Return to gospel

Singer Shirley Murdock's new CD gets back to her musical roots

March 29, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun pop music critic

As she sang about sleeping with somebody else's husband, Shirley Murdock's heart was in the church.

In 1986, the roof-raising soul singer scored her biggest hit with "As We Lay," a tormented, passion-drenched ballad that flew into the Top 10 on the R&B charts and pushed sales of her self-titled debut to gold.

"There was so much controversy about that song," Murdock says 21 years later. "It didn't celebrate infidelity. That song was about two people making a bad decision, dealing with the regret. ... It's about balancing the checkbook of life, baby."

Subsequent hits -- "Go On Without You" and "Husband," both soaring ballads -- extended the soap-opera tale of loving the wrong man at the wrong time. But as the rigid rhythms and juvenile themes of New Jack Swing and hip-hop infiltrated soul music in the late '80s and early '90s, Murdock's secular career cooled. With the early 2002 release of Home, she formally returned to gospel, her first love. That album's follow-up, the spirited Soul Food, hit stores last week.

Tomorrow, as part of the Tom Joyner Sky Show at Morgan State University, Murdock will sing cuts from the new album as well as those adult-themed mid-'80s hits that established her career.

"I'm still singing songs about life," says the singer-songwriter, who last week was traveling in Richmond, Va. "I'm just sharing with both worlds, the secular and the gospel. You have to shine for Christ in every facet of life."

In person, Murdock is a walking sunbeam, a down-to-earth woman with a lovely smile. While promoting Home five years ago, she sat down with me in a chic Manhattan restaurant. It was cold enough to freeze your tears that day, and Murdock strolled in wearing a classy full-length fur. During our hourlong interview, she talked passionately about being a messenger and spreading "the good news" through her music. That mission deepens on Soul Food.

"It's a continuation of growth," Murdock says during her recent interview. "Home was a matter of coming back to my gospel roots. With this record, we wanted to do songs that were more about ministering, especially to women. Honey, there are women out here who are tore up from the floor up, going through so many issues. And we wanted to go to the deep places that we should talk about, like building self-esteem and loving yourself."

The message of the album's first single, the smartly written "I Love Me Better Than That," is implicit in the title: To those downtrodden sistas in search of love, start with the woman in the mirror.

"I wanted to empower women to take back what was taken from them, to love themselves again," says Murdock, who's based in Dayton, Ohio. "God wants us to get to our blessings, but there are some issues blocking us."

The production throughout Soul Food -- overseen by Murdock and her husband of 19 years, musician Dale DeGroat -- freely mingles beat-driven urban sounds with organic, traditional approaches. Though the arrangements are thin at times, Murdock's singing is as inspired as it was when she first appeared in the mid-'80s.

Back then, she was an associate of Roger Troutman, the late star and visionary of the influential electro-funk band Zapp. Troutman prominently featured the singer's piercing vocals on such singles as 1985's "Girl, Cut It Out" and 1986's "Computer Love."

Around the same time, Murdock signed a deal with Elektra Records and released Shirley Murdock! The album, supported by a successful tour with Luther Vandross, established her as one of the best (and most underrated) soul vocalists to emerge in the 1980s. She was in the same company as Regina Belle, Angela Winbush, Miki Howard and Meli'sa Morgan -- powerhouse vocalists whose styles were perhaps too real for the plastic yuppies and buppies of the Me decade.

Murdock's subsequent secular albums -- 1988's A Woman's Point of View and 1991's Let There Be Love -- were as strong as the debut, but they were poorly promoted and failed to find an audience. So she and Elektra parted ways. Murdock spent much of the '90s touring and raising her son, Devin, now 15. In early 2000, she appeared in the national gospel play, Be Careful What You Pray For. Since then, Murdock and her collaborator husband, who is also a minister, have been "dealing with what's real" in the music.

"Even when I was singing songs like `As We Lay' and `Husband,' I was talking about the truth, what some of us go through," the singer says. "I've carried the church with me throughout my whole career. I've always sung about life. There are only so many notes in music anyway. The important thing -- what matters the most, honey -- is the message riding on the notes."

Amen.

The Tom Joyner Sky Show featuring the Whispers is 6 a.m.-10 a.m. tomorrow morning at the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, 2201 Argonne Drive on the campus of Morgan State University. This event is free.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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