In the last Music Sermon, we highlighted three ‘80s soul singers – Lisa Fischer, Vesta Williams and Phyllis Hyman – whose solo careers never reached full potential, despite their rare and enormous talent. Unfortunately, their stories don’t stand alone.
There are more cases that I can list off-hand of voices more powerful than most current artists, who’ve been relegated to the fringes of music conversations or completely left in the past. You know the key jams for some of these women; their songs are spun at house parties, at the cookout, during a good soul classics set, or when your parents get ‘hold of the aux cord. But the artists themselves aren’t nearly as visible as they should be – if they’re still visible at all. They weren’t in the ranks of participants for all-woman-power-singer specials like VH1 Divas. They don’t pop up for Grammy specials and tributes. But they do almost all have dedicated episodes of TV One’s Unsung.
It’s hard to narrow the field down to just a handful of these deserving artists to celebrate, but we’re going to get a few more in. In continuation from the last Music Sermon, VIBE examines an alternate aspect in the story of near-forgotten female vocalists of the ‘80s: artists who enjoyed longevity and success but never reached crossover status. Artists whose voices are known, but their names aren’t.
The hip-hop generation may not realize it, but it knows Angela Winbush. She’s been sampled, she’s been remixed, she’s been covered, and she’s one of the few women in our discussion who had a presence into the late-90s. In addition to a four-octave range, Angela was one of the first women who performed, wrote, arranged, produced and played multiple instruments, but she never felt she was properly recognized for her work. Despite such vocal range, all the looks she served looking like an 80s Gabrielle Union, and all the enduring bops she bestowed (seriously, I promise you know all these songs), she never crossed over and became a star.
Like many of the strongest vocalists of her era, Angela started as a background singer. She was part of Stevie Wonder’s group Wonderlove, and picked up writing and producing from watching Stevie work in the studio. At some point during her time with Stevie, she met Rene Moore, who was part of The Brothers Johnson. They each tell conflicting stories about whether they initially dated, but they decided they could work well together as a creative team, and they formed Rene & Angela. The duo wrote all their material from the beginning and was also producing by their second album.
The pair also started writing and producing for other acts, including penning one of Janet Jackson’s first singles, “Young Love.” Janet declined another song they wrote for her, to their benefit. “My First Love” was Rene & Angela’s first hit.
Angela and Rene moved to a new label for their fourth album, A Street Called Desire, and they were, as the kids say, in their bag. The project produced their biggest hits, joints that still hold up to this day. Angela was ultra ‘80s fly, too; she gave you fashion, hair, voice, everything.
Their ballad game was so tight, rumors persisted that the two were a couple (while Angela has said the two dated early in their relationship, they both maintain they weren’t romantically involved as professional partners).
Behind the scenes, though, conflict was escalating between the two. It began to come to a head when Angela took the lead on “Smile,” with no sonic trace of Rene on the track. The song hit No. 1, and proved Angela alone was as strong, if not stronger, than with Rene. (By the way: make a playlist for your boo, and put this song on it. You’re welcome.)
The album was their most successful, but after an alleged physical altercation with Rene while on tour, Angela decided she was done. They split after the album and immediately started throwing shots at each other in the press. Angela accused Rene of violent behavior (which he denied) and revealed that she’d in fact done most of the writing and producing they were credited for as a duo, but shared credit with Rene because she feared no one would take a female writer and producer seriously. She was right – her label almost dropped her because they assumed Rene did the heavy creative lifting until they heard the work Angela did for The Isley Brothers. Even years later, in 1991, Vesta Williams vented to Video Soul’s Donnie Simpson about her struggles to produce her own music, and used Angela as an example of the fight for women to get work and respect. “The males are dominating the production situation, but the females are dominating the charts…’Cause Angela Winbush; what happened to her? She was producing, she did a lot of production stuff.”
Once Angela was free from Rene and past a legal fight for proper songwriting credits, she continued to write and produce for other artists, including The Isley Brothers and Stephanie Mills. The latter led to a relationship with Ron (who’s 13 years her elder), and Angela eventually became the misses to Mr. Biggs.
As a solo artist, she came out the gate swinging with “Angel,” and landed an immediate No.1 song. The song is basically a remix of “Smile” on the low, but it worked.
I’m obliged to make a reference to “The Real Thing,” not because it was hit for her (it was, although I don’t think it’s one of her strongest songs), but because a young Don Cheadle is in the music video as a full-out backup dancer, and it’s hilarious.
After Angela and Ron were married, Ron took over the reins of her career as a manager, and she continued to produce for him and his brothers. Collaborations between the two became standard.
Back when she was a student at Howard University, Angela was a featured vocalist in gospel artist and composer Richard Smallwood’s youth choir. One of her most successful duets with Ron, “Lay Your Troubles Down,” was a nod to those roots; a take on Matthew 11:28-30.
