Music Sermon: The Forgotten Voices of ‘80s R&B
In 1990, singer Phyllis Hyman complained to Donnie Simpson during a BET Video Soul interview about record labels shifting their focus from talent to artist “packaging,” using production to supplement raw talent. “They’re picking up kids off the street, pretty much, and producers are producing these albums. These kids have literally no talent. But they look right. I’m telling you, get a girl, get the hair weave on, make her lose 30 pounds, (snaps) you’ve got a hit record. Can’t sing a lick!” In the shift from substance to style, which started gradually happening in music in the mid-’80s, Phyllis and other singers with big voices got shelved, dropped, or simply ignored in favor of younger, more pop-friendly and video-friendly acts – with arguably less ability. “(It) pisses me off. It makes me big time angry because I have spent so many years developing this talent,” Phyllis added. She wasn’t alone.
The ‘90s is the last decade of R&B dominance –the genre grew and evolved from new jack swing to hip-hop soul to neo-soul – but the ‘80s was the last pure R&B era. The end of disco and the rise of the quiet storm format made room for big vocals over lush productions. Mid-tempos and ballads reigned supreme, and vocal production tricks like autotune were the exception, not the rule. You had to be able to sing forreal. Only a handful of female artists who were strong in the ‘80s – the ones with crossover success, including Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston – made it past the early 1990s, but the decade had sangers. With multi-octave ranges. Trained in the background vocal trenches of soul singing masters. As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, VIBE looks at three of the critically under-celebrated female voices of ‘80s soul and R&B.
Vesta Williams started her career singing for Bobby Womack, Jeffrey Osborne, Anita Baker, Sting, and most notably Chaka Khan. The similarities in Vesta and Chaka’s tone and style are immediately noticeable, and rumors persist that Vesta actually laid some of Chaka’s session vocals in later recordings.
Side note: Vesta liked to clown, and was a wildcard in live interviews, especially with men. She’d have them just flustered and giggling and not knowing where to go next.
A&M Records originally wanted Vesta to lose weight and sing lead for a girls group, but she held out until they extended a solo offer. Her first single, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” was a moderate hit, cracking the Top 10 at R&B radio. The lead single from her sophomore debut solidified Vesta’s spot in R&B history. Another Vesta rumor is that “Congratulations” was inspired by Bruce Willis, her alleged long-term but semi-secret beaux, calling off their relationship and marrying Demi Moore within months. Allegedly.
Vesta was sultry and sexy and representing BBWs (big, beautiful women) in a major way, but not quite intentionally. As is a theme with the women in this group, stress and insecurity over her career and her image led her to battles with her weight. Behind the scenes, she was fighting with her label over support, but on camera and on stage she exuded confidence.
She also brought the lively energy seen in her interview with Arsenio on stage. It was a signature part of her act. “I do like to interject…as much of myself as possible (into my show), because it’s terrible when you go to see a lot of these artists, and you pay your money – and you pay a lot of money now - and the show is terrible,” she told Donnie Simpson in an interview (Donnie got all the tea). “They can’t sing. They can’t reproduce what they did on the record because they punched in every line. You know it’s terrible… Those people shall remain nameless.”
Vesta also complained to Donnie, as Phyllis did, about the focal shift from vocal talent to production.
Vesta and Phyllis’s frustrations – which are still echoed today by singers who possess wide range, power, and vocal control, but can’t get their careers off the ground – were valid. Vesta’s voice was transcendent without even singing lyrics. She invoked the emotional gamut from struggle and loss to hope and triumph just through some “Oooohs” in the Women of Brewster Place theme.
Vesta recorded through the ‘90s, but only had one more hit of note, 1991’s “Special.” She never got the push she wanted from A&M Records, but always had the support of “home” – the R&B community.
Convinced that her weight was holding her career back, Vesta lost over 100 pounds after the Special album. “This is a very visual era,” she told Ebony in 1996. When I lost my record deal, and my phone wasn’t ringing, I realized that I had to reassess who Vesta was and figure out what was going wrong. I knew it wasn’t my singing ability. So it had to be that I was expendable because I didn’t have the right look.”
The recording jumpstart she was hoping for didn’t happen, but Vesta worked. She had a couple of on-camera roles in film and on TV, and you would often hear her distinctive voice luring you towards certain food or consumer good.
