Columnists » Fame With Bebe Sweetbriar

Jennifer Holliday Covers the Classics on New CD

by BeBe Sweetbriar
Friday Jan 31, 2014

It has been 23 years since we have heard a new non-gospel recordings from the original Effie White from "Dreamgirls," Jennifer Holliday. (The last was in 1991, entitled "I'm On Your Side.") That wait comes to an end with the release of her new CD "The Song Is You" (Shanachie Entertainment/Euphoric Records), a collection of pop, jazz and R&B standards that have been blessed with Holliday's powerful and emotional vocals.

All of the songs on "The Song Is You" are dedicated to an artist associated with the song (Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Nancy Wilson, Michael Buble, Etta James, Patti LaBelle, Phyllis Hyman); but Holliday is quick to point out that it is not just about the recording artist: "......this is a dedication not just to the artist, but also to a good song. The songwriters have to be acknowledged as well."

With a 35-year career which was kicked off by her debut performance in the 1979 Broadway hit "Your Arms Too Short To Box With God," you would think that Jennifer Holliday would have amassed quite a collection of music well beyond the 5 albums to her credit. Shortly after gaining much fame after her 1982 Tony and Grammy Awards, Holliday recorded 4 albums cumulatively with Geffen Records and Arista, but the advent of MTV quickly set a different course for Holliday's career. "Because I was overweight with a different sounding voice the label was like 'there's not much we can do for you with the videos and dance music...'," she explained. With persistent weight problems, failed marriages, chronic depression and a battle with multiple sclerosis, the downs came to overshadow the ups in her career.

Her faith in God led her to start recording in the arena she started her singing, and Holliday released Gospel music as the carriage for her strong, distinctive voice with one album, 1994’s "On & On" reaching the Top 10 on Billboard’s Gospel Chart.

So what has inspired Jennifer Holliday to release her first pop-oriented album in 23 years? She credits the plethora of young talents on reality competition shows who continually choose a Holliday song to tackle in their quest to become the world’s next big singing star. "If they (the contestants) think a Jennifer Holliday tune will make them win, that’s quite a compliment," Holliday says with pride.

But, whatever the reason, this CD is long overdue. "The Song Is You" shows the growth of Holliday as a singer and artist who seems to be comfortable interpreting any song.

I caught up with Ms. Holliday shortly after her appearance on The Steve Harvey Show where she introduced the new CD, prior to its release. Our warm and honest conversation revealed the reasons why she has decided to release new material now, what the obstacles were for her in the early stages of her career, why she chose the music she has on the CD, and what lays ahead after this album.

Why now?

BeBe: You recently released a collection of Pop and Jazz standards in your new CD "The Song Is You." Everyone, no doubt, has been waiting for a long time to hear new music from you, and I believe the burning question is why has it taken so long to get newly recorded music from you?

Jennifer Holliday: Well the music business itself has just changed so much. I’ve been in show business for 35 years, but I only have really 5 albums. Not CDs, but albums (we both laugh) that have been transferred to CDs. The reason why is because when I started in the early 80s, I got caught up in the traffic of the disco music. Also, with videos being made, Geffen Records decided to drop me because the few records I had made weren’t selling and, even back then, videos cost a fortune to make. Because I was overweight with a different sounding voice the label was like, ’there’s not much we can do for you with the videos and dance music...’

That was the 80s. Then in the 90s was the introduction of Rap, and from Rap to Hip-Hop. So, R&B became a less defined music. It’s not even a televised portion of the Grammys anymore. That’s how unimportant R&B has become. So, I had to go through all of that. In this life, you know, you struggle. You have your ups and downs. It just took me awhile to get back to (recording).

What inspired me most were these young people performing my songs on these talent reality shows. Some people were asking me ’Aren’t you upset that these people are doing your songs and messing them up and butchering them up?’ No, because it is associated with winning! If they (contestants) think a Jennifer Holliday tune will make them win, that’s quite a compliment.

Singing standards

BeBe: We know the range of your voice and the range displayed when you sing, so isn’t tackling a Jennifer Holliday song a huge risk for a performer just starting out?

Jennifer Holliday: Yeah, if they think they can do that then they must really have something. They have a lot of courage. So it did inspire me to try before I leave this Earth if I could have some newer work that people could search for. They can hear that I still have my chops and that my instrument (voice) is still intact.

