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lalah - apple cap - slider

Lalah Hathaway Records First Live CD at LA’s Historic Troubadour

Lalah Hathaway

*Just as Morris Day taught us that gigolos get lonely, too, the incomparable Lalah Hathaway recently taught me that amazing singers get nervous, too. That’s just one of the things I learned about the daughter of the legendary Donny Hathaway during an interview I conducted with her regarding her sure-to-make-your-ears-tingle “what’s next.”

To make sense of that intro, during our interview, I couldn’t avoid first asking the “Something” singer, born Eulaulah Donyll Hathaway, how it felt recently to perform her father’s enduring song, “Someday We’ll All be Free,” in front of First Lady, Michelle Obama, Cicely Tyson and other entertainment luminaries during Beverly Bond’s “Black Girls Rock” in Newark, New Jersey:

“It was an honor, but it was a bit nerve-racking for me,” she revealed. “TV always makes me like a little extra 13% nervous, because it’s there forever for everybody to see again.”

“It was great to look out into that crowd and see the First Lady and Cicely Tyson and see Jada [Pinkett-Smith] and Erykah [Badu] and Debra [Lee] and so many of the women who I look up to and am so inspired by, so you always want to show up and do your 200% job in that case. It’s a different beast though, particularly to be standing in front of all your peers … it’s a different level of excitement and anxiety for me.”

“… I’m happy with the job I did, particularly from the standpoint that my mother was there and she was pleased and proud of me and I think that my dad would’ve been proud of me. It was such a nice moment to be able to sing that song in that moment in that place.”

donny-liveAnd to segue from that cathartic experience to – the reason we were speaking in the first place – preparing to record her first live CD, in the very venue where her father recorded “Donny Hathaway Live (’72),” at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, has to be career nirvana.

And being one of the most respected live performers in the game, the news of the new project likely made many in her legion of fans nearly blow a gasket:

“People come up to me after shows and say, wow, I like your records, but you sound better live,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘you’re supposed to,’ and I always tell them that ‘the live performance is influenced by you; you are part of that conversation…’”

She revealed how she arrived the idea to record live and the role her father played in inspiring her to do so:

“I’ve been wanting to make a live record for most of my life. And I grew up with so many live records – because, you know, in the 70s and 80s people made live records and it was about the touring musicians and the bands and the people interacting with the musicians – but chiefly among those records was Donny Hathaway live.”

“I grew up listening to that record and wondering what the people looked like in the crowd and what they were wearing and I had all these visions of how the stage was set up as a kid. And I imagined the ladies around the [Fender] Rhodes, because you could hear them so well, just imagining creating these scenarios for how that went over, how the people sounded so excited, how they clapped their hands and how they talked to him during the performance … and so it has been like a dream of mine to really become that kind of performer that people feel like they’re a part of the performance and also to recreate that feeling of the interaction with the audience.”

 

troubador

But dreaming of recording live and actually fulfilling that dream are worlds apart. There was more to making it a reality than just saying, “I’m Lalah Hathaway, *bleep!* and I want to do this.”

She elaborated on what it took – and according to her is STILL taking – to actually turn the dream to reality and why at The Troubadour:

“There are a lot of moving parts and I knew that making a live record it would have to be. At the onset of it, I thought, maybe Chicago, because that’s where we’re from or the DMV area, because I have so much support from DMV, Atlanta … I just couldn’t figure out where and then it just became clear to me on some level that I had to go back to that place where he recorded his record and I think that the Troubadour is such a great spot and it really is me in a lot of ways.”

“There’s kind of a rock element to it and there’s a soul element, a jazz element, there’s real wood there that was in the place in the 70s when my dad was there. You know, I think that kind of room is so intimate, as well, to be able to put my eyes on everyone in the room is important for me, particularly for a live recording, just to really communicate the music, the lyrics and everything.”

“So, there are still a lot of moving parts. We are still in the process of putting it together to make sure that it’s as seamless as possible, but the great thing about it is that it’s real. I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time editing this record, It’s gonna be what you see. It’s going to be what you get. We’re not gonna be auto-tuning anything, we’re not going to be going back to fix something to make it more pretty than it already is, it’s just going to be the reality of what it is.”

The show is sure to be one for the books, especially when you consider that “birds” like Lalah usually flock together, in that she has a host of talented musician friends, from Rashaan Patterson to Rachelle Ferrell, who normally support each other and may or may not crash the party during the recording:

“I don’t know, that remains to be seen,” she said of the possibility. “The fun thing is I’m not sure yet. We’re still kind of putting it together. Anyone is liable to show up or maybe no one will show up or maybe people will show up and they just wanna play or just wanna listen and don’t want to work. And that’s the beauty of a live show, I don’t know what will happen.”

It’s interesting to note that even though she can legally and affectionately refer to one of the greatest musicians of all-time as “daddy,” she at times finds herself in fan mode and refers to him as Donny Hathaway. That’s profound respect, but she put it best:

“I definitely am super aware that I have two heads at times when i’m talking about him; I’m his daughter, but i’m also a musician, so there’s a lot of levels there.”

“I am a product of my parents and I come from musicians who came from musicians and the fact that I’m even associated with Donny Hathaway, to me, is incredible as a musician, and as a fan. The fact that I’m his child, there’s a certain commingling of our paths that cannot be denied, and so in a way he was here so I could get here and I’m here so he can stay here…we’re in a circle, which is a beautiful thing.”

“I am completely aware that I stand next to or I stand just behind him, because that’s where I come from. I’m very proud to be associated with like the greatest singer that ever lived … and I never have a problem with comparisons or people asking me , you know people ask a lot of times, ‘ Did you feel pressure to …?’ No, never, there can be no pressure, because he did what he did so beautifully and it’s still here 35 years later and it will be here forever, and what I’m trying to do is create something of mine that can be with that and live with it forever.”

