When you think of good singers, they possess the following key elements: strong vocals, the agility to confidently utilize range, as well as an engagingly pleasing timbre. Then round it out with perfect pitch, remaining on key and hitting notes with accurate clarity. Yet, good singing and great talent don’t always guarantee fortune and fame.
The music industry has seen many great female vocalists come and go, some receiving more visibility than others. Measured against the industry’s barometer of success, a number of women were equally skilled as some of their counterparts, but for some reason, they didn’t receive the support and acknowledgment due to them.
For many, the ’80s is the last decade where R&B was distilled and refined, an era where its pure elements reigned and lines were easy to distinguish. Its purity displayed an array of superb artists that possessed their distinctive spirits. In constructing their space within the music sphere, they’ve bestowed a necessary and undervalued facet that’s to be regarded.
While these women may not boast of a massive status or vast record sales, their uniquely immeasurable talent added enough flair and variety for consumers to appreciate. As part two of our Women Who Guided the ’80s series, Rated R&B lists eight women who deserve recognition for their contribution to the genre.
Originally from New York, Patti Austin made a foray into her singing career performing at the famed Apollo Theater at four-years-old. Having a leg up early on, she spent her teenage years as a jingle and session singer for James Brown, Roberta Flack and Diana Ross. She started to release music in the late ’70s, including a duet with Michael Jackson on his 1979 breakout album, Off The Wall. Shortly after, Austin signed to her godfather, the legendary Quincy Jones’ record label Qwest, allowing her spotlight to shine brighter. Her jazz-trained voice effuses a soothingly engaging tone. With slight dramatic vocal intonations mixed with a balance of danceable and enticing tracks, her ability to blend all influences for her distinctive impression on the genre was pleasing. After she debuted in the R&B sector, she returned to the jazz sphere later in her career. Most are familiar with her number one Billboard Hot 100 song, “Baby, Come To Me” with James Ingram, a classic duet in the R&B lexicon.
The performing arts had always been a part of Angela Bofill’s life. As a young girl from Bronx, N.Y., her experience with music was well rounded. While she sang in the city chorus, she also studied classical music and listened to Latin music due to her Puerto Rican and Cuban household. The R&B and Latin jazz fusion was the proper base of her warmly sophisticated sound. That individual aspect paired with occasionally utilizing a warm throat voice made Bofill a treat to engage in. She signed to jazz label GRP Records in 1978, causing the industry to peg her solely as a jazz artist. Bofill gained notoriety in the ’80s, embodying a heftier portion of R&B influences. While she is regarded as the first Latina to cross over from jazz to R&B, the implied transition was simply a blend of the dominant genres that shaped her.
Lisa Fischer was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., an area that thrives in artistic culture. As a student of the prestigious Laguardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, it appeared that a musical path had been destined for her. Fischer emerged in the scene as a heralded backing and session vocalist in the early ’80s, working with legends including Patti LaBelle and Luther Vandross, whom she sang with for 20 years. The vocal virtuoso, who has a four-octave range, relies on her masterful control and a softly fervid execution that lands religiously. Even though her first and last album So Intense was released in 1991, her contribution and addition to R&B as a background singer to numerous legendary artists speaks volumes.
There are a handful of singers whose voice stands out from the moment you hear the first few notes. Phyllis Hyman was one of them. Her elaborately lissome alto soared with an underlying rasp that commanded attention, occupying an air of enchanting regality. She moved from Pennsylvania to New York City to pursue her singing career, eventually meeting jazz musician Norman Connors who premiered her on his 1976 album You Are My Starship. The glamorous chanteuse impeccably converged jazz and soul music, bestowing an alluring presence that spanned over most of the ’80s. An irreplaceable talent, Hyman had an uncanny way of channeling her innermost emotions that cascaded over and within each track. As Philadelphia’s own, she was another shining example of the immense talent the historically soulful city breeds.
Finding singers on televised talent competition shows is nothing new; just ask Cheryl Lynn. Unbeknownst to Lynn, her friend and collaborator Delbert Lanston signed her up to audition for The Gong Show. Lynn aced the auditions and became a winner of the talent show, leading to a record contract with Columbia Records. Her 1978 disco hit “Got To Be Real” put her on the map, but many are keen on her memorable duet with Luther Vandross on their remake of “If This World Were Mine.” Gifted with a stunningly sturdy voice full of character and charm, Lynn knew no bounds from dance grooves, R&B jams to love ballads. Her outstanding range created countless memories in the ’80s that have transcended over time.
Shirley Murdock always had her sights set on being a professional gospel singer, but the road to that accomplishment had several necessary detours. As soon as Roger Zapp heard Murdock’s recording, he approached her to join his team of creatives. At first, she was reluctant but eventually accepted his offer and began working with his family band, Zapp. Her debut self-titled album went gold a few months after its release. Murdock’s divine voice is undeniably steeped in gospel. Still, her assertively peculiar soprano and the method to tell honestly relatable stories was a recognizable quality. While her journey didn’t go as she imagined, it led her to live out her childhood dream.
As the daughter of a jazz musician, Alyson Williams inherited the music gene. Her internship with The Commodores’ manager ushered her into the music industry. The transformative opportunity led her to become a popular session singer for Melba Moore and Evelyn Champagne King, to name a few. Williams’ seductively gradient voice had a simmering power that surfaced at the most ideal moments. Shifting between laying down soulful slow jams and pumping out New Jack Swing numbers, Williams made history as the first female R&B singer signed to Def Jam Records. Her debut album Raw contains some early findings of the R&B/hip-hop merge that began at the tail end of the ’80s.
Like many of her contemporaries, Vesta William launched her singing career singing background for established artists such as Anita Baker and Chaka Khan. Her session work granted her a contract with A&M Records to release her eponymous debut album in 1986. The sultry huskiness of her expansive voice was an immediate ear catcher. In addition to her magnetic tone, Williams’ proper belting techniques were excitingly impressive. Not only was her propensity to run through her full range notable, but her simplistic gift of expressing emotion cut through every adlib and melody. Regardless of what appeared to be a lack of support from the label due to her physical appearance, the seductive singer undoubtedly had the components to be a major success.