Before She Published a Word, Maya Angelou Had a Career in Music. Watch Her Best Performances.

Slate's Culture Blog
May 28 2014 1:48 PM

Maya Angelou’s Life in Music

maya angelou calypso heat wave
Maya Angelou singing in Calypso Heat Wave (1957).

Still from YouTube

“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness,” the revered poet and activist, Maya Angelou, who died Wednesday at age 86, once described her relationship with songwriting. As the former U.S. Poet Laureate and the author of a classic memoir, she’ll likely be remembered most for her writing, but Angelou’s talents extended well beyond the written and spoken word. In fact, in the early 1950s—a decade before her first published writing—Angelou started out as an aspiring dancer and singer who slowly gained a following from her performances in local San Francisco nightclubs.

And in 1957, at the height of the calypso movement—a style popularized by Harry Belafonte—Angelou recorded her first and only album, Miss Calypso. In it, she covers Nat King Cole’s “Calypso Blues” and Louis Jordan’s “Run Joe,” using her deep vibrato to create a simmering fusion of jazz and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. The album even partly inspired her first feature film, Calypso Heat Wave, in which she both starred and sang. Though short-lived, Angelou’s music career also included songwriting credits for the legendary B.B. King on two tracks he recorded for the Quincy Jones-produced soundtrack to Sidney Poitier’s For Love of Ivy.

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As we reflect on Angelou’s life and her words, it’s worth taking a few minutes at least to get acquainted with the music she left us with as well.

“Run Joe” (1957, Calypso Heat Wave)

“Stone Cold Dead in the Market” (1957, Miss Calypso)

“Neighbor, Neighbor” (1957, Miss Calypso)

“You Put It on Me” (recorded by B. B. King, written by Angelou, 1968, For Love of Ivy soundtrack)

“The B.B. Jones” (recorded by B. B. King, written by Angelou, 1968, For Love of Ivy soundtrack)

“Sesame Street: My Name”

“Pilgrim of Sorrow” (begins around the 2:00 mark)

Dee Lockett is Slate's editorial assistant for culture.

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