See and hear Lalah harmonize with herself in this Snarky Puppy video:

Though the self-harmonizing singer has built her own legacy at this point, numerous projects and collaborations in, it’s hard to separate the dynamic vocalist from the legend who is her late father. And at one point, it was rumored that she didn’t really appreciate having to carry his legacy on her shoulders, up to and including singing his songs. But, straight from the classically trained vocalist’s mouth, it’s NOT TRUE and even further, she feels it’s now time to have that full circle moment with his legacy:

“It’s interesting. I never felt like I did,” she clarified. “I feel like people have always approached me with kid gloves, which is a blessing in a way, because I have encountered some really ignorant, crass people in terms of asking me about my legacy and my history and I think that is probably what you detect, my absolute respect and honor and the fact that I protect my legacy.”

“I’m very serious about where I come from and I’m very serious about how I represent that. Having said that, I’ve always kind of included some of his material. I’ve always been eager and willing to talk about him, at least musically because that’s where I come from. I think now is such a beautiful time for me because it’s just time right now and I’m ready to do what i’m gonna do right now.”

“So, being the person that does so many tributes, I mean I’ve been on so many tributes records, it’s only fitting that at some point a Donny Hathaway tribute happens. It’s only fitting that I cover that music because it’s perfect for me. So, I’m really just a person that works in my own time. I don’t really move in the way that others expect me to move all the time, I kind of do what i need to do when I need to do it.

 

 

lalah hathaway - slider

Now that the record is officially straight, and Lalah is following directly in Donny’s footsteps by choosing to record live at the Troubadour, it’s only fitting to ask about the specifics of the show, in terms of what to expect musically:

“It’ll be everything that I can do, because I recognize for everyone, depending on where you meet me on the road, you see me through that lens. So, some people know me with Joe Sample, some people know me with Robert Glasper, some people know me with Kirk Whalum, some people know me now with Kendrick Lamar, you know what I mean, just from all over in the last 25 years I have a lot of different voices.”

“For me, it’s all the same voice, though. But what I try to do is include as much of the material as humanly possible in the time, because invariably, somebody says, ‘you didn’t sing my song.’ So, we try to do as much as we can to make sure that all the bases are covered for the last 25 years and that’s a lot of records and not a lot of time.”

I can use many complimentary words and phrases to describe Lalah Hathaway and the contribution she’s made to black music, buoyed by the spirit of her father, but I’m gonna go with what I associate with her live performances: lights out! And to channel Donny’s spirit while doing her thing at the Troubador, after the lights go out, the historic building just may come down.

The Troubador live recording event will take place on Tuesday,  April 21, at 6pm and 10pm.  A limited number of tickets are available to the general public and can be purchased here.

Good luck with that. :)

jody watley (head shot)

The Second Time Around: Jody Watley ‘Reloads’ Shalamar

Shalamar Reloaded

*Connecting with artists, legends and newbies alike, is always exciting for me. I’m a sucker for talented people and love hearing their stories – especially if I’m a fan. Excitement doesn’t always mean I’m in store for a good experience, though. Sometimes I go in wide-eyed, but end up bitterly disappointed by the experience … the nature of the beast, I suppose.

So, I had the opportunity to interview someone, a legend in her own right, of whom I was a fan: the mysterious and intriguing Jody Watley.

If you’re from my generation, (and I’ll let you figure that out on your own, per the Hollywood code), the mention of her name likely conjures up images of her dueting with Howard Hewitt over drinks and dinner in Shalamar‘s “A Night to Remember” video, or you picture those alluring eyes drawing you in as she dances in reckless abandon in a sexy black get up, wearing big hoop earrings in the “Still a Thrill” video … or you may even go back a little further, with her doing the robot alongside Jeffrey Daniel down the Soul Train line to  some 70s funk.  Whatever the memory, Jody definitely made her mark in  music and, speaking only for me, her offerings in some form or another were interwoven through many of my most impactful years.

But memories aside, I was feeling some kind of way about what to expect from interviewing the “Friends” singer.

Despite her success as a dancer turned singer, finding it as both part of the group Shalamar and as a solo artist, when the bright lights dimmed a little, all her press seemed to largely take a turn for the negative. Turns out that things with Shalamar – which is widely known at this point – didn’t end so amicably.  And without rehashing the whole story, in a nutshell, there was bad blood between the trio and affiliated business entities and the bulk of the attention that Jody got in the media was relative to the very complicated rift. Then, that brand of press was exacerbated by her being a strong and vocal woman who always spoke her mind about how things went down when asked. It was always clear that she wasn’t happy about what went on during that bitter-sweet period.

I would never say it’s a bad thing to speak your mind, but her comments and the Howard vs. Jody vs. Jeffrey, etc stories became the only facet of Ms. Watley that fans were exposed to.  That largely negative narrative led to me kinda taking “negative” as a major part of her personality. It was difficult not to.

Now, fast forward to me finding myself with the opportunity to speak with her because big things are happening in her career (most significantly – and shockingly, in view of all the turmoil – her legally securing sole rights to the name “Shalamar” and “reloading” the group).  I’m thinking, “how am I gonna navigate the minefield of the Shalamar subject without casting a pall over the entire conversation?”

Tricky … but it’s what I do … so, I was in.

On the scheduled day, the phone rang precisely at 11 am PST as was set up:

Uh, Hello?” I said, made a little shaky by my “how do I …?” state of mind.

Gerald??, this is Jody Watley,” she said, but with the most disarming and exuberant voice I’ve heard in a while.

Exhale!

I’m usually the one who disarms in order to set up the smoothest interview possible, but Jody completely stole my thunder. Any preconceived notions I had about her and how things would go were immediately drowned out by the welcoming sound of her voice.

Jody Watley

At total liberty to ask “whatever,” the conversation commenced. To kick it off, she was especially excited about having secured the authority to use the Shalamar name any way she wanted to:

“Well, it’s very exciting … acquiring the rights to Shalamar is probably not what anybody would’ve expected,” she said.  “But if you you know me and know that I am a business-minded person, then you wouldn’t be surprised at all.”

