Carol Brice (1918-1985), an African American contralto, was a concert singer, recording artist, and professor who broke many racial barriers for African American musicians. Carol Brice was the first African American to win the Walter H. Naumberg Foundation prize, to sing with the Yale Glee Club, to sing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as well as one of the first African Americans hired by the Metropolitan Opera Company. Additionally, Brice received many honors and awards for her singing, including the honor to sing at the inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 and a Grammy Award for her solo work in Porgy and Bess in 1978.
Carol Brice, the youngest of four children, was born on January 16, 1918, in Indianapolis, Indiana, to Reverend Dr. John Brice and Ella Hawkins Brice. Her father, John Brice, was a 1904 graduate of Knoxville College, a chaplain during World War I, a Congregationalist minister, as well as the vice president and religious director at Palmer Memorial Institute for thirty years in Sedalia, North Carolina. Her mother, Ella Hawkins Brice, also a graduate of Knoxville College, was an educator and musician who taught history and pursued a career as a singer. Ella Hawkins Brice spent so much time on the road that John Brice took Carol and her siblings to Sedalia, North Carolina, when she was only eighteen months old and gave custody of the children to Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown. Charlotte Hawkins Brown was a cousin of Ella Brice and the founder and president of the Palmer Memorial Institute. The institute was the only finishing school for African Americans in the United States.
Carol Brice thrived in Sedalia and began her music debut as a student at the Palmer Institute. By the age of three, Carol Brice’s singing voice was exceptional, and as an early student at Palmer she toured the country with the Sedalia Singers. In 1930, at the age of thirteen, Brice won an award for the best contralto voice at a North Carolina music festival. The following year she appeared with the Sedalia Singers at Town Hall in New York City and later performed in such places as Symphony Hall in Boston and the White House. The group served as the major fund-raising arm of Palmer Memorial Institute and it performed traditional African American spirituals.
Brice continued her education at the Palmer Institute, which led to further educational opportunities in Alabama and New York throughout the 1930s. Brice graduated from the high school department of the institute in 1933 and completed Palmer Memorial Institute Junior College in 1935. At Palmer, she became acquainted with numerous luminaries who visited the school, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Marian Anderson, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Additionally, with the aid of a Palmer Memorial Institute supporter and benefactress, Carrie L. Stone, Brice journeyed to Talladega College in Alabama, where she majored in music, studied under the noted voice teacher Frank G. Harrison, gave numerous concerts, joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and received a bachelor of music degree. Upon graduation from Talladega, she moved to New York City, where her mother (who was then divorced) and her brother Jonathan were residing. In New York, she attended the Juilliard School of Music from 1939 to 1943 as a fellowship recipient and came under the tutelage of Francis Rogers.
In the summer of 1939, Brice received wide acclaim when she performed with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the musical The Hot Mikado at the New York World's Fair. There, she met her husband, Cornelius Wiley "Neil" Scott, a baritone in the chorus; they had two children before his death in 1967.
During the 1940s, as a versatile contralto Brice was able to attain recognition that was less available to other African American musicians at that time. Often compared to Marian Anderson and other giants of her day, and as an African American singer, Carol Brice succeeded in many firsts. For example, she was the first African American singer to earn the prestigious Naumberg Foundation Award for young performers in 1943, a prize that included a recital at Town Hall in New York City on March 13, 1945. Additionally, she had the pleasure in January 1941 to sing at the third inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was one of the first times that an African American performed at an inauguration.
From here, her career blossomed as she began to receive wide acclaim and perform with orchestras and symphonies across the country. Brice performed with the Pittsburg Orchestra in 1945, with the Boston Symphony in 1946, and with the San Francisco Symphony in 1948. Serge Koussevitsky, the director of the Boston Symphony, had heard her on a CBS broadcast with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and invited her to sing with him. Carol Brice was one of the first African Americans to sing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and she sang under Koussevitsky's direction on at least ten occasions in Boston, New York, and at the prestigious Tanglewood festival in Massachusetts.
Into the 1950s, Brice continued singing in America and expanded her success abroad. During the summer of 1950, she toured in South and Central America, singing in Puerto Rico, Curacao, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, and Panama. In 1951, Carol Brice and several other singers were the first African Americans hired by the Metropolitan Opera Company. In 1954, Carol Brice and four other musicians were invited to be guests of the Federal Republic of Germany for a four-week visit. During the visit, she sang with the Berlin Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. Furthermore, on May 11, 1956, Carol Brice, Leontyne Price, William Warfield, and Luther Saxon became the first African American soloists to perform at the Cincinnati May Festival.
In addition to her personal success, Brice often performed with her brothers Eugene and Jonathan Brice. Eugene was also a graduate of Juilliard and performed in numerous Broadway productions. Jonathan, apart from being the accompanist for Brice, sang with the Robert Shaw Chorale and the New York City Opera. From 1944 until 1977, Brice sang in recitals across the United States, most often accompanied on the piano by her brother, Jonathan. In 1958, Brice formed a trio with both Jonathan and Eugene. Together, they called themselves the Brice Trio and performed at Town Hall in 1958.
Beyond concert singing, Brice performed in several Broadway performances, and made much-praised recordings. Brice's Broadway career included the roles of Addie in Regina (1959), Maude in Finian's Rainbow (1960), Queenie in Showboat (1961), Harriet Tubman in Gentlemen, Be Seated (1963), and Maria in Porgy and Bess (1961, 1976). She was also a member of the Vienna Volksoper from 1967 until 1971. Brice made a number of outstanding and much-praised recordings, as she was among the first African American classical artists to record extensively in the United States. Her most noted recordings include Gustav Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer," with Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburg Orchestra; Falla's El Amor Brujo; The Grass Harp by Claibe Richardson; and her Grammy winning recording of Porgy and Bess in 1978.
Brice received numerous awards for her pioneering spirit and commitment to singing. In 1948, she was honored as an outstanding "Negro woman musician" by the National Council of Negro Women, and in 1954, she was chosen as one of Long Island, New York's, "Women of the Year." In 1955, her alma mater, Talladega College, awarded her with an honorary doctor of humane letters; in 1963, she was presented the Emancipation Proclamation Award by the National Association of Negro Musicians; and in 1965, she and her two brothers were honored at the Fifth Annual Founder's Day Program of the National Association of Negro Musicians, Eastern Region.
In 1968, Brice met baritone Thomas Carey during a tour for the U.S. State Department in France. They were married the following year and together performed in Porgy and Bess throughout the world.
In 1973, Brice joined the University of Oklahoma faculty as an associate professor of music. In 1974, she and her husband, Thomas Carey, founded the Cimarron Circuit Opera Company, which prospered under their leadership. In 1977, both Brice and Carey were named Oklahoma Musicians of the Year.
Carol Brice died of cancer on February 15, 1985, at the age of 66.