Legendary singer Topsy Chapman has died at 75
We have lost a national treasure. The great Topsy Chapman passed away last week at the age of 75 after a long illness. We are mourning the loss here at GHB Jazzology and the Palm Court Jazz Café particularly hard, not only because Topsy was one of our premier performing and recording artists, but because she was a great friend with very close ties to our family here.
Topsy was born in Kentwood, Louisiana, on the other side of Lake Pontchatrain from New Orleans. Her father Norwood was a preacher/vocal music instructor, and Topsy very early on was immersed in Gospel music. This exposure to music took hold, and by the age of 3 she showed signs of prodigious musical abilities. After high school she moved to New Orleans, formed a group called the Chapman Singers, and was soon gaining some attention with appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and local clubs.
Her big break however came in 1978 when she was tapped as an original cast member of the off-Broadway hit musical “One Mo’ Time” set in 1920’s New Orleans black vaudeville. Topsy famously avoided the spotlight. She was humble and wanted the focus to be on her music. But the success of “One Mo’ Time” launched her career to another level, taking her around the world. This led to performances for presidents and royalty including the Queen of England, Grammy nominations, critical acclaim from the New York Times, the New York Post and Variety, a number of film credits including a prominent role in the award-winning Steve McQueen film “12 Years a Slave” (2015), numerous appearances on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion and the list goes on. So much for avoiding the spotlight.
Music poured out of Topsy Chapman seemingly effortlessly. She exuded a confidence and command on a bandstand that is seen in few others. Perhaps this is possible when one possesses such a beautifully powerful voice, impeccable phrasing, perfect intonation and overall musicianship on the highest level. We were able to witness this regularly at the Palm Court Jazz Café until nearly the end of this remarkable life. Fortunately for us, Topsy’s beloved daughters Yolanda Robinson and Jolynda “Kiki” Chapman are carrying on the torch and some of the lessons learned by a true master. Topsy Chapman will be dearly missed and forever in our hearts.