In 1994 Angela released her last album, and scored one more solo hit with the Chuckii Booker-produced “Treat U Rite.” Looking like a young tender.
She decided to take a step back in her career and focus on her marriage, ironically, as Ron’s career was experiencing a resurgence. An OG with almost 30 years in the game, Ron didn’t deign to make the same promo rounds Angela needed to for her music. As a result, hosts like Don Cornelius in the earlier Soul Train clip and Donnie Simpson here would make Angela’s interviews about Ron, who they weren’t used to having access to.
“Float On” (1996), The Isley Brothers’ jawn with a “take that, take that” Bad Boy remix, was Angela’s last true feature appearance. Ever. At 40 years old.
During the remainder of the ‘90s, though, her hits were brought back through sampling and remakes. Jay-Z’s “Imaginary Players” sampled “Imaginary Playmates;” Biggie’s “I Love the Dough” sampled “I Love You More” and featured Angela on the hook; Foxy Brown’s “I’ll Be” sampled “I’ll Be Good.” Then in 2000, Avant and Keke Wyatt covered “My First Love” and found bigger chart success than the original release. Their version instantly joined the “cover song might be better than the original” list.
By the mid-2000s, Angela and Ron had divorced behind allegations of Ron cheating (fortunately, in advance of Isley’s sentencing for tax evasion), and Angela revealed she’d been battling cancer. She was diagnosed in stage four and given a dire prognosis, but she is still in remission, still performs, and still testifies. “For me, the only reason I think I’m alive is so I could save other lives,” she told TV One’s Unsung. “It’s not about me looking cute all the time. It’s about my life being spared so I can show people they can make it through a tough situation.”
Some would argue that Stephanie Mills shouldn’t be mentioned in a group of under-celebrated singers, and she herself won’t agree to be featured on TV One’s Unsung, but she was clear that she wasn’t going to be a Whitney Houston or Diana Ross level crossover artist.
“I realize that R&B is what I do best, and I’m comfortable with that,” the singer told the LA Times about a decade into her career. “I don’t know how to cross over, and that’s okay because I’m satisfied with my audience. I’d like to have mass appeal, but not at the expense of what I do best.”
Stephanie emits powerful sound from a petite 4’10” frame – what the old folks used to call standing flat-footed and singing. She was a dramatic and high-energy performer, but she could just stand completely still, open her mouth, and blow everyone away. It was a power she possessed from a young age. Before the world knew who Stephanie Mills was, the then nine-year-old with a grown ass voice won Apollo’s legendary Amateur Night six weeks in a row. It’s only fitting that “Home” later became an Amateur Night staple for decades.
Stephanie’s journey didn’t include supporting the greats as a backup or session vocalist. Her story officially begins on the Broadway stage at 16, as the original Dorothy for The Wiz.
Following The Wiz, she released a couple of albums in hopes to capitalize on the momentum of the show – even though Diana Ross scooped her for the high profile movie role. Her third album, produced by Mtume, finally yielded a breakthrough with the disco-esque jam “What Cha’ Gonna Do With My Lovin.’”
But the real gem on the album wasn’t even a single. It was Stephanie and Teddy out-quiet storming each other on “Feel the Fire.” This is how you perform a duet, ladies and gentlemen. Make people wonder if it’s real. Now that I think of it…do duets even exist anymore?
Stephanie’s career story doesn’t include a ton of drama – or at least not public drama. The singer is notoriously private. There’s the standard label shuffle including attempts to evolve sound, some working better than others; and the age-old tale of mishandled funds by management. Also unique in the underappreciated vocalist discussion, Mills has an extensive catalog. She dropped an album nearly every year for 20 years – never more than a two-year gap between releases. Compared to her amount of output, though, she only has a handful of genuine hits. “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” Stephanie’s biggest crossover hit, came early in the game. It’s her only song to break the Top 10 on the Billboard pop chart.
Over the years, she played with a more pop-leaning sound. She even landed the theme song for Chevy Chase’s movie Hitch. But when the pop route failed to produce hits and threatened to alienate her fan base, she went back to R&B for good. One of the musicians who helped her get her swagger back was Angela Winbush. She wrote two hits for Stephanie over two albums, “I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love,” and “Something in the Way You Make Me Feel.”
A few years ago, Angela joined Stephanie on stage for the song (they’re both still in full voice, by the way). They took it to church.
“You’re looking at survivors,” Stephanie says as Cherelle joins them (they don’t give her a mic, though. I love Cherelle with all my heart, but she ain’t in this particular cohort of vocalists). “My sisters here, we survived this business. Some of us didn’t make it, but we’re here to hold them down!”
