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Chanteuse Jennifer Holliday first wowed Broadway as a 21-year-old in the 1981 show “Dreamgirls,” stopping the show with her bravura rendition of “And I am Telling You I’m Not Going.” She won a Tony Award for her performance and a Grammy for her recording of the song.
But though she had a few more hits, Holliday hasn’t released a pop album since 1991’s “I’m On Your Side.” That changes today, with the release of Holliday’s new album “The Song is You,” which has her takes on such classics as “At Last,” “Nobody Does it Better” and “The Look of Love.”
She joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the album and her career.
On releasing her first album in years
“I think that I was worried because first and foremost, music has just changed so much between the generations. I knew that I didn’t want to really sing a whole album of the music that’s out there today unless I’m fortunate to get some big time producers or something. I want to put a more historic kind of nostalgic twist to it, so that’s why I choose the jazz standards — to show my growth as a woman and as an artist.”
On how her weight has affected her career
“I was obese. I had ballooned out to close to 400 pounds at one point. And in the ’80s we were just beginning to get on video and disco. So therefore, I did not fit in and my record company let me go because they said look, you’re just not marketable enough with the weight problem. I think Adelle could not have made it in the ’80s, Queen Latifah could not have made it in the ’80s.”
“At one point when I had lost weight, I had gotten very very small — I was kind of like a size 6 — and I just really did not feel like singing. You know, I was cute, but I did not feel like signing. But you kind of have to find where your signing weight is. So right now, this is my singing weight. This is where it sounds like I like it to sound.”
On hearing others cover “And I Am Telling You”
“I’m just grateful because it has allowed me to be rediscovered. It’s like, okay, she’s the one who originally did that. And the fact that I can still sing it, just makes it all right.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And all hair on the back of the neck rise because Jennifer Holliday is back. And we welcome her with a little of her 1981 Broadway performance as Effie in "Dreamgirls." Just as the other Jennifer, Jennifer Hudson, was being born, Jennifer Holliday created the character of the girl group member who refuses to leave the group or her man in the show-stopping "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AND I AM TELLING YOU I'M NOT GOING")
JENNIFER HOLLIDAY: (Singing) And I am telling you I'm not going. You're the best man I'll ever know. There's no way I can ever, ever go. No, no, no, no...
YOUNG: Critic Frank Rich said it was one of the most powerful theatrical coups since Ethel Merman's "Everything's Coming Up Roses" in "Gypsy." But a little like her character, Jennifer got a little lost. Yes, her song won a Grammy. She had other top 10 hits. But she'd had those very public battles with director Michael Bennett, but also battled depression and her weight. Eventually, she had gastric bypass surgery. She hasn't released a new non-gospel CD since 1991, but that changes today with "The Song is You."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SONG IS YOU")
HOLLIDAY: (Singing) The music is sweet. The words are true. The song is you.
Jennifer Holliday singing "The Song is You," a CD that includes her spin on several tunes associated with others. This was a favorite of Frank Sinatra. And Jennifer Holliday joins us from WABE in Atlanta. Welcome.
Thank you so much. I'm so happy to be here with you.
YOUNG: I am sure you are taking in some of the reaction to your return, not just the CD, but you had a sold-out show in Manhattan. Steven Holden writes in The New York Times: It was sensational. Were you worried about coming back to the stage or to your fans with a CD?
HOLLIDAY: Yeah. I think that I was worried because, first and foremost, music has just changed so much between the generations. So I knew that I didn't really want to sing a whole album of the music that's out there today unless I'm fortunate to get, you know, some big-time producers or something. I wanted to put a more historic, kind of nostalgic twist to it. So that's why I chose the jazz standards to show my growth as a woman and as an artist, plus some R and B covers as well.
YOUNG: Well, let's listen to another one. Let's go with "At Last" from the great Etta James. This, other singers might say, no way. But you go right in. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT LAST")
HOLLIDAY: At last my love has come along. My lonely days are over and life is like a song, yeah.
YOUNG: Now, Jennifer Holliday, Stephen Holden, again, in The New York Times said of your performance of this song that you give it the same triumphal spirit that Etta James conveyed. What was your thinking going into this song?
