Grace Bumbry is an internationally famous African-American opera singer from St. Louis, Missouri. She has performed the great mezzo-soprano and soprano opera roles in all of the well-known opera houses in the world. Her recordings have been bestsellers for many major record labels. Throughout her life, Grace Bumbry has fought and overcome racial prejudice by focusing on her great singing talent and striving for excellence.
A Musical Childhood
Grace Ann Bumbry was born on January 4, 1937, in St. Louis, Missouri. She was the youngest child of James and Melzia Bumbry. Her father was a freight worker for the Cotton Belt Route Railroad, and her mother was a schoolteacher from the Mississippi Delta. She grew up with two older brothers, Benjamin and Charles.
Grace’s family was very musical. Her parents and brothers sang in choirs at their church, Union Memorial Methodist Church, in St. Louis. Grace’s mother taught her how to play the piano. When Grace joined the church youth choir at age eleven, she could read music, knew many songs by heart, and had an outstanding voice. Because Grace and her brothers sang and played musical instruments, the Bumbry household was often bursting with music and attracted neighborhood musicians.
Natural Talent Discovered
When Grace entered Sumner High School in St. Louis, she met Kenneth Brown Billups, a nationally recognized African-American choir director and musician. Grace sang in his highly-respected A Cappela Choir. When Billups heard Grace sing, he recognized a great and rare singing talent. He worked with her, encouraged her, and introduced her to important musicians. He could not, however, shield Grace from the racism still restricting most black people in America.
Encountering Racial Barriers
In January of 1954, Grace entered and won a teenage talent contest on St. Louis’s KMOX radio station. She won a one-thousand-dollar U.S. war bond, a trip to New York, and a one-thousand-dollar scholarship to St. Louis Institute of Music. The institute’s trustees, however, did not want to admit Grace because she was black. They offered Grace private lessons instead. Grace’s family refused the scholarship. Later, through the efforts of executives at KMOX, Grace appeared on Arthur Godfrey’s national “Talent Scouts” show. Grace was offered scholarships from several major schools of music. She started at Boston University, then transferred to Northwestern University in Chicago where Billups, her music mentor, had earned a master’s degree in music.
Even at Northwestern, Grace faced racism. She was not encouraged to become a member of the famous Northwestern Choir because it would be difficult for the choir managers to find Grace housing when the choir made its national tours. Grace refused to be defeated. Instead, she focused her energies on developing her natural talent. She worked under the direction of the famous German-born Lotte Lehmann, a great opera star and concert soloist. She studied under Lehmann for three years. She learned how to sing expressively in Italian, French, and German.
Opera Debut and Career
Grace had a stunning operatic debut in 1960 with the Paris Opera Company. She sang the part of Amneris in Verdi’s Aïda. This first spectacular performance assured her international fame. In 1961 she became the first black woman to sing the role of Venus in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Wagner Bayreuth Festival. She played the same role in her U.S. operatic debut at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1963. She played countless leading roles in such classic operas as Verdi’s MacBeth, Strauss’s Salome, and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
A World-Famous Soloist
Grace Bumbry is a world-famous concert soloist. In November 1962, she made her Carnegie Hall debut in New York City in which she sang demanding songs by Strauss, Schubert, Brahms, and Liszt. Newsweek magazine reported that “the audience at Carnegie reveled in hearing such a program sung with so much vocal splendor. Her voice is big, its range is wide, and its color gloriously rich.”
In 2000, Grace Bumbry won the prestigious Arts for Life Lifetime Achievement award for music and operatic performance. After enjoying a long performance career, Grace is still an active musician. She spends time teaching promising singers and sharing her years of musical knowledge and experience with them. She formed a world-touring chorus of 28 singers, the Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble, in 1998. She is also a special advisor to UNESCO for their Slave Route project.
Grace Bumbry’s lifelong contributions to operatic and concert singing have won her the admiration and love of millions of people. Her commitment to developing her natural talent, despite the closed doors of racism, is an inspiration to all.
Research and text by Carlynn Trout
Bailey, Ben E. Notable Black American Women. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992. pp.126–28.
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 volumes. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Vol. 1: 105–6.