Stephanie has a great voice for uptempos and mids, evidenced by her early hits, but ballads – love songs – are where she shines through.
Auntie Stephanie still performs, she’s still a concert draw. But like her sister-singers, she’s hyper-aware of the changes in the music industry over the years, to the detriment of R&B artists. She went viral recently for her candid commentary on Sister Circle about the appropriation of black music, and how quickly things change for an artist when they don’t have a hit.
The google header for Deniece Williams’ website reads: “4x Grammy Winner | Deniece Williams | Pop Star,” and she was kind of a pop star – but people under 40 may not remember. Williams’ career pedigree is crazy: another Wonderlove/Stevie alum, signed to Earth, Wind and Fire founder Maurice White’s production company, and produced by major names in R&B and soul during her career height including David Foster (before he was the David Foster), Ray Parker Jr.,Thom Bell and George Duke.
Deniece also sounds like she could be Minnie Ripperton’s vocal baby sister, and that’s not completely an accident. While the two have the same vocal range – including an unreal whistle register – they also had the same vocal arranger, Charles Stephney, Maurice White’s partner in Kalimba Productions. Deniece was also a session singer on Ripperton’s Perfect Angel album. The songstress’ first single, “Free,” feels like it could have been a Minnie track, but it was all Deniece. She and three other Wonderlove singers wrote it while playing around in rehearsal, and they performed it when Stevie showcased the singers during the show. Hearing “Free” during a Stevie concert drove Maurice White to sign her.
The uptempo hit No. 2 on the R&B charts and cracked the Top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100. Deniece was already a mom of two who’d been through a failed marriage when she recorded the song, possibly lending to the twist that makes “Free” so intriguing. The song is about love, passion and even ecstasy, but without ties – at the woman’s urging, “’cause I’ll only be here for a while.” Listeners may not even realize it’s a lowkey curve, because they’re caught up in the Earth, Wind and Fire-backed groove. “I think it was a combination of the song itself and what the song said lyrically,” Deniece said of the track’s success and endurance. “Somebody told me that I was the first woman they heard in music that (said) at the time that ‘you don’t have to stay.’”
Deniece co-wrote on each song for This is Niecy, as she did for most of her music throughout her career. A couple of other songs on the album had a showing on the R&B charts, but “Free” drove the project’s success.
Almost immediately after This is Niecy was released, Charles Stephney died suddenly. Music discussions give a lot of weight to writers and producers, but great vocal arrangement can make or break a song, and make the best use of a singer’s talent. Maurice White produced Deniece’s follow up album, Song Bird, by himself, and even though it was a moderate success on the R&B charts, she later said it felt like something was missing. “I think the success of my first project was because it was music for the expression for my voice,” she explained in an interview. “We went out and we did some different music, and then he brought in another arranger, who’s very very gifted and talented but was not correct for me… It wasn’t the same arrangement or the same feel… I think we did a project that was good, but we didn’t do a project that had the magic of the first one, because the players and the music changed.”
Deniece landed her first No. 1 pop hit paired with Johnny Mathis for the ballad “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” which also hit the top of the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts.
The single’s runaway success led to a full duet album, and then an additional pairing later on for one of the great sitcom theme songs of the ‘80s, when TV show themes were whole compositions.
Maurice eventually talked to Thom Bell, producer for the Stylistics, Delfonics, and key producer and arranger for Philadelphia International Records, about working with Deniece. With Thom, the magic that was missing for Song Bird was back. “There’s only one other person in my musical life that has understood my music the way Charles Stephney did as an arranger,” Deniece has claimed, “and he is Thom Bell.”
The Thom Bell era netted a few hits for Niecy, including one of her signature songs. Deniece wrote “Silly” years prior to recording it, but couldn’t quite get it to the right place. “I said ‘Let me work on it a couple of minutes’ and I musically rewrote it,” Thom explained in an interview. “I rewrote it as an arranger, not a songwriter.” Again, the importance of a master arranger.
Deniece’s cover of “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” the first secular song she learned growing up in a strict Christian household, was another winner, reaching No. 1 on the R&B charts and Top 10 on the Hot 100 chart.
Despite success, Thom stopped working with Denise after their second collaboration. The deeply spiritual singer, who’d included inspirational songs on each of her albums, was shifting her focus back to God after an experience while performing at a gospel concert in 1980. Bell shared recently that it was a little too much for him. “She was going through a spiritual awakening, and religion is really not my thing.” The producer, who’s worked with top divas including Dionne Warwick and Phyllis Hyman, gave Deniece her props, though. “She’s a fantastic singer. You very rarely ever can find a singer that can do things that she does. Performing is not what she does good,” (Thom Bell is also a little shady) “but she’s a great singer.”