This commercial sounds like a take on the Women of Brewster Place theme, and I feel a way about it.
Shout out to Burrell Advertising, one of the oldest black-owned media companies in the game – for all the extra-black McDonald’s and Coke commercials you remember from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Vesta continued to perform, but never staged a full come-back. She released one final studio album in 2007. She was found dead in her apartment in 2011 - ironically, while in the process of filming her episode of Unsung for TV One. An overdose was initially suspected; Vesta was taking anti-depressants, and pills were found in her room. But final reports revealed hypertension as the cause of death, a tragic plot twist for someone who’d worked so hard to improve their health.
Lisa Fischer is one artist happy she didn’t become a bigger solo success. As with Vesta, the pressures that came with being a woman in entertainment - to be thin and glamorous - were overwhelming. She was more comfortable where she started, in the background.
Lisa began her career with Luther Vandross. Luther famously began as a backing vocalist himself, and as a world-class vocal producer and arranger, was known to only have quality talent behind him. He was not only her first gig, but her longest. Lisa sang on every tour and album with Luther from the mid-80s until he stopped working.
It’s going to be too hard to describe Lisa’s hair and sequin dress in a way that differentiates from the other female singer’s hair and sequin dress in this clip, so I’ll just say Lisa is on the left in the beginning and on the left again at the end.
As Lisa became a sought-after session vocalist and background singer - including joining the Rolling Stones on tour in 1989 - Luther pushed her to pursue a solo career, as singers like Patti Labelle, David Bowie, and Roberta Flack had pushed him. “He saw me in a way that I couldn't see myself,” she once shared. “He made me feel like a diamond though I felt like a grain of sand.”
In 1991 Fischer landed a hit out of the gate with her first single “How Can I Ease the Pain,” a tormented ballad that showcased her full four octaves, including a whistle register to rival Mariah’s. This song makes me think I can sing.
“How Can I Ease the Pain” spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart, propelling her album, So Intense, to Gold status. Lisa also won the 1992 Grammy for Best Female R&B Performance – with a catch. 1992 was the only year the win was tied; Lisa shared her award with Patti LaBelle for “Burnin’” – a song which featured Lisa as background personnel. I believe the Academy wasn’t trying to catch the wrath of the established divas by giving a newcomer the award in a category containing Patti, Aretha, and Gladys that year, especially when Patti didn’t have an award yet. It would have been a scandal! But it also proved that Lisa belonged with the powerhouses.
Next, it was time for Lisa to claim her spot in the diva ranks, right? Nope.
She never released a follow-up. “I felt like I just wasn’t ready,” Lisa shared revealed in an interview. Stress from the pressures of the business eventually manifested for Lisa as an eating disorder. “Not making the second album was disappointing at first, but then after that it was a sense of peace, because back then I couldn’t deal with the expectations that came with even that teeny bit of fame. There was so much to sort out that I hadn’t sorted out.”
As a background singer, Lisa could just be in the moment and sing, without worrying about content, messaging or image. It was easier than being the focus. She went back on tour with the Stones, and has been on almost every tour with them since. Hardcore Rolling Stones fans know Lisa almost as a member of the group, since she steps out during every show for her lead on “Gimme Shelter.”
Lisa also toured with Tina Turner, and still toured with Luther, even when dates with the Stones threatened to conflict, which when Luther taped his famous live concert at Royal Albert Hall. “I was touring with the Stones in Chicago, and then Luther had a private plane waiting for me to make it to London in time to do sound check, makeup and dress for the performance,” Lisa told a local publication when asked about a standout show memory. “I was so exhausted, but his music and teachings were so a part of everything I had become that doing the show was real and surreal all at the same time. His voice, his melodies, my fellow background singers (Kevin, Ava, Tawatha and Pat) and the choreography that I’d been doing for years was so joyous. … It was like a public family reunion.”
I know we’re talking about Lisa, but you have to watch this whole performance and soak in the genius of Luther’s vocal arrangements. First of all, only Luther would have first string and second string background singers. Lisa is a starter, of course. She’s on the far left. Second, this is a slightly gentler arrangement than the studio recording of “Here and Now”, but that little bit of softness/easiness makes it so much better.