“When they [former group members] were notified, they were notified through my attorney and you know initially [they responded with], ‘Ok, well what is she gonna do with it?; we’ll abide by it.’  And there has been some push back from them in that [they say], ‘she doesn’t really own it,’ but I have the trademark number. It’s a legal process that I went through so they just have to swallow a bitter pill and I’ve moved on.  It’s business.  It’s … never been personal.  I’m handling the business of Jody Watley and now the business of Shalamar as well.”

What led to Jody launching the effort to commandeer the name was activity that former members were involved in that, she felt, had the potential of damaging her image, then ultimately scrubbing her from the group’s history.

She explained:

“Beginning in 2005 or so, former member began doing shows in the UK using old photo’s that included my likeness to market and promote their shows. Fans would post to my Myspace page at the time and then Facebook asking where I was and they assumed I would be there because I was in the ads. The guys apparently would say onstage ‘they were sorry I couldn’t make it, I was welcome back anytime’  - which needless to say was not true and  potentially damaging to me as a working artist,” she revealed.

“This came after an appearance on a show there called ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ where they used a tactic called ‘passing off’ or ‘bait and switch’ – by bringing on an imposter… a woman pretending she was me down to crinoline skirts and jumbo hoop earrings. They would say here we are back together again just like old times, the two Soul Train icons (when in fact Jeffrey and I were the only Soul Train dancers) … while never introducing this woman by her name. Then it went from that to replacing my name under photos that included me from the past in Shalamar as an original and known member – replacing my name with hers … as if they were purposefully attempting to morph this person into Jody Watley.”

That’s when the business savvy singer took action:

“Needless to say this was illegal and unethical. When faced with cease and desists from my attorneys – we would be told well ‘Caroyln owns it and she can do what she wants …’ Carolyn is the woman Howard and Jeffrey have taken with them to the UK. They  attempted to erase me from Shalamar’s history – though I sang on every major hit Shalamar is known for with the exception of ‘Dancing In The Sheets’ …”

Being an original member, she wasn’t having any of that and, long story short, she’s now the proud owner of the group’s name: Shalamar: Reloaded.

Longstanding fans of Shalamar have been salivating for years at the prospect of the most successful version of the trio (Watley, Hewett, and Daniel) reuniting, whether in the studio or just touring as a legacy group. And there have been some “almost” moments:

“The fans should also know that as owner, I did put on the table the possibility for a reunion show for the sake of the fans and with the alleged fake owner out of the way – for a one night only event – I pitched to the Essence Festival last year after I’d appeared there with my own show (they all passed),” she shared.

But, dust being settled, you won’t see the “Make That Move“ singer flanked by Howard Hewett or Jeffrey Daniel under the new “Reloaded” name.  Instead, Watley has added two young’ns, whom she hand-picked as result of an “American Idol-style” audition process. She wanted to bring a fresh and youthful vibe – which she says matches her own – to the show and any forthcoming new music:

Nate Allen Smith

Nate Allen Smith

“The new members are Nate Allen Smith, he’s a young talent out of Ohio, and Rosero McCoy, whose a renowned choreographer whose worked on film and television and with some of music’s top artists, including me … and he sings also. We are going into the studio. We’ll have a single before the summer is here,” she said.

Since the legal victory, Jody has been touring extensively under the new name and with the two new fellas, performing to sold out crowds and delivering what her fans, old and new, expect of her.

She shared more about the new members, the show and explained what the “reloaded” part of the name means in more detail:

Rosero McCoy

Rosero McCoy

“Rosero has really been putting me through the paces and people tell me that they’ve never seen a show like it, she says.  “It’s actually  a superior show in many ways.  We’re dancing a lot harder because Nate is a dancer, too, and he’s singing those leads, but he’s giving you sexy, he’s got an afro like Maxwell, the women love him and he’s in his 20’s … he’s just great.”

“Nate is just delighting the audiences, people love him … he’s not trying to be anyone other than himself.  Same with Rosero, they have their own identities, so it’s not like, ‘she’s trying to get carbon copies …’  No, she’s carving out something new and we’re actually dancing a lot more as a group than I did when it was back in the day with Shalamar.”

“The first half of the show is Shalamar and the second half of the show is Jody Watley, and then I mix in there ‘Nightlife,’ which was a single that came out sometime in 2013 and went through 2014.  I actually had recorded it with Gerald Brown, who recorded with me on ‘Take That to the Bank.’   So, you get my current project ‘Paradise,’ which has the classic disco-soul, funky feel to it … it all feels very new, nothing old and rehashed.  And I really tried to polish the classic songs and keep the essence of them, but make them feel fresh and presented fresh, so it’s very exciting.  And the imaging is … I’m very excited about it and the people who have come out to the shows and have seen us, they’re loving it and that’s what makes us all very happy and encouraged.”

“I’ve always been creative and so … I give the people what they want but also show some growth here and make the songs feel fresh so you get the classic songs and more.  We do a remixed version of full of fire and that’s one of the more powerful songs in the show because it’s very ambient. It ’s one of the songs that I wrote when I was in Shalamar and it isn’t just about relationships and love, but love of life, the passion that we all have to be alive, and I make it …it’s almost a testimonial, so it takes the audience to a totally different and unexpected emotional place … and thats after we’ve gone nonstop dancing and twirling to ‘Right in the Socket’ and ‘Take That to the Bank.’

Shalamar: Reloaded performs “Right in the Socket” in Tokyo:

“We’ve already done probably about ten shows. We’ve sold out shows in Tokyo and Japan and Osaka.  We just did four shows in Oakland, we sold out BB Kings in New York, Harrah’s Atlantic City … so the show is very high energy, dynamic, you know, doing choreography, because I’m a freestyle girl as a solo artist … but it’s actually fun,” she gushed.

