Jennifer Holliday: The Incomparable Singer Returns to the Bay Area

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Saturday July 15, 2017
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"If I had a chance to start a new era of recording at this point in my career," said Jennifer Holliday, "I would be at my best ever."

Holliday soared to national attention - and took home a Tony and a Grammy - in 1981, when she originated the role of Effie White in the Broadway production of "Dreamgirls," and subsequently won her first recording contract.

"When I made my first records," Holliday explained in a recent interview from her home in Atlanta, "I was uncomfortable with the process. I was used to singing live, from the stage, in a very big voice. And taking my big voice into that little booth, trying to sing without the orchestra and the audience; it was a little awkward for me back then."

Her signature number from "Dreamgirls," "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" was the extraordinarily rare theater song that makes the leap to the popular music charts. A #1 Billboard R&B hit and #22 in the Hot 100, "And I Am..." was a phenomenon.

"I'd like to be able to show my growth as an artist at 56 years old," said Holliday. "I think I sing better now. People may think of me as just a belter, but over the years I have worked at developing my lilt and the softer parts of my voice. I have a richer tone, and I have much more control of my instrument."

Holliday had a string of modestly successful albums in the 1980s and early '90s, but "And I Am..." �- with its message of passionate tenacity - proved to be both an albatross and a prophecy.

"When you only have one big hit, you find yourself singing a lot of cover tunes," recalled Holliday. "And while I was performing cover tunes, R&B kind of got replaced."

Rap and hip-hop began to edge out old school soul on the radio, allowing record companies to cut back on having separate budgets for songwriters.

Holliday's celebrity dimmed through forays into gospel and Christian recording over the following decades. And, like Effie White, Holliday struggled with her weight and personal relationships (two brief marriages ended in divorce). She has also spoken of a battle with depression.

Through it all, the spirit of perseverance captured on "And I Am," pervaded Holliday's life as well. The LGBT community's adoption of the song as an anthem helped her remain at least a glimmer in the public eye. For decades, when work was thin, she was regularly booked for benefit concerts and pride events.

"The LGBT community was mostly responsible for birthing my career and I am deeply indebted to you," Holliday wrote this past January after provoking a wave of vitriol with her agreement (later reneged) to sing at the Trump inauguration. "You have loved me faithfully and unconditionally and for so many years you provided me with work even though my star had long since faded."

So why did she ever agree to the inaugural performance?

"I think I've expressed everything I have to say about that at the time," said Holliday during her interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "I don't have anything to add."

What Holliday expressed, in an open letter to the community, after withdrawing from the concert, was this:

I did not take into consideration that my performing for the concert would actually be taken as a political act against my own personal beliefs and be mistaken for support of Donald Trump and Mike Pence. I sincerely apologize... for being uneducated on the issues that affect every American at this crucial time in history and for causing such dismay and heartbreak to my fans.

Just weeks after the inauguration, Holliday was a featured performer on an Atlantis Events gay charter cruise, a show booked after the controversy.

Four of Jennifer Holliday's recent and early albums.

While a modicum of cynicism is not unreasonable, it is worth noting that Holliday has clearly suffered from cultural isolation in other aspects of her career.

In the late 2010s, while in New York, she ran into the late Marvin Hamlisch, whom she knew from her "Dreamgirls" days.

"He said to me, 'Jennifer, I don't see you performing much anymore. Why aren't you singing?' And I told him I hadn't been finding much good new material. And Marvin Hamlisch said, 'You should think about singing jazz standards. Your voice would be great for that.' Well, to tell you the truth, I'd never heard the standards. I wasn't familiar with them. I went from the church to Broadway when I was 19 years old and I had just never listened to this music. I knew church music and Aretha. When I first came to Broadway, I didn't know who Streisand was.

"So, I took his advice and I started to do my research. I started to listen to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday; just bathing myself in all the differences they brought to the way they sang these songs. It was a great education for me. You know I'd never realized how important composers were. People used to become famous through sheet music."

Holliday's research led to an expansion of her repertoire and style.

"I decided to choose songs I felt were suited for my voice, and songs that I could interpret well. My voice wouldn't work with all the music from back then. But some composers, like Harold Arlen, their songs had some teeth. I could really dig into them."

Holliday began performing standards as a guest vocalist with symphonies around the country and discovered a broader audience than she'd played to in her R&B years.

"These songs have appeal to everyone; black, white, older, younger."

Holliday's most recent album, "The Song Is You" (2014), released on the small independent Shanachie label, consists mostly of middling, overproduced R&B. But it offers a glimpse of her potential with standards in a reading of Burt Bacharach's mid-century classic, "The Look of Love": Holliday defrosts the chill of Dusty Springfield's version, her voice slithering through the lyrics with a seductive, sensual energy.

At her San Francisco concert, Holliday will perform a mix of standards and show tunes accompanied by a five-piece combo.

And of course, she says with a mix of appreciation and resignation, I'll do "And I Am Telling You..."

"I can never go anywhere and leave without singing it. So it shall be done."

Jennifer Holliday performs at the Marines' Memorial Theatre on Friday, July 21. $68-$118. 8pm. 609 Sutter St.