Vanessa Williams puts her own spin on perfection

Music In Concert CDs

February 03, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Mommy's on the phone now. I'll do it later, OK?" Vanessa Williams says, her voice honeyed but firm. Her 4-year-old daughter Sasha is in the background whining about something.

"I'm sorry," the singer-actress says, returning to the phone. It's after 8:30 in the evening and Williams, who's calling from her upstate New York home, has been busy all day with the kids (she has four) and making preparations to attend a cousin's memorial service in Maryland the next morning. Later the same day, she will board a plane to Los Angeles on business.

But somewhere in her hectic schedule, she has to carve out time to promote her new album, Everlasting Love, which hit stores last Tuesday . On the classy set, the artist covers 13 love songs from the '70s with an original cut, the soft, romantic "Today and Everyday (Wedding Song)."

"The idea came up with me sitting down with the record company and talking about the kind of albums we wanted to do," says the New York native, who signed with Lava/Atlantic Records last year. "We did a Christmas album (Silver & Gold, released in October). And they wanted to do a compilation of love songs from the '70s in time for Valentine's Day. They had their list, but I wanted to make sure I could add what I wanted. So I went through my own record collection at my parents' house one Sunday afternoon and came up with songs that were dear to me."

The result is a smoothly executed collection of chestnuts from that era of polyester leisure suits, platform shoes and cloud-like Afros. Williams offers a warm mix of faithful and re-imagined takes on classics by the Jackson 5 (a jazzy rendition of "Never Can Say Goodbye," featuring a spirited guitar solo by George Benson), the Ohio Players (a sexy version of "Let's Love"), Rufus and Chaka Khan (the subdued title cut) and Melissa Manchester (the pop-folkish "Midnight Blue").

Williams says, "The intimidating stuff were songs that were already perfect, like the Stylistics' `You Are Everything.' Everybody knows every line, every change in that song. I wondered how can you make it better. Some of the songs were more a hybrid of bringing them up to date and adding what I could add."

To the Stylistics remake, the performer and her long-time collaborator Rob Mathes added a little pep to the tempo. Where the original floated on producer Thom Bell's cosmic bed of lush strings and electric sitars, Williams' streamlined version bounces along with a more pronounced groove. Throughout the album, the interpretations are done with mostly live instrumentation: a punchy horn section, real bass lines and tasteful strings by the London Session Orchestra.

"It's nice to be able to use real instruments," Williams says. "We used the guys I've been playing with for eight to 10 years now. And to have George Benson come on - the epitome of the '70s with his Breezin' album - was fantastic."

In the early 1990s, Williams was a mainstay in the Top 10. With such hits as "Dreamin'," "Runnin' Back to You," "The Comfort Zone" and the ubiquitous 1991 No. 1 smash "Save the Best for Last," she was a fixture on BET, MTV and VH1. Her amiable, no-frills singing style and middle-of-the-road, slightly trend-conscious records were ideal for pop and urban radio.

By the middle of the decade, Williams was a big enough star for Broadway. She garnered rave reviews for her starring role in the 1994 musical Kiss of the Spider Woman. When the show ended in March 1995, the artist returned to the studio and recorded her first Christmas album, the gold-selling Star Bright. The next year, 1996, was particularly tough as she weathered a painful divorce from her first husband and manager, Ramon Hervey, with whom she had her first three children. Three years later, she married NBA star and sometime actor Rick Fox and gave birth to their only child together, Sasha, the next year. (In August, Fox reportedly filed for divorce. But Williams isn't talking about that.)

Although she hasn't been on a concert tour since 1997, the singer-actress regularly plays spot dates internationally when she's not doing commercials for Radio Shack, Crest and L'Oreal cosmetics or studying scripts. Everlasting Love is a fine return to music.

"The industry now is so youth-driven," Williams says. "So many artists are in their teens now and radio is so geared toward hip-hop. I'm 41 years old. It's nice to be able to have real musicians and real melody lines on this album. It's not trying to improve upon perfection. It's just saying that these songs were special and meant something to me."

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