Brimming with passion, energy, and hustle, Jody is on a serious mission to make the most of each days she’s given in the business, without depending excessively on the past:

“I’m always gonna be full of energy and full of life.  And no day is the same as we’re living it. It’s like, what can I do, you know I’m proud of what I’ve done but I’ve never gotten stuck on ‘I’ve done this and I’ve done that’ and ‘I can put my stilettos up and I did that.’  Yeah, I did that and I’m proud of that, so what’s next?”

In that vein, she’s solidifies her relevance by personally posting on Facebook and Instgram, Tweeting, and she has a music blog.  She does whatever the hustle requires of her, but with a spirit of gratitude:

“It’s in many ways like having a nine to five job, because you have to be on top of it or delegating it to someone else, but then it’s not authentic,” she said.  “I’m very good about thanking people for supporting me, because that’s who I am … always gratitude and thank you so much. You have to hustle, hustle, hustle, otherwise you’re just another person that sings. you have to eat, breathe, sleep it.”

jody watley - shalamar reloaded

Jody feels like she now has the chance to apply her brand of hustle to Shalamar: Reloaded and make it what she always dreamed it could be, of course not taking anything away from what “was”:

“With Shalamar now it’s about bringing in new fans with my music, whether I’m doing club stuff or remixes, I dabbled in electronic music and ambient and drum and base … my audience is probably one of the more diverse and that’s because I’ve kept broadening and branching out … like a stew, I’m adding things and still always bringing people in, because Shalamar has been dormant since like 1990 and this is and opportunity to reinvigorate that and bring new people into it.”

“Groups pretty much don’t exist anymore and I like the challenge of that, too.  Someone has to be on on the limb. you have to be a risk taker to be a trendsetter and to inspire others to maybe copy.”

And speaking of stilettos and copying, she wouldn’t mention names, but she does feel like there are superstars out there who are “standing on her stilettos, whether they give it up or not.”

To me, it’s simply imitation, and you know what they say about that.  And if that’s not enough earn her the respect she’s due, she recently got a personal call from the Queen of Soul validating her hard work and the fruits of her career:

“I’m fabulous, but always very humble … the thing about me, as long as I’ve been an artist, I’m blessed and fortunate to have the longevity that I do and still be a grounded and sane person and never self-destruct and some of the things that happen to a lot of our great artists unfortunately.  I got a call, I spoke to Aretha Franklin a few weeks ago … the ultimate seal of approval, the Queen of Soul saying she was proud of me in how I’ve maintained.”

Contrary to what I expected, I experienced the softer side of Jody Watley and to my relief, it’s still a … nevermind, too easy.

Learn more about Jody Watley and Shalamar at the Shalamar: Reloaded website.

serena williams - backpack indian wells1

Déja Vu? Serena Williams Pulls Out of Indian Wells Semi (Watch)

An upbeat Serena Williams addresses the press after withdrawal. Photo credit: Anita Stahl

An upbeat Serena Williams addresses the press after withdrawal. Photo credit: Anita Stahl

*You couldn’t even make this up.

Serena Williams has pulled out of the BNP Paribas at Indian Wells, in a way eerily similar to what led to the incident that has kept her away for the last 14 years.

She cited a right knee injury.

“I was just on the practice court two days ago, day and a half ago, yesterday, and everything  was going good.  Literally, last two couple minutes of practice I went for a serve and I just felt a sharp pain in my right knee … and it hasn’t not been the same since.  … I even did an injection; I’ve never done an injection before.  I just need a couple of days … there’s a lot of inflammation,” she said with a seeming air of relief regarding her decision.

It was the semifinal stage of the 2001 tournament in the desert, just moments before the match, that Venus Williams pulled out, setting up the historic chain of events that have hung over the tournament every since. The crowd was angry about the last minute withdrawal and cried foul – very loudly, feeling like the Williamses were attempting match fixing. The jeers and sneers that erupted as a result have reverberated down thru the years, only ending with this 2015 tournament, when Serena decided to “forgive” and return.

Now, that narrative takes another memorable twist as Serena made a, no doubt, hard decision to disappoint yet again, but felt the crowd would understand:

“I think both myself and the crowd have a great appreciation for each other, and I have really enjoyed my four matches here,” she said in her press conference.

To temper any backlash from the crown, the injured world No.1 came onto the court after the first semi to personally address her fans, reminiscent of a recent Roger Federer mea culpa.  But it’s certain – as it was with Roger – the press and fans alike will have a field day with the ill-timed development.

Serena Williams addresses fans on-court during 2015 BNP Paribas Open. Photo credit: Anita Stahl

Serena Williams addresses fans on-court during 2015 BNP Paribas Open. Photo credit: Anita Stahl

Nevertheless, in what some might call another act of bravery (due to a potential repeat of 2001), she emerged from the tunnel and told the baffled crowd:

“I’m so excited to start to build new memories here. But, unfortunately I injured my leg in practice the other day and I fought through it, but this morning during practice, I could barely walk.”

The commentator wrapped her departing words and her cut-short time at the tournament in some flowery wording and saw her off. She graciously signed a few autographs, then disappeared into the tunnel.

There were some boos from high up in the stands during the announcement, but the on-court personality did a good job of quelling them through nervous, but effective chatter in the form of accolades for the 19-time Slam champion.

“She really did have an MRI and wish her a speedy  and healthy recovery,” he said.

Serena Williams signs autographs after BNP Paribas 2015 withdrawal. Photo credit: Anita Stahl

Serena Williams signs autographs after BNP Paribas 2015 withdrawal. Photo credit: Anita Stahl

In the end, a professional athlete knows his or her own body and must listen to it to preserve its integrity. It’s the “money maker” that needs to be carefully shaken to produce long-term results. And with Serena Williams being both famous and infamous for marching to the beat of her own drum, she decides first, sticks with it and deals with the repercussions later.  Her body said no, she listened and that’s that.  Not the punctuation fans were hoping for, but …

Another extraordinary chapter for BNP Paribas and Indian Wells.

