How a church girl got to Broadway

ON POPULAR MUSIC

January 25, 2007|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

Growing up, I remember the old folks saying, "Whatever it is, child, take it to the Lord in prayer. Prayer changes things." Elisabeth Withers heard the same as a church girl in Joliet, Ill. She knew early on that she wanted to sing, that there was nothing else she'd rather do.

So for years she prayed as she formally studied her craft, eventually earning music degrees from Boston's Berklee College of Music and New York University. In just the past two years, Withers has experienced the manifestation of her prayers. And then some.

Last year, she earned a Tony nomination for her role as Shug Avery in the acclaimed Broadway musical adaptation of The Color Purple. On Tuesday, Blue Note Records will release her debut: a mature, urban effort aptly titled It Can Happen to Anyone.

"When I think about my journey, I think that's the message," says Withers, who's calling from her New Jersey home. "I spent hours, years, praying that all this would happen, that I would get to New York, that I would get a record deal. ... If it can happen to a little girl from Joliet, it can really happen to anyone."

But the success, of course, didn't come overnight. Withers paid some dues. For years, she sang anywhere she could: at weddings, on recording sessions for other artists, on stage backing pop stars like Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu. She eventually met Nick Ashford, one half of the legendary husband-and-wife songwriting team Ashford & Simpson, who suggested that she audition for the Oprah Winfrey-produced Color Purple.

"I've never been afraid to try anything," Withers says. "The values that my parents taught me growing up allowed me to go into any situation, from being asked to sing for Paul McCartney to doing The Color Purple on Broadway in front of someone as iconic as Oprah."

That audacity and passion shine through the debut's 11 songs, eight of which Withers either wrote or co-wrote. The lyrics move from sultry celebrations of sexiness (the mellow first single "Be With You" and the club-ready "Sweat") to personal, if slightly cloying, odes to supportive love (the surging "Simple Things" and "Heartstrings"). Although at times the songwriting feels a bit forced and flat, Withers still emboldens the material with her silvery, powerful mezzo-soprano voice, which glimmers with gospel inflections. Like other sistas who honed their craft on Broadway (Stephanie Mills, Melba Moore and Jennifer Holliday come to mind), Withers is a showy singer but an affecting one.

She says the experience of performing in The Color Purple six to eight times a week made her an even stronger, more focused vocalist before entering the studio to work on the debut.

"I got the discipline to maintain through all kinds of weather," says the mother of one, a 23-month-old daughter named Chelsea. "The general public wanted to come and see a show, so I had to eat the right things, get the right amount of sleep. You had to be ready regardless."

For the first album, Withers definitely didn't want to be a producer's creation. "When it came time to do the record, I was able to make executive decisions and just be Elisabeth," she says. "I wondered what type of record this could be: a rock album, a jazz album, a pop album."

The result falls firmly into the urban category with heavy applications of pop gloss here and there. For instance, there's a needless, dramatic remake of "Wind Beneath My Wings," which was arranged and co-produced by Withers' husband of five years, Damon Mendes. The overall production, overseen by Toby Gad, is mostly slick and programmed, softened occasionally by sweeping strings. Withers is much more appealing when she's playing up the sass sans the musical bombast as heard on "Be With You," which for the past month has garnered heavy spins on adult urban radio.

"On this album, I want people to hear my sincerity," Withers says. "The process of me going to first-time wife to first-time mom, then signing with The Color Purple and Blue Note -- it's been a whirlwind. I just look at the journey so far and I'm really humbled by it. My prayers were answered."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

Hear Rashod Ollison's weekly music podcasts at baltimoresun.com/rashodaudio.

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