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Carter, Nell (1948-2003)  
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Short and stout, with a distinctive nasal snarl of a singing voice, and a vivacious, earthy energy, Nell Carter was a dynamic performer on stage, television, film, and record. The survivor of a number of personal tragedies, Carter built a successful and versatile show business career that was cut short by her sudden death at the age of 54.

Although she was notably outspoken on many issues, Carter kept her personal life private, and it was only after her death that her longtime relationship with a woman was revealed to the public.

Carter was born Nell Ruth Hardy on September 13, 1948 in Birmingham, Alabama, one of nine children of Horace and Edna Hardy. The life of a large, low-income African American family in the Birmingham of the 1950s was not easy, and Carter became acquainted with personal trauma at a young age.

When she was a small child, her father died suddenly from stepping on a live power line, and at age 15 she was raped at gunpoint and became pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, Tracy.

Young Nell learned to comfort herself with music, first listening to her parents' recordings of such performers as Dinah Washington, B.B. King, and Elvis Presley, then singing herself.

From the age of eleven, she performed in church choirs and youth groups, and even appeared on a local radio program called "The Y Teens."

After graduating from Birmingham's Parker High School, she continued to perform locally for a while. In the late 1960s, however, she followed the call of the stage to New York. There she changed her name to Carter, studied acting, and sang at such legendary nightclubs as the Rainbow Room, the Village Gate, and Reno Sweeney.

In 1971, she was cast in her first Broadway musical, Soon, which closed only two days after opening. She had small roles in Dude (1972), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Be Kind to People Week (1975), and Don't Bother Me I Can't Cope (1976), before going to London to continue her acting studies.

She returned to New York in 1978 to her first big success in a revue of the music of Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller, called Ain't Misbehavin' (book by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr.). In this musical evocation of the Harlem Renaissance, Carter not only commanded the stage with her scorching renditions of numbers like "Honeysuckle Rose," "Mean to Me," and "Cash for Your Trash," but she also defined herself as an accomplished actress.

She won Theatre World, Drama Desk, Obie, and Tony Awards for her work in her first Broadway success. (In 1982, Carter also won an Emmy Award for reprising her role in Ain't Misbehavin' for the NBC television production of the show.)

As Stephen Holden observed, Carter's extraordinary performance in Ain't Misbehavin' thrust her into a "select circle of theatrical pop-soul belters whose members reveled in high-powered vocal flamboyance. A typical performance by Ms. Carter reached into the fabric of a song and tore out its seams with feral flourishes."

Carter also performed in the 1979 film adaptation of the musical Hair (music by Galt MacDermot; book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni) directed by Milos Forman. Her most memorable moment in the film comes when she sings "White Boys."

In 1975, Carter had been slated to play the role of Effie White in a musical being developed by composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Tom Eyen that eventually became Michael Bennett's Dreamgirls (1981) when she backed out to accept a television role on the ABC soap opera, Ryan's Hope. After her triumph on Broadway in Ain't Misbehavin', she once again turned to the small screen, taking a role as a feisty cop on the short-lived NBC sitcom The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo.

Like many fat black women performers, Carter could not avoid the stereotypical role of sassy maid, and in 1981, she took what would be her best-known role, as Nellie Ruth Harper, beloved and impudent caretaker of a white family on NBC's Gimme a Break!

Though the role hardly broke new ground, Carter made the most of it for the show's six-season run, using every opportunity to sing, dance, and demonstrate her acting skills. During the show's run she garnered multiple nominations for Emmy and Golden Globe Awards and achieved wide fame as a comic actress.

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Nell Carter performing.
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