It was announced this morning that soul/jazz vocalist Vesta Williams was found dead in her hotel room in California on September 22nd. She was 53. (NOTE: When this was originally written, Wikipedia and a number of other sources had said Williams was born in 1963, but which would have made her 48. In the last few hours, her actual year of birth has been corrected, thus this article has been updated with the proper information.) The cause of death remains unknown at this time, but she was a singer who should have been much more successful than she was.
I made some of my views known on Twitter, basically saying that as music started to be treated like baseball card statistics in the mid-1980’s, fans started to value their music based on chart success. It was something that was a very “rock-ist” view, and I bring up rock because it used to be where rock artists were given incredible luxuries but anyone “other than” rock was not. Yes, a song, album, and artist could mean the world to us, and in the end that’s what really matters. Yet as there was a shift in the way the music industry was run, a more global/one world order mentality where a hit song meant it had to be a hit everywhere at once, became accepted as the norm. A number of artists would even make fun of this in their own songs too, there are terms such as “black gold” or “ghetto gold”, which was another way of saying that it might not have been certified gold (in the United States, that meant sales of 500,000 copies for an album), but if it was something that sold well and accepted amongst the black community, it was equal to that of the big gold award. It didn’t matter if those “on the outside” weren’t appreciative, but a “hometown” audience did. Despite the attempts in pushing her to the forefront, she was never far from love from her fans, so it was safe to say she was always “home”.
I bring these issues up because Vesta (like many singers with a level of respect, she was able to single herself out by using just a single name, although most always knew her full name) was never a major success in the pop world. In fact, when she was signed to A&M Records in the mid-1980’s, her debut album was released after Janet Jackson‘s Control. Jackson was an A&M artist at the time, and while Jackson had only been Michael’s sister or Penny from Good Times, for a lot of people, Control would change that forever. The surprise success of Control would move everyone to want to be “just like Janet”, so as one listens to the Vesta album, the production shows heavy shades of not only Jackson’s sound, but also Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis‘s Flyte Time Productions vibe, the mid-tempo tracks were very much of the Minneapolis sound (most of the production was done by Bryan Loren. Vesta’s voice comes from her family and upbringing, a mixture of her Ohio roots and living in Los Angeles. Being in L.A. allowed her close access to the music industry, which lead her to becoming a session singer for artists, along with radio and television commercials (her classic 1996 McDonald’s commercial with Al Jarreau shows that she didn’t leave that part of her career behind). Her connections lead to her being signed to A&M Records.
Pop hits did not come for her, but she did have success on the R&B charts with such songs as “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”, “Sweet, Sweet Love”, “Running Into Memories”, and probably my favorite Vesta song, her first single “Don’t Blow A Good Thing”. She remained on A&M for seven years, and with the lack of hits on the pop side, along with the usual shifts of the music industry, her time on A&M was over and so was her visibility in the mainstream.
What also kept her in the public eye was charismatic and humorous interviews she’d often do on BET‘s Video Soul, with host Donnie Simpson. Anytime she had a new single or album, she would be there and it always seemed like she was flirting with him to the literal point of no return. Then she’d get into her slightly sinister laugh, but it was cute. In time, BET would allow her to sit in for Simpson on Video Soul, and at that point it would have beeb the perfect time for her career to go to the next level. It never happened, but that did not stop her from recording, releasing music, or performing.
As a teenager listening to her music and watching her videos, Vesta was the woman I wanted to hang out with. No, let’s be completely honest, Vesta was the woman you wanted to “be with”. She was sexy, she was alluring, she had a level of confidence in her singing that was her way of saying “I am a woman, don’t mess with me. But you can mess with me… if I allow you to.” Many of her songs were not written by her, but when you heard her sing them, it was as if they came from personal experience. In my teen (and even pre-teen) years, I knew that when I “grew up”, I might be able to experience those things she sang about. I didn’t want to be the one who blew a good thing, she said “treat your woman right, or leave”. “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”, they were lessons that were simply “grown up” stories, and I couldn’t wait to grow up and be of adult age to be able to experience that, and perhaps meet someone like Vesta who could “provide” that. You couldn’t help but bow down in her presence, or at least mentally bow in front of your stereo speakers.
r.i.p. Vesta Williams.