When asked if she’ll return next year, she said: “I think it’s going to be a must.”

Her would-be opponent, Simona Halep, earned a walkover to the finals and will face Jelena Jankovic of Serbia on Sunday.

Serena Williams

Desert Heat Proves Too Much for IW Seeds; Serena Williams Unbothered

Photo credit: Anita Stahl

Serena Williams answers questions for the press during 2015 BNP Paribas Open. Photo credit: Anita Stahl

*”Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams to Battle” … well, scratch that. I was just dying to write that headline, completing it with “in Desert IW Final,” because it would’ve been the perfect way to consummate Serena’s highly-publicized return to Indian Wells. But, Sharapova, unfortunately, went down in the round of 16 in a hail of backhands from the tournament’s defending champion, Flavia Pennetta.

Flavia Pennetta of Italy

Flavia Pennetta of Italy

“I think I have the good backhand, and with her she play normally like the cross court really, really fast,” the defending champion said. “Most of the players don’t take the first two or three shots with her. For me, was easy. …my backhand is the good the good shot, the natural shot that I have.”

As the No. 2 seed, the Russian could’ve only met the thorn in her side, Williams, in the final. And given her tenacity, that was likely something she looked forward to despite their one-sided history. With each opportunity, she says she “feels like she’s getting closer” to the ultimate take down of her arch nemesis – albeit 11 years in incubation, and a final meeting at IW when facing an emotional Serena Williams could’ve been her moment.

But the 2-time champion was surprisingly – despite the fact that she went out early last year – unable to go the distance.

Maria Sharapova faces press after early BNP Paribas defeat. Photo credit: Anita Stahl

Maria Sharapova faces press after early BNP Paribas defeat. Photo credit: Anita Stahl

She started out well against Pennetta, taking the first set at 6-3, but once the Italian unleashed her frustrations by having a good off-court cry and steadied herself, it was as if the confectionary queen, Sharapova, had dipped into her own product. She lost control and began spraying balls everywhere. The loss of control ultimately lost her the match, 6-3, 3-6, 2-6.

Sharapova wasn’t the only seed to fall into the deadly desert soil, though. Most of the names that you’d typically see occupying slots on the business end of the bracket sheet weren’t. Agniezska Radwanska, Ana Ivanovic, Angelique Kerber, Eugenie Bouchard and others, were all also upset much earlier than expected. Per the usual script, Serena has handled her business, but the desert heat apparently proved too much for her usual competition.

Serena Williams defeats Timea Bacsinszky during BNP Paribas Open.

Serena Williams defeats Timea Bacsinszky during BNP Paribas Open. Photo credit: Anita Stahl

The 19-time slam champion played Timea Bascinsky in the round of 16 on Wednesday night and snapped the Suisse’s 15-match winning streak. There were a few traded breaks of serve in the blustery match, but experience prevailed with Serena pulling off the straight sets victory, 7-5, 6-3, without really busting a sweat.  The exchange at the net was very warm:

“I told her she had a really good couple of weeks and to keep up the good work,” Serena said.  “She was like, ‘Thanks!’  She was excited.  She obviously wanted to win.”

But not today.

With the other side of the draw having been decimated of top seeds, should Serena make the final she would be facing a much lower-ranked foe (no higher than 15) and log the easy win:

Should Pennetta make it, who is that 15th seed, it would certainly make sense. The “tennis gods” have cleared an easy path for her to at least try and defend her title, which would be a first since Martina Navratilova did it in ’90 and ’91.

“I mean, I know from the first moment that was not easy to doing the same thing as last year,” she said of the possible repeat.

And I admittedly thought last year was a fluke, given the caliber of the draw, but a few more days will tell story.

The difference between a period or an exclamation mark being placed at the end of the story of Serena’s return to Indian Wells will be whether she hoists the trophy or not in the end. She doesn’t have to, but an emphatic punctuation in the history books would certainly be nice.

“That would really be great,” she said of the potential win.  “But I don’t really think that far in advance.  If I win — I have two tough matches potentially, so hopefully I will be able to play two good matches.”

Standing in the way of that emphatic ending would not only be a confident Pennetta (whom she owns head-to-head), but also a steady Simons Halep of Romania, who brutally upset her in a round robin match at the 2014 year-end finals. She’d have to get thru her in the semis.

“It’s a good surface for her.  I feel like she can definitely come out here, and when we play, play really well,” she said when asked about facing the world No. 3.

Ever the vengeful champion, Serena ultimately avenged her loss to the Romanian and hoisted the year-end trophy, but who knows what’ll happen in the desert heat.

Now officially the last American standing, man or woman, she’ll face Halep on Friday on Stadium 1 court.

serena williams

leela james

The ‘Intimate Truth’ of Leela James

leela james (cover for target ad)*What’s all the hubbub about “real singers?” It’s difficult to wrap your head around, because the group it represents seems to depend on more opinion than fact and changes with each passing generation. So, with it being decidedly relative and fluid, I may not be able to tell you who they aren’t, but I can surely recognize when I do encounter one … like singer/songwriter Leela James.

I caught up with Ms. James in her dressing room in LA right before she kicked off the first date of the “The Intimate Truth” tour with like-talented soul artists Raheem Devaughn and Ledisi. She was running a little behind and arrived at the venue late, so I had to chat with her as she got situated and applied her make-up – which she exasperatedly said she “doesn’t even really like to wear” – for the show. I already knew she could sing, but whether it was being caught at a vulnerable moment due to the make-up process or simply my disarming interviewing approach, her “realness” was unmistakable.