Lisa was thrust even further into the forefront than she was during her solo run with 2013’s 20 Feet From Stardom, director Morgan Neville’s award-winning documentary about the lives and journeys of career background singers. The movie was the first time I’d seen a visual of Fischer in years, and I was surprised at the natural, kind of boho chic woman on screen, miles from the very glamorous and coiffed Fischer of the ‘90s. Then it clicked – that wasn’t really her. That was never her. That’s why it didn’t work.
Lisa did finally get comfortable enough to launch a solo tour, but she performs now in draped, flowing garments, often in bare feet, always with bare face and natural hair. Easy, relaxed, in a way she can focus on the music and not the package. But I think she’ll forgive me if I don’t readily let go of this. Yes, we already talked about “How Can I Ease the Pain,” but her live performance is a masterclass.
If I have to select one case study example to illustrate the damage and challenges an artist can face trying to mold themselves into a form that will lead to success, it’s Phyllis Hyman.
Phyllis was a naturally outstanding and immense vocal stylist. She had a four-octave range that blended jazz and soul, and a regal stature that demanded attention and notice (Hyman was 6ft tall with striking features), but a psyche that was torn apart through the course of her career. The music business destroyed her.
On paper, though, she had the elements to be a massive star, and she had a promising start. Her first label, Buddah Records, landed several modest hits for her including “You Know How to Love Me.”
Her 1976 collaboration with Norman Conners for “Betcha By Golly Wow” introduced that merge of jazz and soul which became her signature sound.
Her Tony-award winning turn in Duke Ellington’s "Sophisticated Lady" positioned her to embark on an acting career.
But Phyllis would reach the brink of big success and lose it, sometimes by her own doing. Sometimes it was poor business decisions, like when she passed on the song “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Sometimes it was bad luck, like when she recorded a theme song for the movie The Doorman, and then the movie was released straight to video. Or when she was tapped to sing the James Bond theme for 1983’s Never Say Never Again - a huge benchmark for any singer – then Warner Brothers reportedly nixed the song under threat of lawsuit.
Oftentimes, though, it was her own insecurity showing up. Phyllis was known to be combative; she fought with producers, with people who worked with her, and most famously with label head Clive Davis. She and Clive were in a battle of the wills from the beginning of Buddah’s absorption by Arista Records - something Clive, known for his magic with female singers, was unused to. Phyllis called him a plantation owner, would speak ill of him in the press, show up late for meetings and blow off commitments, but she was fighting him out of fear. “Control equaled comfort to Phyllis,” said biographer Jason Michael in his book Strength of a Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story. “It was what she needed to feel safe…She did the same with (husband) Larry and, in the years to come, she would succeed in doing the same with not just her romantic interests, but also her close friends and staff members.” The tactic didn’t work with Davis, however, and contributed to her stalling during her years at Arista. Her strongest songs from the Arista period were recorded before the transition from Buddah, like “Somewhere in My Lifetime.”
Part of the problem was also that Clive, whose formula was to position his singers for pop success, didn’t understand the kind of artist Phyllis was. “Clive never had a feeling for black music,” A&R Gerry Griffith shared with Michael in Strength of a Woman. “He didn’t understand that black connection of jazz and R&B as it relates to black folk…he couldn’t make that connection. That’s why he had to have people around him that understood it; and most of the time, in the early days, he didn’t listen to us either.”
Philadelphia International’s Thom Bell wrote an album’s worth of songs for Phyllis’s second Arista release, but Clive scrapped some of them in favor of songs he felt would work for crossover, like the heavily-produced uptempo “Riding the Tiger,” and designated the pop/dance options as the album singles. It didn’t work. “The audience just couldn’t understand why she was recording a song like ‘Riding the Tiger,’” said her musical director Barry Eastmond. “It just didn’t fit her at all. It was an attempt at a dance hit, but you can’t fool the audience. They love you for a certain thing and they really want to hear that from you.”
Between the power struggle and the lack of hits, Phyllis soon found herself at the bottom of Clive’s priority list as he turned his attention toward a young new starlet, Whitney Houston.
Phyllis’s fight or flight instinct also cost her opportunities that could have changed her career. Phyllis was in the lead to play Shug Avery for the movie adaptation of The Color Purple. The casting directors loved her, but when she joined Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah in a meeting with Steven Spielberg, she blew it. Her former co-manager Sydney Harris recounted the day to biographer Jason Michael, recalling Glover emerging from the meeting and telling her, “Your girl acted out. She was trying to run the audition. She was ordering Steven around.”