Deniece was, indeed, experiencing a spiritual re-awakening, but she had one more act in her career before she devoted herself to gospel completely, and it was the biggest act yet. Maurice White’s imprint shut down and Deniece was moved to Columbia Records proper. She’d given producer George Duke a song for the group Sister Sledge, but the track prompted him to suggest they work together instead. The partnership led to the biggest – and last – hit of Deniece’s career.
“Let’s Hear it for the Boy” was the featured track on the Footloose soundtrack (which opens an entire black music segment for the party game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon), and was a No. 1 hit at pop, R&B and dance. The Let’s Hear it for the Boy album also featured one of the great Black History Month program songs of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. “Black Butterfly” wasn’t a hit single at the time, but it’s one of Williams’ signature songs now.
The album was Deniece’s career peak, and her descent followed immediately. Her next project didn’t connect how her previous work had. Now that she was in the bigger label system without designated producers guiding her projects, her music lost focus. “At the record label there was a big argument that would keep going on that she’s an R&B artist but she’s selling pop. And the pop department would say that she may sell pop, but she’s an R&B artist,” she explained in an interview. “They couldn’t just make up their minds. I kind of kept getting tossed around. “
Deniece had already started her own production company to focus on gospel acts, and was building a roster. She’d also annoyed the 1985 Grammy Awards telecast producers and surprised viewers when she took the stage and sang “God is Truly Amazing” instead of “Let’s Hear It For The Boy.”
After the Hot on the Tail album, she turned her attention exclusively to gospel music, where she’s been active since. R&B and pop landed her No. 1 hits, but gospel earned her career four Grammy awards, starting with her first foray into the genre, I Surrender All.
HONORABLE MENTION: Meli’sa Morgan
Meli’sa Morgan is an auntie favorite, but she’s significantly unsung. The Julliard-trained artist was once being watched as the next black songstress to break on the heels of Whitney Houston and Sade. Her debut single, a smoky, all-soul-everything cover of Prince’s “Do Me,” catapulted her to the top of the R&B charts for weeks, and led to modest pop success for both the single and the album. Her version also sparks serious debate among even die-hard Prince fans about whether it’s possibly the better rendition.
The LA Times, in a 1986 feature they opened by recounting incidents of people confusing Meli’sa for Whitney Houston on the street, said of Morgan: “With all due respect to Houston and Sade, Morgan may be the best young soul singer in the business. With her sultry, smoldering style she falls somewhere between super-soulful Chaka Khan and pop-oriented Houston.” (Melis’sa was a background and/or session singer for both Chaka and Whitney as well as Melba Moore.)
Meli’sa also co-wrote all but one of the album’s tracks, and co-produced – a role she had to push for. “I had to fight to get to produce,” she told the LA Times in the same interview. “Capitol (Records) said I was busy enough with the singing and songwriting…But I wouldn’t accept that. I had exposure to producing, enough to know I could do it. My attitude was that if they wanted those songs to be recorded, they had to let me be involved in producing them. I just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Morgan had a couple of impactful singles on her subsequent albums, including “Love Changes,” which was featured on both her and Kashif’s individual records. But she said she eventually took a self-imposed hiatus after hip hop started edging her soul sound out of relevance. “When I went on hiatus, the industry was really changing,” she later shared. “I had signed directly to Capitol because I had a production deal with them. All of a sudden, MC Hammer came along, and then hip-hop and rap music were taking the industry by storm, and in a totally different direction. And basically trying to keep up with that – you really had to have it integrated into your style and a whole new look – and keep my style of music was a conflict of interest.”
Ironically, hip-hop has been key to keeping Meli’sa’s music relevant. Do Me Baby opened with “Fool’s Paradise,” now one of her signature songs, thanks to Jay-Z’s sample flip for “Knock the Hustle.” I mean, it’s also a legitimate bop, though. Throw this on at any NYC party above 110th street or in the outer boroughs and watch what happens.
The obscurity of these women in the annals of R&B history is culturally tragic, not just because they could sing other artists under the table, but because they were complete, truly gifted creatives. Many of them wrote, played, produced, and were genuine collaborators with their own visions for their artistry – at a time when female artists weren’t easily able to rock like that, period, let alone black female artists. In the modern music era they’d be heralded as bosses, and mavens. Instead, folks barely know the depths of their talents. I hope we’ve helped remedy that a bit. Also, shout out to Stevie and Chaka for their touring companies basically being Hogwarts for singing-ass-singers. I believe they’re the two names you’ll come across the most not only in the stories we’ve shared, but with additional talent from the decade if you take a deeper dive. And after reading this, you should do exactly that. As I said earlier, there are so many more artists from the era whose stories aren’t often told, and they deserve to be heard.
#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.