`I Remember ...' honey-voiced Meli'sa

ON POPULAR MUSIC

November 17, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

I hardly ever hear her name mentioned as one of the better talents to break out in the '80s. But Meli'sa Morgan was indeed an impressive force. Maybe you remember the New York native's smoldering remake of Prince's "Do Me Baby," which stayed at No. 1 on the R&B charts for three weeks in early 1986. If you tuned into black radio anytime that year, you could not escape that song.

The singer-songwriter didn't cross over to the pop side much, but her emotional, full-throttle hits ("Fool's Paradise," "If You Can Do It, I Can Do It Too," "Love Changes" with Kashif) were mainstays on urban and Quiet Storm stations back in the day.

Meli'sa wasn't alone, though. She was one in a small knot of roof-raising, church-honed "sangin' sistas" who emerged in the '80s, managing to notch a major hit here and there without diluting the soul factor. Shirley Murdock, Miki Howard, Angela Winbush, Regina Belle -- they all possessed dynamic voices, sometimes made brilliant records. But they were just a bit too real for the '80s pop world.

"They were all my friends," says Meli'sa, who's calling from her home in New York City. "We were all working, doing the best music we could at the time."

But 13 years have passed since anybody has heard new material from Meli'sa. Her last CD was 1992's Still in Love With You, an uneven affair that quickly came and went. Now she's staging a comeback with the ambitious I Remember ..., a 17-cut album released this month on the independent Orpheus label.

What in the world took so long to get new music out?

"I had to get with a team that believed in Meli'sa Morgan," says the singer, who recorded for Capitol then Arista during her mid-'80s peak. "I met with a few record companies, and the way they wanted to market me didn't feel right."

So the smoked honey-voiced singer retreated from music, got married, then divorced. She won't discuss the union. In fact, she's a little cagey about her hiatus away from the R&B scene. "[I] just lived my life -- growing, traveling, new experiences," she says. Now, Meli'sa, who keeps her age a secret, too, feels the time was right to return to recording. She says the market now is more receptive to "grown folks' music."

"When Orpheus got together with me, they believed in me from the beginning," Meli'sa says. "They weren't trying to push [me] in a young market that didn't fit me. As for the record, I want people to accept it as good music: not old school, not new school but now school."

I Remember ... is a nostalgic, personable album featuring glowing interludes in which Meli'sa pays tribute to artists who influenced her style. One of the reasons I've always dug the Queens-raised performer is that her elastic, fiery vocal approach recalls Chaka Khan's. And I'm a stone Chakaholic. But Meli'sa is no clone. In one of the album's more engaging moments, she revisits "Pack'd My Bags," a dramatic ballad Chaka did with Rufus in '74. On the 2-minute, 49-second interlude, Meli'sa is accompanied by the fabulous Valerie Simpson on piano. And the results are flat-out gorgeous. "I wanted to touch on some songs that touched my heart," she says. "Chaka is my idol."

Twenty years ago, Meli'sa kicked off her career with a remake. And she is doing the same with her comeback. The first single from I Remember... is a faithful, if slightly pedestrian, cover of "Back Together Again," the joyous Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway jam from '79. On it, she is joined by her old Capitol labelmate, Freddie Jackson. The single has been well-received on adult urban stations.

Although Meli'sa is in great voice throughout, still hitting those full-bodied high notes as she did in the '80s, I Remember ... feels a bit too scattered. The thumping "Will You?" indicates that she wants to rock the clubs, while "High Maintenance" shows her trying to fit her big, expressive voice into a derivative, synthetic R&B sound. The flat, melody-free ballad sounds like something C-list singer Tamia would croon.

"Alright, Alright" is yet another one of those annoying instructional "stepping" songs (thanks a lot, R. Kelly) that generally appeal to urban folks over 30 who can't seem to improvise their own dance moves. The so-so material and one-dimensional, heavily programmed production on the new album are often beneath Meli'sa's vocal talent.

But she does her best to energize the mostly aimless tunes. "I'm Your Sistah," for instance, is nice and bright. But the performer really shines on the interludes as she dips into such evergreens as Aretha Franklin's "Ain't No Way" and Peabo Bryson's "I'm So Into You." As it stands, I Remember ... is a decent if unspectacular effort, one that could have easily been a knockout. Oh, well.

"Music is just a cycle," Meli'sa says. "What's new becomes old, what's old becomes new. ... This record is like a kaleidoscope. I give it with love and hope people receive it that way."

The love for you, Meli'sa, hasn't gone anywhere. But I remember when your songs were much better.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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