Abriea "Abbie" Mitchell Cook (25 September 1884 – 16 March 1960), also billed as Abbey Mitchell, was an American soprano opera singer who sang the role of "Clara" in the premier production of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess in 1935, and was also the first to record "Summertime" from that musical.
Mitchell was the daughter of an African-American mother and a Jewish-German father from New York City's Lower East Side. She was reared by a maternal aunt, Alice Payne, in Baltimore, Maryland, where she attended a convent school.
After finishing her school education in Baltimore, she started studying voice in New York in 1897. The next year composer Will Marion Cook and lyricist Paul L. Dunbar cast her in their musical comedy Clorindy; or, the Origin of the Cakewalk. It was so successful that it ran for the whole season at the Casino Roof Garden. She married Cook a year later, and appeared in the lead role in his Jes Lak White Folks (1899). She also appeared in his production The Southerners (1904).
Cook and Mitchell had a daughter, Marion Abigail Cook, in 1900, and a son, Will Mercer Cook, in 1903. Their daughter, raised by family members as had been Mitchell herself, married dancer Louis Douglas. Their son became a professor at Howard University and United States Ambassador to Niger and Senegal.
In London she premiered the principal role in the 1903 musical In Dahomey, produced by the team of George Walker and Bert Williams, with music composed by her husband Cook. The cakewalk, considered old fashioned by the cast, was almost cut from the show, but proved popular with audiences and became a fad in the United Kingdom. Mitchell received international acclaim for her performance, and was invited to appear at a command performance for King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at Buckingham Palace.
Mitchell later performed with the Black Patti's Troubadours, and in the operetta The Red Moon (1908) by Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson. In 1919, Mitchell went to Europe with Cook's Southern Syncopated Orchestra. In New York, she appeared on the concert stage and in opera.
Mitchell's 1935 appearance in Porgy and Bess was her last musical role on the stage, after which "she taught and coached many singers in New York and appeared in many 'spoken' dramatic roles on the stage." She performed in New York and taught at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Lee De Forest made a short film Songs of Yesteryear (1922) of Mitchell singing, using his DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process. This film is preserved in the Maurice Zouary film collection at the Library of Congress.
Mitchell died in New York on 16 March 1960.
- D. C. Hine, ed., Black Women in America, An Historical Encyclopedia. Carlson Publishing Inc., 1993. ISBN 0-926019-61-9.
- "Abbie Mitchell"(subscription required), in Notable Black American Women, Book 1. Gale Research, 1992.
- Bernard L. Peterson, Profiles of African American stage performers and theatre people, 1816-1960. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001. Page 61.
- Ethel Waters and Charles Samuels, His Eye Is on the Sparrow: An Autobiography. Da Capo Press, 1992. Page 189.
- David A. Goldfarb, "Douglas, Marion (1920-)".
- "Mercer Cook", Answers.com.
- "Mercer Cook Biography", 'The History Makers.
- Will Marion Cook, Thomas Laurence Riis and Paul Laurence Dunbar, The music and scripts of "In Dahomey". A-R Editions, 1996. Page xl.
- Darryl Glenn Nettles, African American concert singers before 1950. McFarland, 2003. Page 115.
- McGinty, Doris Evans, '"As Large As She Can Make It": The Role of Black Women Activists in Music, 1880–1945' in Locke, Ralph P., and Cyrilla Barr, editors, Cultivating Music in America: Women Patrons and Activists since 1860 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) (Footnote 33)
- Peterson, Bernard, Profiles of African American Stage Performers and Theatre People, 1816-1960 (Greenwood Press, 2000) p.187
- Songs of Yesterday (1922) at Silent Era (with photo of Mitchell)
- Abbie Mitchell at IMDB
- 1922 passport photo of Abbie Mitchell(courtesy of the puzzlemaster, flickr.com)