Jennifer Holliday wasn’t a show-biz kid, groomed from her pre-school years to be a star.
Nor was she some kid from the sticks who was lured up to the big city at the tender age of 17.
“I wouldn’t say I was living a sheltered life,” she said with a laugh. “I’m from Houston.”
Jamie Patterson, a young dancer already making a name for himself, came to Houston as part of the touring company of “A Chorus Line” and heard Holliday sing in a church choir and yes, he was smitten. He planted the seed, and sure enough came back to her with an idea: come to New York and try out for a play, “Your Arms Too Short To Box With God.” Holliday, a virtual neophyte, couldn’t resist. She got a role as featured singer.
“I went for an audition and I never went back,” she recalled.
Almost simultaneously, Michael Bennett, the choreographer of “A Chorus Line” was launching a new project, still in its workshop mode. He was the hottest name in the business. Bennett came to see “Your Arms” and offered Holliday a spot. “I was a young girl and already performing in a play on Broadway,” she said, but she knew she wanted in. She practiced with Bennett’s troupe all day — for no pay —and did eight shows a week in “Arms.” It involved strenuous practice and a long-term commitment, with no promises at the end of the rainbow.
The workshop turned into “Dreamgirls.” The gamble paid off; she won the role of Effie White and infused the character with a fiery temperament that captivated audiences from the outset. The show became a smash hit that has endured ever since. And young Holliday was the centerpiece: She earned a 1982 Tony for her performance and her rendition of “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” was a nightly showstopper; hers is universally recognized as the definitive version. Holliday earned a Grammy in 1983.
“There I was, 18 years old. Everyone else was growing up, doing a little drinking, a little smoking. There was drugs and sex and all that,” she said. But Holliday was aware that she possessed a gift.
“It was hard not to indulge but I was very disciplined. I’ve never had a voice lesson but I knew with eight shows a week, I had to take care of my voice. I had good people around me,” Holliday said.
If anything, the voice has gotten richer over time. Make no mistake, this is a world-class vocalist.
As can be expected, her Broadway career blossomed. She starred in “Chicago” and “The Color Purple,” among others. Her recording career took off as well and has yielded a robust catalog of signature songs. Holliday’s ability to interpret different musical genres — and her obvious virtuosity — has kept her on the charts ever since her debut. “It’s been a great time for songs beginning in the 1980s. We went from Disco to R&B, which became Rap. There’s so much music out there,” said Holliday.
She’s had a string of R&B hits that span three decades including “A Woman’s Got The Power,” the 2000 hit that charted again the following year, hitting #1 on the R&B charts. She performs gospel regularly and had a huge gospel-tinged hit album “On & On” in 2009 and another R&B hit album, “The Song is You.” She has also appeared on television. She was a semi-regular on “Ally McBeal” and performed on “American Idol.”
She is fiercely proud of her credentials. “I’m more popular now going on 40 years. I’m still working, people want to hear me sing. I fight for what I have — I prove that I am a veteran.”
Yet some of the younger “artists,” she said, “rely on overdubbing and lip syncing, relying on the audience not to notice. It’s a mediocre society.”
She was upset Jennifer Lopez was chosen to do a Motown medley at the Grammy awards. “I mean, she’s a good dancer, but there are so many young singers out there who could have been given the opportunity to perform,” she opined.
Holliday will perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, May 25, with a quartet and said she will perform some of the many hits along the way along with some jazz standards and of course, music from “Dreamgirls,” most notably the same smash, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.”
Holliday is looking forward to the gig, and though she hasn’t been to the Hamptons, she will forever have a soul connection; that’s her ripping the vocal on Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love is.” It was written by Mick Jones, an Amagansett resident.
It’s been a long time since the young lady from Houston became Effie Melody White on a Broadway stage and mesmerized a generation of theater-goers. But it was only the beginning of a career that brings Jennifer Holliday to the best venues all over the world to play for audiences intent on hearing one of her generation’s great voices fill the room. It happens here Saturday.
The Oscar/Grammy winner takes the stage at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center at 8 PM. Wheelchair accessible tickets are available. Tickets prices range from $81 to $116, available online at www.whbpac.org, or by phone 631-288-1500, or the day of the event at the theater’s box office on 76 Main Street.