Miki Howard took a break and had a life

ON POPULAR MUSIC

now she's back with a CD of R&B classics

September 14, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

About six months ago while going through avalanching stacks of CDs at home, I came across a few albums by an artist who never really got her due: Miki Howard. The brassy-voiced R&B singer broke out in the '80s, infusing synth-based, of-the-period productions with gospel fire and an always tasteful touch of jazzy drama.

Where is Miki? I wondered as I perused the back of her excellent 1989 self-titled album, which featured the classic "Love Under New Management." Is she still making music? Working in Europe? Maybe she's touring select American cities in one of those lowbrow gospel plays -- a minstrel-like show with a wretched title like Mama, I Burnt the Grits But We Gon' Make It. I shuddered at the thought as I slipped the CD on the stereo.

Fast forward a few months, and I receive an advance copy of a new Miki Howard album, her first since 2001's Grammy-nominated Three Wishes. Though Pillow Talk: Miki Howard Sings the R&B Classics isn't a set of original material, the vocalist does a mostly fine job re-interpreting such '70s chestnuts as Natalie Cole's "Inseparable," Ann Peebles' "I Can't Stand the Rain," even Boz Scaggs' "Lowdown."

"It was fun to do," Howard says with a girlish giggle. And she laughs a lot. "It was a commission to do. Shanachie [Howard's label] had the idea. They told me to pick the songs I like. And since I was a '70s kid, I was open to the project."

This isn't the first time Howard has done a covers album. Back in '93, she paid tribute to Billie Holiday, one of her musical idols, on the solid but overlooked Miki Sings Billie. Just as she did on that set, Howard re-invigorates the 10 covers on Pillow Talk with her own honey-and-hot-sauce style. "It was like painting a picture," she says of the recording process. The Chi-Town native is calling from her Jersey City, N.J., home. "There were some hard ones, like `Just Don't Want to Be Lonely' (a hit for the Main Ingredient in 1974) and `Misty Blue' (originally done in 1976 by Dorothy Moore). Those were a little intimidating because they had been done so well before."

Indeed, Howard sounds a bit self-conscious on those cuts. She's too mannered on "Misty Blue," and the faceless arrangement of "Just Don't Want to Be Lonely" doesn't help her tentative vocals. She fares better on the midtempo jams, namely the glass-smooth take on "Lowdown" and the floating title cut (originally a gold seller for Sylvia in 1973). Howard cuts loose on the 1978 funk classic, "Which Way Is Up," a No. 1 R&B hit for the short-lived girl group Starguard.

"Yes! That's my inspirational song," she says with a knowing chuckle. "Sometimes life will do some things to you, and you wonder which way is up. I can relate to that, OK?"

Howard, whose last smash was 1992's R&B chart-topper "Ain't Nobody Like You," has spent the last 14 years concentrating on her personal life. She ended an abusive marriage and raised her three children: Brandon, 25, an aspiring urban-pop producer and session vocalist; Nicholas, 22, a chef in Beverley Hills; and Kaitlen, 17, an aspiring performer.

"I'm trying to get her to focus on something else," Howard says with a heavy sigh. "These young girls in the business get a lot really soon. Their work is different from our work. We wanted to sound good and make good records. These young girls get paid a lot more for a lot less. The exception, I guess, is Beyonce, who works really hard -- jumping up and down all day. That takes a certain dedication I could never have."

Which is partly the reason Howard wasn't as big a star as her contemporaries: Anita Baker and Regina Belle. Aside from the fact that Atlantic, the singer's label in the '80s and early '90s, didn't vigorously promote her work, Howard wasn't willing to sacrifice a big chunk of her life to become a superstar.

"I was more interested in my everyday life," she says. "I breast-fed my kids. I took my kids everywhere around the world. They wouldn't have been afforded those opportunities without the career. But I never had the big promotional budgets, not like what the young artists get today."

Howard tours occasionally these days, playing spot dates around the country and overseas. When she's not on the road, the artist spoils her 2-year-old granddaughter.

"She's the most adorable, beautiful child," Howard says. "My life is full with my kids. I'm a TVholic. I get out in the neighborhood and mess with the people, you know."

She may not be at the top of the charts these days, but don't count her out.

"You have to be more responsible for finding good music, 'cause radio isn't going to play it," Howard says. "People ask me all the time, `Miki, where have you been?' I'm around; I'm here. Google me."

Her laugh rings out -- sharp and wicked.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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