She was shuffling around trying to get everything she needed to settle into her makeup chair in front of the large vanity mirror, but in a voice remarkably opposite from the powerful voice with which she sings, the “R&B Diva” urged me to began launching my questions at her:

“You can go on and … [hand me some water] … get started, I’m alright,” she simultaneously said to me and one of her handlers, with what seemed to me like a Southern accent despite her LA up-bringing. Then she grabbed one of her makeup brushes, swept her signature voluminous tresses from her face, and in resignation began applying color to her cheeks. It was easier for me to look at and speak to her through the mirror due to my vantage point, and for Leela, it seemed that staring at her own reflection while being probed about her life and career lent to her willingness to transparently express her truth as an artist and as a woman.

I began with the question of “how did she find her voice and get the green light to pursue music as a career,” to which she responded:

“When I was in high school – prior to that I had sang all my life – It was just second nature. I would sing in church, sing in the house, it was no big deal, but I didn’t realize it was something special until like  high school when one of my teachers – I had been performing in the different talent shows and showcases – and I had kind of been acting up in one of my classes and he was like, ‘you know, stay after,’ and I was like, ‘Oh Lord, I’m gonna get in trouble again.’  But come to find out he was also a producer on the side and had a home studio and he was like, ‘you know, you’re always disrupting my class and this and that and the third, but would you like to put some of that to real solid use?’ I was like’ what are you talking about?’ So, he invited me to his studio and that was basically my opportunity. He said, ‘you really have something that’s unique and special vocally and you might want to get serious about it.  You joke around a lot but I hear something more than average.’ I was like, ‘word?’ And that’s how it all began.

Leela JamesThe small-in-stature yet powerhouse vocalist ended up being impressed by her own voice after being exposed to the studio:

“I got bit by the bug when I heard my vocals professionally on wax and I was like, ‘oh, I want to do this!’  He said, ‘you can sing and you can make money’ and I was like ‘whaaaaat, I can make money singing?’ So, I started getting serious, put a group together, put a band together and I would perform wherever I could. I was grinding for many many years, various clubs, wherever, local … I went to college, but I would still go to the studio and do gigs whenever I could after school, at nights and on the weekends, whenever I could and just perform.

Leela likely did’t realize that her willingness to put in the work of grinding in the underground clubs and such was not only giving her valuable performance experience, but was also earning her that coveted designation as a “real” artist, separating her from some of the “microwave” artists of today.  Real isn’t something you “wake up” as; you’ve gotta roll your sleeves up and earn it.  Fellow artists even respect their peers for it:

“I’m definitely an artist’s artist, first and foremost. I appreciate true artistry, real musicianship … that’s where I come from,” she said.

“It’s a lot of good music out today, but it was a lot of good music out back in the day, and I think the difference is the integrity that some people put into the craft and I just sometimes refer to that quality of musicianship and that quality of music and just making sure as we can’t control time and we’re gonna go on and get older and stuff we still keep in mind from whence we came and try not to lose that substance.”

Being a real artist, though, sometimes comes with less mainstream success and hardships for the sake of the craft that can challenge even the sturdiest individuals.  I asked Leela to speak to that fact:

“It’s been a journey, it has not been easy, you have peaks and valleys, you go through periods where you’re like ‘OK, maybe I should do something else …’ I’ve had those moments you know,” she reflected.

“[But what keeps me going is] the love for the music and the energy I would get from other people, and encouragement when I would do shows and tours, like, ‘oh, you saved my life with this lyric,’ and somebody comes up to you in tears, and you’re like ‘ok, this is bigger than me.’ And after that point you realize it’s not about me, somebody is hearing it and somebody does appreciate it,’ and so you keep making music that you love and have genuine passion for.”

 Leela isn’t really concerned with labels, however, and relishes where she is with her music:

“I’m just an artist that I can walk on the streets, on the main street or I can go on the doggoned side street, too. People will try to define you per their opinions or per their opinion of what mainstream is … I guess I wouldn’t be considered mainstream, but technically in my mind, I’m in whatever stream, street I wanna be.”

“You’re gonna have people support you and like what you’re doing and you’re gonna have people that don’t. I mean, you certainly want as much support as possible, but I can’t change the core of who I am trying to achieve that.”

Real has taken on another meaning today, though.  The real lives of entertainers are being exposed – of course of their own volition – to their fans in a way that some of our cherished entertainers of old never experienced.  The need for more exposure and to create new revenue streams has given rise to reality shows and Leela decided to join the fray.  She’s one of the cast members of the R&B Divas franchise and has exposed more of herself to her fans than she ever had before.  But she’s fully aware of what that entails and rolls with the good and the bad of it:

“I think its definitely been a great platform to expand my audience and that’s what it’s all about, to bring more people into the musical world of Leela James, but in the process you can’t help but get a peak on who I am personally and i’m just hoping that people will continue to support, the ones who’ve already been supporting, and the one who weren’t will get on board and support too,” she said.

But is she embarrassed by anything she’s done or revealed as she’s watched back some of the footage?

“It’s a lot of moments, cause I don’t like wearing makeup, so when I see myself back i’m like oh my gosh, she looks terrible and “ooooh, look at my hair …’ but then i’m like ‘whatever …’ Sometimes it is what it is and I feel like I’m human and I think that you can’t just pretend everything is always rosey. Everything ain’t always peachy keen, and it ain’t all bad. I’m goofy when I wanna be, I’m serious, I can be happy, I’m a human being with real emotions and feelings and I don’t know why people think that just because you’re on camera or are a celebrity that you are void from normal human behavior. Everybody has their moments, if somebody rubs you the wrong way, you might cuss them out too.”

Leela JamesI asked if she had formed any true friendships with any of her cast mates and she nodded in the affirmative.  But when I asked her who, she smiled wryly and declined to answer.  I took my cue and moved on to asking how she feels about blogs and social media, given that it can support or devastate a celebrity’s career.

