This week marks the 1st anniversary of History Hunt! Looking back, I’ve learned so much about musicians from all kinds of different places in history, from those who lived nearly a thousand years ago to musicians who are still alive and making music to this day. I’m so glad to have the opportunity to share the lives and music of these great people with you, and I’m looking forward to many more anniversaries!
For today’s History Hunt post, it’s time to visit another musician whose career is ongoing, someone who’s a woman of many talents.
Micki Grant was born as Minnie Perkins on June 30 in Chicago, Illinois. We don’t know the exact year of her birth, though it’s often quoted as 1941, because Grant doesn’t like to share it.
During her childhood, Grant recalls in an interview with the Dramatists Guild of America, there was always music in the air. This music was often blues music, such as W. C. Handy’s “Saint Louis Blues,” and was performed by her father, who had taught himself how to play the piano by ear. Grant would often sit on the piano stool beside her father and then improvise her own songs when he was finished.
When Grant was either six or eight years old, she played the part of the Spirit of Spring in a play at the community theatre. It was then, as she touched the flowers to make them come to life, that she decided she wanted to have a career in theatre when she grew up, and that same year she began taking acting lessons (for free!).
Later, when she was nine, she started taking violin lessons while her sister learned how to play the piano. Unfortunately, Grant was discouraged from taking piano lessons by her sister’s teacher, as the teacher believed she didn’t have the talent to play the piano–something that Grant soon proved wrong.
As she grew up, Grant took up other instruments. She learned to play the double bass, as there was a vacancy in a newly formed string orchestra that she volunteered to fill. Her violin teacher began teaching her how to play the instrument, even though Grant’s mother thought she was too small for it! She also learned to play the sousaphone in high school, another very large instrument. And, by the time she was sixteen or seventeen, she was directing the youth choir at church!
At this point, Grant wanted to become a famous novelist, though she knew she also wanted to work in theatre. How music would fit into her plans, she wasn’t sure just yet. Still, it remained a part of her life as she continued her education at three separate universities. At the University of Illinois, for example, she played in both the jazz ensemble and the concert orchestra, and when she studied double bass at the Chicago School of Music, she also played in its concert orchestra as well.
Though she spent some time in Los Angeles, it was in New York that Grant’s musical career really took off. On her own time, she learned to play the guitar (which she considers “a very friendly instrument”) and sang protest songs. Her paid work included singing in the off-Broadway plays The Blacks, Brecht on Brecht, and The Cradle Will Rock. In 1965, when she was twenty-four, thanks to her well-received musical theatre roles, she became one of the first African-Americans to land a role on an American soap opera, which was Another World. Almost right away, she became the first African-American to have a soap opera storyline written exclusively for her.
Grant wasn’t just interested in performing in musical theatre: she was also into writing plays and their music and lyrics. In 1970, she became the Urban Art Corps’ artist in residence and started what was to be a fifteen year-long collaboration with Vinnette Carroll, who was the first African-American woman to be a Broadway director. Together, they created Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, a Broadway musical that Grant also starred in. It was the first Broadway musical to be written solely by a woman, and when it finally closed, it was after 1065 performances–a huge success by any definition.
Throughout her career, Grant worked on numerous musicals, sometimes contributing the bulk of the work and at other times content to take the backseat. She’s also had fun writing music and lyrics for commercials, and for club singers. She’s won multiple awards over the years, including three Tony Awards, the NAACP’s Image Award, and the Dramatists Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She was the first woman to receive Grammy for Best Score for Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. And she’s had not one, but two “Micki Grant Day”s given in her honour: one in Brooklyn in 1990 and another in Newark, New Jersey in 1993.
Those of you who are lucky enough to find yourself in New York City between February 27 and March 6 will have the opportunity to see Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope for yourselves, put on by the York Theatre Company. If anyone goes, let me know how it was–I’d love to hear about it!
In the meantime, for those of us who won’t be able to make it to the performance, here’s the reprise of “I Gotta Keep Moving,” as sung by Micki Grant and Alex Bradford:
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To Learn More (Sources):
Micki Grant with Kia Corthron, interview on Dramatists Guild of America site (mild language, racism mention)
Micki Grant, by Phiefer L. Brown in Notable Black American Women, Book 2 (ed. Jessie Carney Smith)
Micki Grant on The History Makers
Micki Grant on Music Theatre International
York Theatre Company to Launch Winter MUSICAL IN MUFTI Series in February at Broadway World
Micki Grant at Oxford Reference
Micki Grant at Wikipedia.org