Versatility is one of Jennifer Holliday’s hallmarks. The Riverside, Texas-born, Atlanta-based singer has performed gospel music, R&B, jazz, pop and, of course, songs from the musical theater.
Her 1982 tour de force treatment of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from the original Broadway production of “Dreamgirls,” in which she starred as Effie White, spent a month at the top of Billboard’s R&B chart and earned the then-22-year-old singer her first of two Grammy Awards. She also won Tony and Drama Desk awards for her role in the musical.
“I think going straight from the church to the theater allowed me to be versatile,” says Holliday, who first appeared on Broadway in 1979 in the gospel musical “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.”
“I think if I had just gone straight from the church to doing R&B, then maybe I wouldn’t have such a versatile audience. But the theater – everybody loves the theater.”
The singer recently completed recording a CD of jazz standards and R&B love songs, including such numbers as “More Than You Know,” “The Look of Love” and “Nobody Does It Better.”
Unlike some of her earlier recordings – one of which was produced by Michael Jackson, another by Walter Hawkins – she produced the forthcoming CD herself.
“I had always wanted to do this type of album, especially when it became popular again,” she says. “Michael Buble and Rod Stewart and everyone was doing it. I fell in love with the old songs.”
Holliday will headline “In the Name of Love,” the nonprofit Living Jazz organization’s 11th annual tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre on Saturday, January 19, beginning at 7 p.m. Also on the program are the Bay Area guitar-and-voice duo Tuck and Patti, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, the Oakland Children’s Community Choir and the Oaktown Jazz Workshops.
The singer first played the Paramount in 1985 in the musical “Sing, Mahalia, Sing.” Although Holliday had been unfamiliar with Mahalia Jackson’s music prior to being hired for the traveling show, she managed to tone down her own contralto-to-soprano pyrotechnics in order to adapt to Jackson’s style.
While Holliday was growing up in Houston’s Third Ward, singing in church and in a community choir that included future gospel star Yolanda Adams, Aretha Franklin was her vocal role model. “She was just everything to music as far as I was concerned, so I tried to sound like her a lot in church,” Holliday says of the Detroit diva. “Just all of the magic that she has, her voice and the power, I used to try to do all of that. She was the main one.”
Ledisi is Holliday’s current favorite. “Going into the rest of the 21st Century, I think that she will have the voice and the sound of all time,” Holliday says of the Oakland soul and jazz singer. “She’s still growing and maturing. She has so much range and versatility. She can do it all.”