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Carol Brice: Contralto Excellence

Carol Brice with fellow students and teacher Sergius Kagan at Julliard School, May 1942

As part of our blog series spotlighting African-American performers, I will be looking at the life of Carol Brice—a singer, recording artist, and professor who received many accolades for her beautiful contralto voice as well as her instruction. Much of the correspondence in her personal papers contained praise from a variety of different people from students to her peers. Ms. Brice was born January 16, 1918 in Indianapolis, Indiana to Reverend Dr. John Brice and Ella Hawkins Brice; she was the youngest of four children.

Her vocal talent was already evident when she was only three years old. At age thirteen, she won an award for best contralto at a music festival in North Carolina where she now lived with her cousin Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown. Dr. Brown was the founder and president of Palmer Memorial Institute, one of the only finishing schools for African Americans. Carol Brice was an early student at the institute and her musical talent was nurtured. Her education there opened up other educational and musical opportunities for her; she grew in musical stature through excellent performances at concerts and other venues. In the summer of 1939, Brice performed with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the musical The Hot Mikado at the New York World's Fair for which she received excellent reviews. Here, she would find love as well; she met her husband Cornelius Wiley "Neil" Scott, a baritone in the chorus. They had two children and remained married until his death in 1967.

Correspondence from Frank Harrison congratulating Carol Brice for receiving the Julliard Fellowship

She graduated from Talladega College with a bachelor of music degree and then received a fellowship to study at the Julliard Graduate School in New York. Her voice teacher at Talladega, Frank G. Harrison, sent his congratulations along with a newspaper article about her achievement, which stated, “While competing with students from white and Negro colleges, Miss Brice gave an excellent performance to win the approval of the committee on awards.” She continually supplemented her considerable talent with hard work and sought out other opportunities to develop and improve her vocal prowess, which is shown in a piece of correspondence from her time at Julliard.

Her musical career bloomed and matured throughout the following decades. In 1941, she was asked to perform at the third inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt—one of the first African Americans to receive such an opportunity. Ms. Brice received many invitations to perform including from Howard University. She sang with the Yale Glee Club, the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She also performed abroad. At this point, many people compared her to Marian Anderson. In the late 1950s through the 1960s, she performed in Broadway performances.

Porgy and Bess performance, Nice, France; Carol Brice, Princess Grace, Anne Brown, James Randall

Ms. Brice became a professor in 1973 with the University of Oklahoma appointed her Associate Professor of Music in the College of Fine Arts. She and her second husband Thomas Carey founded the Cimarron Circuit Opera Company. The couple performed together, which included Mozart’s Magic Flute. In 1981, she received the Governor’s Arts Award for her contributions to the cultural development of Oklahoma. She continued her working as a recording artist as well; in 1978, she won a Grammy for her solo work in Porgy and Bess. In 1985, Ms. Brice died of cancer after a long, successful career and her recordings continue to captivate those who hear them.

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