Sunday, November 13, 2011

Born to Sing But Not Necessarily for Stardom

Lately, I've been dwelling on something -- in this blog, in the gym, on the street and pretty much anywhere I never venture without my iPod: great singers who either fell short of finding a sizable audience or ones whose heydays were far too brief. In my quest to give a few of them a little bit of their due, I posted a video by Shara Nelson -- whose stunning voice made Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy" one of the most powerful musical statements of the '90s -- on my Facebook wall.

My Facebook friend Anthony, a guy who knows a great song when he hears one and possibly the biggest Duran Duran fan alive next to my best friend Lori, not only commented that he has all of Shara Nelson's music, but he also invoked the names of two other neglected singers: Andrea Martin and Terry Ellis.

Although I can't say that I've ever delved in Martin's discography, I know Ellis's quite well. She did enjoy substantial success as a member of En Vogue in the '90s, but pop history since the '80s has shown that for the most part, male and female vocal groups have limited life spans. Unless you're lucky and talented enough to be Justin Timberlake, you generally don't emerge from them alive and still kicking out the jams and putting out the hits.

I doubt that anybody expected En Vogue to still be going platinum in 2011, but I wish they were. God, I miss the good old days when non-cookie-cutter songs like En Vogue's "Don't Let Go (Love)" were regularly topping the pop charts. Now we've got LMFAO, quite possibly the emptiest act to score back-to-back smashes since Ke$ha's 2010 reign.

I remember interviewing Ellis right before she released her solo album, Southern Gal, in 1995. I was sure that she would be En Vogue's breakout star, the one that maybe, just maybe, would still be hot this century, long after that girl/boy group era had run its course.

Sadly, as was the case with Des'ree, Dionne Farris, Maria McKee and so many other promising singers of songs from the last century, it was not to be. I'm fortunate enough to have seen all three in concert, and McKee, in particular, is one of the most riveting live performers I've ever seen. Her 1993 solo album, You've Gotta Sin to Get Saved, ranks among the best albums ever (for months that year, it was stuck in my CD player), but despite decades of great work with Lone Justice and on her own, her only major hit to date was thanks to its inclusion in that 1990 Tom Cruise stinker Days of Thunder, a movie that was good for two things only: introducing Nicole Kidman to the U.S. mainstream and sending McKee's "Show Me Heaven" to No. 1 in the UK.

Thankfully, we'll always have the musical memories of these under-appreciated greats.

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