She answered:

“I mean, yeah, it works hand in hand.  You got good and you got bad, you know, everything good that comes, you have a little bit of bad that comes with it, too, but hopefully we’ll get to a place where it’s more balanced.  I don’t do that kind of stuff [twitter beefs and such]; I barely be on twitter. I’m not a big social [networker]; I’m trying to get better, but I’m very much a Flinstones type … I JUST got my iphone together.  Listen, I’m just so … I’m just boring. I don’t go to clubs, I’m not the turn up heifer, I ain’t doing all of that.  I’m like the black Laura Ingalls, you know … I’m boring as heck, but I can sang.”

I went on to ask her if she feels we’ve been fully exposed to the depth of artistry of Leela James?

“Absolutely not.  It’s only so much you can put on an album and each song is like three minutes or so or a little over, you aren’t gonna completely know an artist from one record or even several … some artists it takes their entire career for people to actually appreciate and get them. A lot of times, it takes artists to die for people to appreciate them and people be like, ‘Oh, they were amazing!’ No, they were amazing when they were alive, y’all late. That why you have to support the artists when they’re alive, buying their music, requesting that radio play the stuff … just support the artist,” she responded.

On her recently released album, Fall For You, and what makes this album different from others she’s released, she said:

“I’m older and I’ve been through even more stuff. I just think the music is better and that’s a good thing because it’s supposed to get better. as you grow, it’s supposed to get better,” she said.

“I just hope they feel good and if they liked the music before, they like it even more and if they weren’t familiar with it they say, ‘well shoot, let me go get it!'”

But Leela isn’t just a singer.  There are a few things that aren’t commonly known about her:

“I’m a great interior decorator, a great doggoned cook and I’m a homebody. I like watching black exploitation films because they’re funny and soulful. It was happening. I like dolomite and Foxy Brown, but my favorite of all times is Claudine. It’s my VERY favorite. I just love how they captured the love between Claudine and the garbage man. It was so soulful, the soundtrack, the back drop, man it was just … Gladys Knight sounded amazing and made the movie even better.”

And speaking of Gladys Knight, Leela’s vocals – which isn’t uncommon for voices like hers – were heavily influenced by artists of that period and ilk:

“Yeah, I listened to a lot of that music growing up, because that was what my parents would play … and they still play that music.  So, I guess you can say that influenced me and I’m grateful because they didn’t deviate from, I feel, what is real, real content, real music and what sounds good, so when that’s your soundtrack in your environment, yeah, it molds you.”

And with it having been said that “real begets real,” her experiences with the music of our beloved artists from back in the day have helped to make her one of those “real” artist that I started out speaking about.

A self-proclaimed “black Laura Ingalls,” Leela James has the off-stage temperament to live life in a “little house on the prairie” but the windows are likely be blown out should she ever decide to sing in the shower.  Later that evening during her set, I saw a “real” singer – make up and all – walking in her gifting, commanding LA’s Club Nokia stage and singing her fans into a down-home style frenzy with one of the biggest and most distinct voices you’ll hear today.

Check here to see when the “The Intimate Truth” tour will hit your city.

For MORE on Leela James, visit her website.


 

The ‘Intimate Truth’ of Leela James
serena williams

Serena Williams Takes Down Surging Sloane Stephens

sloane & serena

Let’s talk. It’s just us, so we can be real.

The majority always makes the minority stand out. Now apply that concept to professional tennis. And drill down even deeper and apply it to Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens. They played each other today at the Indian Wells BNP Paribas Master’s 1000 in a round of 16 match.

We’ll talk about the match later, but I really want to address the “relationship:” they don’t have one.

And contrary to popular belief, they never really had one.

It’s no secret that professional tennis is largely non-black, making blacks the minority. Surprised? Of course not; we live that in general.  But to my initial point, it makes us and the things we do stand out.

So, in keeping with that, Sloane played and beat Serena in the 2013 Australian Open and suddenly they became everything from “mentor and mentee” to “best friends” in the eyes of the media. Sure, Serena being beaten at a Grand Slam is a big deal, but the fallout of the misconception of her relationship with Sloane went from awkward to a downright rift that played out via social media and beyond. We don’t have enough African American representation in professional tennis for the ones that we do have to be at odds with one another over what would otherwise be business as usual.

I’m not certain from whence the misunderstanding or exaggeration came – which is why the aforementioned reason can only be assumed, but it spiraled completely out of control.

Was it because they followed each other on Twitter? Was it because they both live in Florida? Maybe it was because they waved or smiled at one another in the locker room during a tournament … ? Me thinks it IS because they’re African Americans and “Black Mentee Beats Black Mentor; Torch is Passed” or “Black “BFFs” Battle” stories make for sensational news.

A simple “Sloane Stephens Prevails Over an Injured Serena Williams” would’ve prevented the uncomfortable events that followed the match, but ….

All that had to be done was a little digging and it would’ve been found that no solid case was ever made to support the “friendship” or “mentorship,” as it was reported. The closest the two have ever been is likely Fed Cup teammates and even then, there was reportedly no interaction between the two.

“It’s hard to be a real mentor when you’re still in competition,” she said in truth, but without any disrespect.

Serena was never around town snapping selfies at karaoke parties and basketball games or frolicking on the beach with Sloane as she’s done with Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka. She never singled Sloane out in interviews when asked her feelings about young Americans on the rise – at least not until the friendship/mentor misconception started circulating. And Sloane never really publicly held Serena in any high regard until that point either. She backhandedly called her mean, then said she loved it, but nothing else.  In fact, when asked about her idols and inspiration for becoming a tennis professional, she named the now-retire Belgian Kim Clijsters. One would think, possibly for the same reasons the fake friendship was developed in the media, she would’ve named Serena or Venus … Or heck, even Althea Gibson, but she didn’t. Her prerogative.

“I’m annoyed. I’m over it,” she says of all the Serena mentor hype. “I’ve always said Kim Clijsters is my favorite player, so it’s kind of weird.”

So, when she did beat a physically compromised (bad ankle roll in previous match) Serena, the media went nuts and the general public followed. ” Serena Passes Torch to Sloane,” “Serena’s Reign Ended by Prototype,” and headlines in that vein were everywhere. Sloane’s Twitter numbers skyrocketed, congratulations were pouring in from fans and other high-profile athletes, interview requests and endorsement opportunities went thru the roof … It was a circus.

