Actress-Singer McNair Dies
She responded with candidness and a sense of herself as a self-styled ambassador for her community.
McNair, a versatile performer who starred opposite
In recent years, McNair played nightclubs and had a recurring role on the soap opera "General Hospital." In 2005, she opened for comedian
Born March 4, 1934, in Racine, Wis., McNair began studying singing at an early age, encouraged by her parents to pursue her talents.
After high school, she moved to
That bet paid off in 1957 when, while earning her keep doing secretarial work, the Village Vanguard club offered her a job. It was not what she expected. "People talked and smoked and drank while I sang," she told the New York Post in 1963. "People never did that in Racine. I was shocked."
The turning point in her career was a gig at the Purple Onion in New York, which led to performances at top nightclubs nationwide, including the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles and on TV's "The Ed Sullivan Show."
After starting out as a hard jazz singer, brought up on the likes of
"She's got a big great, wailing voice," her then-musical director Ralph Carmichael said in a 1966 Times story. "She swings so well I hate to hear her doing anything else."
That year, she produced an album, "The Livin' End." She also saw success with what she described as a "terrible rock 'n' roll record called 'Bobby.' "
The leap from the nightclub to the Broadway stage was a smooth one for McNair. In 1963, she replaced
The same performance that won her the praise of theater critics earned her hostility when the production traveled.
"In St. Louis and
It was not the first time McNair encountered racism. She once walked out of a hotel in Miami that offered her a room but forbade her to swim in the pool. In another, she was forced to eat in the employees' dining room.
On screen, McNair had a variety of roles: a nun helping a physician played by
Among her favorite roles was an episode of the television show "McMillan & Wife" in which she played Hudson's ex-girlfriend. One of her proudest moments came in 1969, when the syndicated "The Barbara McNair Show" premiered, said her husband, who survives her, along with a sister, Jacqueline Gaither, of Racine; and nieces and nephews. The show's guests included such stars as
McNair was married four times. Her husbands included Rick Manzie, her manager, who was murdered at their Las Vegas house in 1976.
Amid that notoriety, work for McNair began to dry up. She suspected the murder, which one writer would later link to alleged mob connections, was the cause, but pointed to other reasons.
"When I was making a lot of movies, they didn't want the women to look too black. But black people objected to that policy, so then the industry did a reversal — went all the way in the other direction . For the industry to limit itself to one look or another is unrealistic."
By then, McNair was also troubled by the all the shows that portrayed African Americans as underachievers. "There's so little to inspire the young black child," she told The Times.