HOLLIDAY: I was privileged to know the late, great Miss Etta James, and I did get a chance to spend some time with her and hang out with her. And so I did feel I wanted to capture her spirit, and then I did want to put my own thing on it, wanted people to know that, yes, I definitely still have it. People know me for hitting very high and holding very long notes. So I'm still capable of doing that but I just wanted to have both her presence, her spirit, and then put my thing on it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT LAST")
HOLLIDAY: (Singing) You are mine at last, yeah, yeah, yeah. You are mine at last. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Oh, you are mine...
YOUNG: I want to ask about some of the things that you went through, some of the things you've been very open about - your struggles with depression, your weight - and this takes us back to the "Dreamgirls" time because at that time, you were getting raved reviews and yet a lot like that character, Effie, who was the best singer, were, in other ways, not getting the respect maybe that you should have.
HOLLIDAY: That is life imitates art. Even though I had long let Effie just be the character, developments around me wouldn't let me do that. And, yes, I was severely obese and had ballooned up to close to 400 pounds at one point. And then the '80s, we were just beginning to get on video and disco, and so therefore, I did not fit in. And my record company let me go because they said, look, you're just not marketable enough, you know, with the weight problem. I think that Adele could not have made it in the '80s. Queen Latifah could not have made it in the '80s.
YOUNG: Did that issues around the weight compound the depression or did the depression compound the issues around the weight or...
HOLLIDAY: I think that the weight came upon as the depression and then added to it. Now, I had clinical depression, so that's actually a medical condition. I now live with and suffer with multiple sclerosis.
YOUNG: Oh, no. Yeah.
HOLLIDAY: The side effect of that is also depression. So a lot of things have various factors involved with depression.
YOUNG: But obviously, you took the time to address a lot of these things and, just staying with the weight for a second, took a lot of it off. Did you ever worry that somehow you'd lose your voice as well?
HOLLIDAY: At one point when I lost weight, I had gotten very, very small, and I was kind of like a size six. And I've just really did not feel like singing, you know? I was cute, but I ain't feel like singing. So you have to kind of like, you know, find where your singing weight is. So right now, this is my singing weight. This is where it sounds the way I like it to sound.
YOUNG: Well, you look fantastic. But let's listen to that sound. This is your cover of Lesley Gore and Ellen Weston's "Love Me by My Name."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ME BY MY NAME")
HOLLIDAY: (Singing) Oh, God, dear God, please, please let it be. Oh, it's been so, so, so, so, so long, yeah, since I've been loved by name. Oh.
YOUNG: I'm wondering, if you do tour behind this new CD - these songs are stunning, but you know you're going to have to sing "And I am Telling You." How do you feel about that song?
HOLLIDAY: I feel that, you know, the song and I are, you know, are one. And I've never tired of singing it, and I'm very grateful to have had a song that meant so much to so many people to whatever was going on in their lives at that time.
YOUNG: How have you felt watching - I'm thinking of Jennifer Hudson coming up and having some of the same public struggles, you know, with her weight. And then seeing Amber Riley on "Glee" or, you know, all the times that it's used for comic relief at times - how have you felt watching the song be handed to other people?
HOLLIDAY: I'm just grateful because it has allowed me to be rediscovered. It's like, OK, so she's the one that originally did that, and then the fact that I can still sing it, you know, just makes it all right.
YOUNG: As wrenching as it was then, now it's true. You're not going.
HOLLIDAY: Yes, I am, you know, really fighting for myself and my life. And I think the message that I could give to anybody is that it's never too late to start your life again and dream new dreams. And that's why I went ahead made this album and said, OK, I'm going to do it and put it out there.
YOUNG: Jennifer Holliday, that new album is "The Song is You." Jennifer, thanks so much.
HOLLIDAY: Thank you, Robin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AND I AM TELLING YOU I'M NOT GOING")
HOLLIDAY: (Singing) And I am telling you I'm not going. Even though...
YOUNG: Hmm. And, Jeremy, I know you also sang this into your hairbrush.
YOUNG: Written by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.