But it was too much, too soon – on both sides of the net.

All the attention Sloane was getting and that Serena was accustomed to getting could have ONLY rattled the cage of the ferocious champion and competitor that Serena is. And couple that with the then-31-year-old-at-the-time having to endure the misconception of the friendship and mentorship with Sloane when being interviewed about the Grand Slam loss – which ALWAYS boils her grits regardless of who dealt it. It naturally evoked a reaction – although debatable and cloaked in ambiguity – via Twitter that said, “I made you.”  Sloane took the tweet as if it were about her, leading to the subsequent comments of dissent and mutual “unfollowing.”

Sloane then went on a campaign of sorts, fueling the fire, even as recently as comments made at IW 2015.

Being young and not fire-tested as her “mentor” has been, she gobbled the attention up to the point of choking on it. And when the “response” came from Serena – likely from being first insulted by the loss then injured by the out-of-control press on the matter, Sloane began publicly airing the dirty laundry of the “non-relationship.” She even went as far as to, on live television, declare Serena’s signature “C’mons” as “disrespectful” during a match in Cincinnati.


From there, the tenor of her comments regarding her former “mentor” have been largely cold or borderline disparaging, including an extremely ill-advised and scathing interview she did with ESPN magazine.

Things eventually died down, likely at the behest of her handlers, but her momentum fizzled with it.

Since then, Serena has won 4 additional Grand Slams (surpassing all but 1 open era WTA colleague) and several tour titles – beating Sloane twice along the way. She’s been known to have a long memory. Sloane, meanwhile has spiraled downward from her previous high ranking of No. 11 during that glory period of 2013, to a current world No. 42. She allowed the hype to destroy her focus and momentum, though she’s attempting to claw her way back up. She has the weapons to do it, but what’s between the ears seems to still need a little developing, maturity-wise.

It’s wise to learn from those who have gone before you, who would likely say “you can be up one day and down the next,” “speak less and do more” and “it’s not how you start, but how you finish.” But they say, youth is wasted on the young … they lack the wisdom to fully capitalize on it.

Admittedly, it would’ve been nice if they were indeed friends before, and carried it on after the battles, but it was reaching at best.

And, oh yeah, Stephens lost to her again today.

Here’s how it went:

Serena got off to a slow start after Sloane elected to receive and broke the 33-year-old in the first game, held her own serve, then broke her again.

3 games down, at 0-3,  the pony tail goes up and Serena  breaks back twice to level it, 3-3.  Then she seemed to be conserving energy, living dangerously on her next service game, but holds to make it 4-3.  Sloane then levels it at 4-all.

After a mild line call disagreement on the first point, Serena easily holds for 5-4 and earns a break point at 40-30 on Soane’s serve. Sloane, however, aggressively nabbed the next three points for 5-all. With the serve now cranking, easy hold for Williams next for 6-5. Sloane, on serve, didn’t succumb to the scoreboard pressure and tied it up, 6-6, then went on to win the tiebreaker off Serena’s forehand errors.  7-6, Stephens.

One set down and one to go, for Stephens.

Second set, Sloane drops serve out of the gate and Serena holds, but the 2001 champion has still yet to unleash the beast the lies within. She’s eerily calm even after losing the first set.

But she does hold her own serve for 2-0.

Sloane capitalized on loose play from Williams and gets on the board, 1-2, but Serena answers back with several big serves (123 range) for 3-1.

Sloane gets to 30-40 on Serena’s next service game, but she  delivers a big serve and closes out for 4-2.  Sloane on serve lets off the gas and Serena presses the pedal. She breaks Sloane a second time and serves for the set at 5-2.

Despite the gusting winds on court, Serena serves it out, closing with an ace, for 6-7, 6-2.

Sloane comes out and gives up the first game again for 0-1 and Serena recovers from a mildly complicated service game and holds for 2-0 in her favor.  Sloane holds, Serena aggressively grazes the court with her racket *smash alert* and Sloane is on the board in the third for 1-2.

Serena’s next service game gets a little dicey, she slams a125 ace to earn ad point, then 115 to hold for 3-1.

Sloane maintains her resolve and and cranking forehand, holding her serve for 2-3. Serena’s big serving gets her through another tight service game and she holds for 4-2.

Now we’re in the 7th game, always the tricky one, with Sloane on serve, but with Serena with lust in her eyes.

Down 15-30, an errant forehand from Sloane gives Serena 2 break points. She squanders  the first for 40-30.  Sloane botches the first serve, and lands the second … but Serena nails it for 5-2.

Serena now serves for the match:

Sloane hits a smoking  forehand for 0-15.
Serena serves an ace for 15-all.
Serena double faults for 15-30.
Serena serves a 109mph serve for 30-all.
Serena serves a bullet ace and tournament’s fastest at 128mph. Sloane challenges it, but it was well inside the box.  Serena at 40-30 and match point.

Serena wins the match on an unforced error into the net by Stephens, 7-6, 6-2, 6-2.

The “mentor” gives the youngster a warm net shake and sees her off.

“I think she can be the best…a lot of respect for her,” Serena said during her on-court interview.

Then she elaborated in the press room:

“I’ve always thought Sloane can be really great. I think she’s on the right track.  You know, she played really well.  She had some very good wins here against two seeds.”

“So, yeah, I though it was a really positive result even today. ”

Accolades aside, the proverbial torch remains firmly in the hand of Serena Williams for now and she finds herself yet again the last American woman standing in a top level tournament.  On the men’s side, Steve Johnson (to Tomas Berdych) and Donald Young (to Rafael Nadal) went out in earlier matches, leaving John Isner and Jack Sock to fight another round, the round of 16.

 

Serena Williams Takes Down Surging Sloane Stephens