Baltimore's Ultra Nate lives a Cinderella story with a post-disco beat

THE DIVA OF DANCE MUSIC

October 10, 1991|By Mary Corey

How else could Ultra Nate interpret it but as a sign she had arrived? The smoky-voiced singer was browsing in the Gallery at Harborplace just days ago when out of the blue she heard her own voice and the words to her hit dance single, "It's Over Now," drifting out of The Gap.

Purveyors of the one-pocket T were playing her song.

"That still catches me off guard," she says with a girlish giggle. "It's hard to describe the feeling. It's a weird kind of elation."

Ultra Nate (pronounced nah-tay) has a reason to feel elated. At 23, she is fast becoming the ne plus ultra diva on the dance music scene. She just finished a successful tour with the funky hit trio, Deee-Lite, during which some critics praised her performance over the group's star, Lady Miss Kier. Her debut album, "Blue Notes in the Basement," is drawing rave reviews. (Ultra's favorite write-up, which appeared in a Canadian music magazine, ended this way: "Go directly to the record store and buy this now.") And the next few months are chock-full of engagements in Chicago, London, Zurich and Japan.

All of this, of course, is sandwiched between making music videos (the third of which she's about to begin), granting interviews to trendy magazines like The Face and Interview and honing her stage persona, a high-energy mix of uptempo banter, choreography and even a headstand or two.

"When you start out, you've got to be there all the time, like a bad itch," she explains.

Producer Jay Steinhour, however, attributes her success to talent more than tenacity. "Hers is not your cookie-cutter, fierce diva voice. She manages to emote. There's a lot of feeling in the way she sings. It makes her stand out from the others," says Mr. Steinhour, a member of the Basement Boys, a local trio who produced her album.

When people meet Ultra Nate, the first question they nearly always ask is about her name. It's really hers, she swears, although she never uses her last name. As a child in Northeast Baltimore, she was often teased by friends, who preferred calling her Ultra-Man or Ultra-Brite.

"I used to think it was such a nuisance, but now I love having a different name," she says.

Even in broad daylight, she dresses and acts the part of steamy soulstress -- wearing a two-tone chiffon shirt, thigh-high suede boots, and orange plastic earrings. Her Southwest Baltimore home, which she moved into several months ago, is decorated in what you might call early Ultra. A floor-to-ceiling poster from her debut single, "It's Over Now," hangs in the living room; photos of her line the stairway, and her record jackets double as art on the mantel.

Yet despite the hype, she seems remarkably down-to-earth for a woman who's been dubbed everything from "the queen of love" to "a latter-day Diana Ross."

Although she's got a contract with Warner Brothers U.K., Ultra has allowed herself few luxuries. Her biggest splurge so far: $600 English suede chaps. And the greatest perk of the job, she says simply, is not having to do the 9-to-5 shtick: "I hate getting up in the morning."

How she came to earn that right, however, is a kind of Cinderella story with a post-disco beat.

She received her only real vocal training in the choir of the Maranatha Baptist Church in East Baltimore. After graduating from Dunbar High School (class of '86) she became a "clubhead," hanging out in nightclubs like Odell's and the now-defunct Club Fantasy, getting hooked on the insistent, synthesized sound of house music. There she met the Basement Boys, who asked her to audition as a backup singer. She got the job and stayed late one night to improvise with the Boys on "It's Over Now."

By 2 a.m., they were ready to record, and Ultra, the producers decided, would sing the lead. On a whim, she agreed.

As a demo, the song cracked dance charts in the United States and England. And Ultra Nate, the chanteuse, was born.

Success has had its downsides, too. Until this year, Ultra attended school (one semester at University of Maryland Baltimore County) or worked as a physical therapy aide while developing an underground following. Putting in 18-hours days during the making of her album proved to be a real strain. "My attitude got really funky," she says. "I was in this tug-of-war with myself." By January, she decided to devote all of her time to music.

Although Ultra has toyed with moving to New York or Los Angeles, for the moment she's staying put in her hometown. In many ways, her next single, the gospel-tinged "Rejoicing," brings her full circle, connecting her church choir past with her nightclub present.

"It's my thanks to God for letting these things happen," she says. "Some people struggle their whole lives to get where I am. . . . I have to give God his just due."

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