*The first time I saw Vesta Williams was in the mid 1970s at the Roxy Theater on Sunset Blvd., singing back up for Bobby Womack. At the time, Womack’s recording career was in the middle of one of its highs, and he put on a rip-roaring set.
The Ohio-born Vesta, who at the time might have been all of 20 years old (whatever her age, I was just three years older), never stood center stage during Womack’s set. However, I noticed her because of her big, supple voice and stunning looks.
In the ensuing years, Vesta, who’d been singing since she was a child, would get work as background singer on the recording sessions and live shows of Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Ray Parker, Jr., the Commodores and Stephanie Mills, among others before signing with A&M Records in early 80s.
At A&M her career was shepherded by music executive John McClain, architect of Janet Jackson’s career. In addition to such recordings as “Once Bitten Twice Shy,” Sweet Sweet Love,” “Special” and her 1989 #1 R&B hit, “Congratulations,” Vesta supplied backing vocals to rock star and labelmate Sting’s foray into funk, the Bryan Loren-tracked and produced “We’ll Be Together.”
It was during her A&M tenure that I met Vesta. I interviewed her in one of the quaint bungalows on the old, magical A&M lot, in the process realizing that she was the girl I’d seen onstage with Womack years earlier.
Vesta was even more good-looking up close, possessing a folksy down home charm and yet an alluring aura I imagined went all the way back to grade school, when her mere presence would intimidate shy boys–who no doubt hadn’t a clue that Vesta was as timorous as they were.
However, physical beauty is what you can see. Once I had an actual conversation with Vesta, I discovered that she was utterly out of her mind. Crazy. As in funny. Silly absolutely hilarious. And not the Jackee Harry-inspired shtick she’d fall into during her various TV appearances, but casual insightful comments and observations regarding people, places and situations. Anytime I saw Vesta, I knew there would be at least one good laugh.
Over the years, the more I got to know Vesta–who juggling making music and the raising of her daughter and only child–the more I felt that occasionally her quick wit and one-liners where designed to obscure a certain melancholy.
As a vocalist, Vesta could pretty much do it all. She was a soul singer, but she could also give you the wistful restraint of pop. She had the rhythmic instincts to perform funk and she was proficient at singing jazz.
The truth is, the complete scope of Vesta’s talents weren’t displayed on her recordings. Like many artists pressured by a commercial music industry where the hit is the currency, Vesta, a stranger to pop audiences but a respected star in the R&B music world, was always a hit away from level of success that would have given her remarkable talent room to breathe.
Nevertheless, Vesta’s frustration with the music industry didn’t stop her from trying to create the career she wanted for herself. Nor did the cutthroat competitive nature of the business prevent her from encouraging others. In 1985 singer/songwriter Gary Taylor, who wrote and produced “I’m Coming Back” on Vesta’s eponymous 1986 A&M album, hired Vesta to sing on the stylized promotional music jingles he was producing for Los Angeles radio station KACE-FM. During the recording session, Vesta emboldened Taylor to honor his own abilities as a vocalist. Taylor tells how it happened:
“At the studio she pulled me aside and said, ‘You know, you have a great voice. You really should give more consideration to your singing.’ Because I came into the business as a songwriter, I’d always been insecure about my voice. But here Vesta was, telling me I ought to get serious about my voice. After that, I recorded my next album feeling like a real singer.”
Taylor last spoke with Vesta on the phone days before her death. He suggested that they do some recording together but they never nailed down a date.
“It does my heart good to know my last words to her were, ‘I love you, V.’”
I wish I could say as much. The last time I saw Vesta was a few months before her death, which I believe was an accident. More than three decades after I’d first seen her with Womack at the Roxy, I happened to be walking through L.A.’s Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, headed for an exit and my car when I overheard a security guard mention that the evening’s performer during the Plaza’s free concert series would be Lalah Hathaway.
I stuck around, and maybe three songs into her set the vocally brilliant Hathaway moved into “I’m Coming Back,” which she covered on her own debut 1990 CD (Taylor produced that version as well).
After singing the song’s first verse, Hathaway invited to the stage … Vesta! The crowd went wild as she proceeded to put a hurtin’ on the second verse. Just as I thought life for me at that moment couldn’t get any better, Hathaway then asked to the stage the gifted Rachelle Ferrell. Soon the three were holding an impromptu clinic on gospel-tinged, jazzed up soul singing.
I went home that evening with every intention of writing a column about the good musical fortune I appeared to simply have stumbled upon that day, and how wonderful these women sounded.
I particularly wanted Vesta to know how appreciative I was of her performance, since I’d heard she’d needed an emotional lift, so to speak. I ended up writing about something else that week, but told myself I’d get a number on Vesta and tell her how great she was. I never did.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].