The reception accorded the death of Umm Kulthum showed how powerful and beloved the Egyptian vocalist had become. With the streets of Cairo lined by several million mourners, Kulthum's fans took her body from the shoulders of of the official pallbearers and passed her from person to person for the three-hour-long journey to the mosque of al-Sayyid Husayn. This sign of affection and respect was the culmination of a career that had begun nearly six decades before. In an article for Harvard Magazine, Virginia Danielson, author of The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century, wrote, "Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis and you have Umm Kulthum, the most accomplished singer of her century in the Arab world".
Born in the rural village of Tammy al-Zahayrah, Kulthum was raised in very humble conditions. Much of her love of music was inherited from her father, who supplemented his income as an imam at a local mosque by singing religious songs at weddings. Overhearing her father teaching songs to her older brother, she memorized the tunes and sang them herself. Her father was so impressed that he began to include her in his singing. Kulthum's obvious talents led her family to relocate to Cairo, the entertainment center of Egypt. In 1923, she came under the wing of a musical mashayaikh who assisted her in securing gigs and helping her to meet theatrical agents. Famed composer and singer, Al-Shaykh Abu al-Ila Muhammed, became her chief mentor and teacher.
While blessed with natural skills, Kulthum was looked down upon as an unschooled singer, lacking the vocal subtleties and melodic nuances necessary for Egyptian music. Kulthum did much to change this impression of her, studying with numerous music teachers hired by her father and with poet Ahmad Rami, who taught her poetry and literary Arabic.
Kulthum's repertoire went through many changes during her career. Although she initially sang songs that she learned from her father, she began to rely on compositions written for her by Egypt's finest songwriters. During the '30s, she sang songs by Rami and composer Muhammed al-Qsabji, and, qasa'id by Ahmad Shawqi set to music by composer Riyad al-Sunbati. Beginning in 1964, she collaborated with composer Muhammad al-Wahab.
Considered one of Cairo's top singers by 1928, Kulthum sought a variety of mediums to showcase her talents. She appeared on the radio as early as the first broadcasts of Egyptian National Radio in 1934, in films as early as 1935, and in television in 1964.
Kulthum increasingly took control of all aspects of her career. In addition to producing her own concerts, she chose her own accompanists for her performances, and actors and technicians for her films. In the '40s, she became a member of the Listening Committee, which chose music for radio broadcasts, and, was elected president of the Egyptian musician's union. Kulthum's political activism increased following the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. Granting more interviews, she spoke candidly about her rise from impoverishment and provided hope for the less-fortunate segment of Egypt's population. In the wake of Egypt's defeat in the 1967 war, she performed a series of concerts to benefit Egypt.
Kulthum was plagued by health problems throughout her life. At various times, she suffered from gall bladder, kidney ailments and light-sensitive eyes. Concerts were postponed in spring, 1971 and winter, 1972. During a concert in December 1972, she felt faint during the program. Although she completed the show, it turned out to be her final concert performance. After being treated by kidney specialists in Europe and the United States, she seemed to be on her way to recuperation by the winter of 1974. Plans were made for her to premiere a new piece, "Hakam Alayna al-Hawa." Although she recorded the tune during a 12-hour session on March 13, the scheduled concert was canceled. On January 21, 1975, Kulthum suffered a kidney attack. She died two weeks later. A biographical film, Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt was released in 1997.