Tony Cummings surveys the career of Trinidad-born musical star HEATHER HEADLEY who's just released her gospel debut
When you've got respected trade magazine Billboard enthusing "Heather Headley is among the top singers with a vocal that absolutely astounds with its intensity... This woman is one of the great entertainers of the day, on record and on stage" it's pretty clear that you've been graced with exceptional talent. The fact that Heather Headley, star of Broadway shows like The Lion King and Aida (the Tim Rice-Elton John version), has just released a gospel album will be great news to all fans of the soul diva. The 34 year old singer told Christian Retailing magazine why it's taken so long for her to record her debut gospel project, 'Audience Of One', "I always kind of made a deal with God that when he though I was ready to do it, I would do it. I wasn't going to go into this spiritually unready. I wasn't going to go to churches and sing to people and minister to people and be a complete mess."
Trinidad-born Heather was a pastor's kid and grew up under the scrutiny of others. She said, "It's a lot of pressure, especially growing up on a small island in the Caribbean. There are some (pastor's kids) who rebel but I always wanted to learn from someone else's mistakes, not make mistakes of my own." Heather continued, "When I was about 10 years old, we moved into the manse directly above the church. Some of my earliest memories are of singing in that little church. The joy that I found singing in that empty church to me, an 'audience of one' . that is what this album is. A girl singing to the only audience that really matters; the One Audience who is truly worthy."
Heather's family moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1989 when her father was offered a job as pastor of McKee Street Church Of God in Anderson. Heather attended Northrop High School and was a member of the resident show choir, Charisma. Then Headley attended Northwestern University where she majored in communications and musical theatre and on the final day of her junior year, she left to understudy Audra McDonald on Broadway in Ragtime. One year later, in 1997, she won the role of Nala in the original premiere Broadway cast of the Elton John-Tim Rice musical The Lion King. Heather's portrayal was so extraordinary that she was asked to audition for the title role of the next Elton John-Tim Rice Broadway musical, Aida, which opened in March 2000. She won the prestigious Tony Award for Best Actress In A Musical, and the coveted Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress In A Musical. That year she was listed as one of People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People and Essence Magazine's 30 Women To Watch.
Headley released her debut album 'This Is Who I Am' in October 2002 on RCA Records. The album earned her a Grammy Award nominations for Best Female Vocal Performance and for Best New Artist. Her second album, 'In My Mind', was delayed due to various corporate shake-ups at RCA but was finally released in 2006. Like 'This Is Who I Am', it was eventually certified gold with the title track, produced by Shannon Sanders, being a Top 20 R&B hit and a number one dance hit.
In December 2007 she gave another memorable national television performance, delighting an audience including President Bush with "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" at the annual Christmas In Washington concert TV special. Over the past year Heather has also displayed her versatility as one of classical star Andrea's Bocelli's favourite singing partners, being featured on his international tour, his Live In Tuscany PBS special, and his 'Under The Desert Sky' live concert DVD.
The concept for a gospel CD was born when Heather chose the spiritual "I Know The Lord Will Make A Way" to record for the EMI Gospel/Vector compilation album, 'Oh Happy Day'. The label executives were so impressed with her breathtaking performance that they suggested that she record an entire album of songs of faith. "As a first time gospel artist I tried not to be concerned with what other artists were releasing," Heather stated. "I just wanted to make God happy. This project was more special because as a Christian, I understand and relate to the lyrics." Heather set the stage for 'Audience Of One' on her 2006 CD 'In My Mind' with the inspirational track prophetically titled "Change", co-written with the song's famed producer Warryn Campbell (and Eric Dawkins). "God is such a big part of who I am, who I want to be and what's in my mind," she said at the time - and now she has taken the opportunity to dedicate an entire album to the Gospel. Heather demonstrates her composing skills on 'Audience Of One' on "Zion", a song she co-wrote with producer Keith Thomas (BeBe & CeCe Winans, Amy Grant). She admitted at first she was intimated by the title, but she says after being inspired by the music, "we created a worshipful reverent hymn." Her angelic vocals perfectly complement the minimal musical track of strings and acoustic piano.
'Audience Of One' has already produced a gospel hit Stateside with an artful cover of the Lionel Richie-penned "Jesus Is Love", a song originally recorded by The Commodores but on the album features Heather duetting with fellow EMI Gospel artist Smokie Norful. Other intriguing covers are Tim Hughes' praise and worship warhorse "Here I Am To Worship" and "Running Back To You", a song originally sung by Commissioned when Fred Hammond was part of the group. Headley laboured long over the album, paring the track list down from an original collection of 60 songs. The award-winning diva is adamant that the album is an expression of her gratitude to God. She said, "This album not only grants me a way to sing music I've always wanted to, but it also gives me a chance to give God some overdue praise for everything he has done, and continues to do for me. I really don't deserve all that he has given me. I can't help but be grateful; so, we'll take the voice he gave and thank him with it. This is my gift to God. My relationship with him is paramount."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.