Ann Nesby is a preacher's kid, and it shows

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

December 11, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Staff

SHE'S JUST as sweet as Miss Lurene, the lady who was like a grandmother to me. Ann Nesby's speaking voice -- high-pitched with a distinct Southern twang -- reminds me of the woman whose neat house radiated comfort and love, whose cooking was soulful, whose laugh was loud and frequent.

Ann laughs often as we chat on the phone -- girlish giggles, wicked guffaws. We're talking about her life in Atlanta, her children, her career and her new gospel album, Make Me Better. She will perform cuts from it at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., on Saturday evening.

Produced by the performer and her husband / manager Timothy Lee, the 13-cut CD is basically an extension of the work Ann put down with Sounds of Blackness, the 30-piece contemporary gospel group from the '90s. The soul singer's voice soared on the group's biggest hits: "Optimistic," "Testify" and "The Pressure." Although the production on Make Me Better gleams with urban polish and hip-hop flourishes, Ann's sound, her vocal style, is firmly rooted in traditional gospel -- the same fertile, holy ground that nurtured Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Shirley Caesar and so many others.

She welcomed gospel rappers Knowledge and King Cyz into her mix. The songs on the new album "talk about how God is there no matter what," Ann says. "We wanted the young artists to have an opportunity to say that and more on the project. I really feel blessed to have the opportunity to open my ministry in music to the young people -- the rappers who have something to say."

Like Aretha, whom Ann idolizes, the singer switches, flips and blends the secular and the spiritual. When you're talking about matters of the heart, the two are often one and the same anyway. For instance, Put It On Paper, Ann's Grammy-nominated, pitifully under-promoted R&B album from last year, consisted mostly of songs dealing with the sacredness of marriage, the mountains and the valleys of love. Although I'm not trying to marry anybody anytime soon (and I mean that), I still dug Ann's message on the title track, which featured savory, smokin' vocals from the right reverend Al Green: Things are getting kinda serious / When there's no one else around / I ain't into shackin' up / So we gotta lock it down / Gotta put it on paper.

Uh, can I get a witness?

"Marriage is holy," says the twice-wed mother of five. She's been married to her second husband for 19 "strong and happy years."

"My message to young women and men is to encourage people to do what's right in their heart, that the best solution is God," the singer says. "A lot of young men came up to me and said they had the courage to propose to their girlfriend after hearing the song."

See, Ann grew up in a time when messages -- clever, haunting, inspirational -- were all in the music. We're talking about the late '60s and early '70s, back when R&B was still alive and meant something. Her father, a Baptist preacher, spun plenty of gospel records in their home in Joilet, Ill. But young Ann got a hefty dose of soul: Johnnie Taylor, Shirley Brown, the Staple Singers and, of course, Aretha.

"My mama used to play all those records," Ann says with a deep chuckle. "Lord, you talkin' about all that good stuff. My father used to play Rev. C.L. Franklin albums -- you know, Aretha's daddy? And I'd listen to her singing in the background and think, 'I wanna try that.' And my father would listen to Rev. Franklin and how he preached and he would say, 'I'm gonna try that.' "

But when she started pursuing a music career during the '80s, Ann wanted "to be able to have my own style," she says. "I wanted people to be able to hear it and say, 'That's Ann Nesby.' "

In an industry that likes its female singers (especially the black ones) thin, outrageous and ultra-sexy (vocal talent, as we know, is optional), Ann hasn't exactly had it easy. But she has gained what such tarts as Brandy and Ashanti hope to get: mad respect. She has written songs for Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight in addition to penning her own hits. And her brief but solid performance in this year's The Fighting Temptations, a painfully corny movie starring the overwrought Cuba Gooding Jr. and the overexposed Beyonce, was one of its few highlights.

This month, Ann will star with Kim Fields in the national T.D. Jakes' play, Cover Girls. And she will be playing spot dates to promote Make Me Better.

"I call what I do 'planting the seed,' " Ann says. "With so much going on in the world, we need some encouragement all the time, you know. I want to encourage people to hold on, 'cause life will get better. It will."

I know Ann is smiling on the line. The warmth flows through. And I miss Miss Lurene.

Ann Nesby plays the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va., Saturday night at 10. Tickets are $35 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-481-SEAT or visiting

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