“That was Phyllis’s M.O.,” Harris explained. “When she got scared, she tried to take over things so she could regain control. She lost the part because they could not wrap their heads around being with Phyllis for five months in North Carolina while they shot the film.”
There was a cycle – Phyllis would get insecure and self-sabotage, then be resentful of her failure compared to the success of women she knew weren’t more talented than she was, and then lash out. But Phyllis was equally frustrated with failure and scared of success.
When finally released from Arista, she joined Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. It was an ideal situation for her: a smaller label where she could feel important and attended to, led by men who understood soul music. But even as she was working on her strongest material in years, she was brooding and inconsistent. “Living All Alone” co-writer Cynthia Biggs told biographer Jason Michael, “I remember her saying, ‘Here I am again, recording another album that’s not going to go gold.’ She just felt like ‘why do I keep trying?’”
She’d suffered from depression for years, and was finally diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, but she preferred self-medicating through drugs and alcohol to taking lithium, the most common treatment at the time. Living All Alone was well received, but Phyllis’s depression continued to deepen, slowing down the process of recording her follow-up, The Prime of My Life. During the time between the two projects, she was featured in Spike Lee’s School Daze and on the soundtrack.
Released in 1991, The Prime of My Life was Phyllis’s biggest career success. She finally charted on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Don’t Want to Change the World,” which was also her first career No. 1, and the album had additional R&B hit singles including “Living in Confusion.”
At Philadelphia International, Phyllis had started to become part of the writing process, contributing more and more with each subsequent album. She had just finished the most autobiographical work of her career when she took her life in 1995, days before her 45th birthday and hours before she was scheduled to perform at the Apollo.
Her emotional state was no secret to her inner circle, nor was her eventual suicide. “Phyllis was an advocate of suicide,” Glenda Garcia, her manager at the time of her death, told the Chicago Tribune. “I was not surprised or shocked that she took her life. It was her philosophy that she was in charge of her body because it was hers, and in charge of her life because it was hers. Her position was, if she didn’t like the pain, didn’t like her life, she had the right to get out of the pain.” The Tribune observed, “...never has an artist produced an entire album that reflects so hauntingly on her life and hints so broadly of her imminent demise as does Phyllis Hyman’s I Refuse to be Lonely.”
Hyman’s suicide note read, in part, “I’m tired.” The album felt like a more extended goodbye message. Songs like “Why Not Me,” “This Too Shall Pass,” and “Give Me One Good Reason to Stay” spoke of finality and resignation, disappointment and loss. Phyllis may have meant it to be her farewell. We can never know for sure, but Garcia wouldn’t rule it out. “Phyllis loved drama, so I wouldn’t put it past her,” she said in the same conversation with the Chicago Tribune. “Let’s face it, she was on her way to a show the night she died. She had a performance to do at the Apollo Theater. I don’t know that Phyl was so conniving she said ‘OK, I’m going to commit suicide so now I’ll get my Grammy and it’ll be multi-platinum,’ but I won’t say she didn’t intend to make a statement. She absolutely felt this record was her best. Clearly her timing was dramatic.”
Lisa, Vesta and Phyllis all had raw talent in spades, they even had beauty and glamour - but had to push themselves to sometimes unrealistic physical levels to stay marketable as artists. In the late ‘80s, singers like Jody Watley, Pebbles, Cherelle and Karyn White came into the game with model looks and voices that could easily work over heavier production, and that trend continued for solo artists into the ‘90s. There wasn’t another successful solo female vocalist of substantial voice and body until Kelly Price came along in 1998. It wasn’t just about fitting a "look," though. There were other dynamic vocalists in this era - Stephanie Mills, Miki Howard, Angela Bofill - who were also eventually left behind as R&B moved out of the soft and warm quiet storm into the high energy new jack swing era. Their voices were too soulful to crossover, and artists without crossover potential weren’t attractive to labels; they wouldn’t sell as many records. In the ‘80s, a gold album was cool, but the ‘90s, platinum became the benchmark for success. While we’re waiting for the music industry to get it together and return to the R&B standards of the ‘90s, I’ll lift a prayer that there will one day additionally be room for sangin’ sangin’ on the charts again. For the Vestas, the Phyllises, the Shirleys (Brown or Murdock, take your pick), to sing their hearts out - and for the world to be able to hear.
#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.