Hopefully, people will think I sing better now than I did 32 years ago (during her Broadway debut). I wanted to show that I’ve grown as an artist as well. On this album I do some jazz standards combined with some R&B classics. I wanted to have a body of work so that people didn’t have to say, ’boy, there’s nothing (out there) on her.’

BeBe: As you say ’The Song Is You’ is a collection of R&B and jazz standards. These are your interpretations of songs that are, for most of us, very familiar and were made popular by other artists. I want to know how you came about selecting the songs you recorded for the CD? Did they resonate with you personally in some way?

Jennifer Holliday: There are so many wonderful songs from that Jazz era, so you’re searching and searching. But, just because there are a lot of wonderful songs does not mean they will all fit for my voice. I mostly had to go toward a theme, the theme of love. I took love and the cycle of relationships. I also dedicated each song to someone I admired as an artist or performer and found a way to mesh these two concepts. ’Love Dance’ is dedicated to Nancy Wilson (recorded by Wilson in 1994). I’ve always loved her voice and how she is able to deliver a song in her sultry, sexy way. I wanted to try and emulate that. ’The Look of Love,’ written by Burt Bacharach, (is a song) I dedicated to Dusty Springfield. (It was recorded by Springfield in 1967). I dedicate a song to Aretha Franklin, ’Are You Leaving Me,’ (a song recorded by Franklin a demo); and one to Barbra Streisand ’Love Me By Name,’(a Lesley Gore song).

Doing Etta James proud

BeBe: As I heard the names of those you dedicated songs to (Aretha, Streisand, Dusty Springfield and Nancy Wilson), I couldn’t help but notice the parallel they have with you in that they each have very distinctive, identifiable voices that others try to emulate. You are taking songs that our minds have already attached to a particular sound and artist. But on this CD you’re putting your "Jennifer Holliday Stank" on it, which is very challenging. Very few people would take that kind of risk. Others are not willing to stretch themselves out of fear that people will say ’I like the way so-and-so did it.’ Does that response bother you?

Jennifer Holliday: People may still say that with my renditions because my voice is so powerful, emotional and passionate. They may say they like Nancy’s (version) better because she has more finesse or caresses a lyric differently than I do. I understand that, but this is a dedication not just to the artist, but also to a good song. The songwriters have to be acknowledged as well. That’s how I look at it.

BeBe: What I get from it, Jennifer, is that it’s like bringing an old standard anew. I can listen to it like it’s a new jam. That’s what is refreshing with you putting your spin on these songs. That’s what I appreciate. In particular, ’At Last’ by Etta James is a song many have tried and recorded, but many have also been unsuccessful in doing it well. You have done ’At Last,’ honey... (both laughing) I don’t even have to say anymore. When I heard the song I said to myself that you recaptured ’that feeling,’ not the sound, we felt when it was originally done. That’s the difference. Most people try and recapture a sound when what they really should be doing is recapturing a feeling.

Jennifer Holliday: I just listened to these songs I loved by people that I loved. I knew Etta James, so I felt that she would have given me her blessing. And I think she has because every time that I sing it, I think the audience feels it as well. It’s quickly becoming another (signature) song for me. That, I had no idea would happen.

Making songs her own

BeBe: Well, your version is destined to become a classic of its own. I have no doubt.

Jennifer Holliday: I also do a tribute to Marvin Hamlisch by doing his song he wrote and Carly Simon sings for the Bond movie ’The Spy Who Loved Me.’ I do ’Nobody Does It Better.’ Marvin knew how I take a song and try and make it my own. I worked with him for years up to the time of his death. And, I met Carly Simon back when she used to come to see ’Dreamgirls.’

BeBe: Were there any songs that you recorded for the album that did not make the album, and you wished you would have put it on the CD?

Jennifer Holliday: Yes, I do a song called ’More Than You Know’ (a 1929 standard that Holliday knows from Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording) and that was one of my favorites. Quite a few others I had to leave out. But, if ’The Love Is You’ does well, then I have a second set of songs that didn’t make this CD that I can prepare for the next one.

BeBe: As we have spoken about before in our other interviews, you are what we definitely refer to as a working artist. You are performing somewhere all through the year, year in and year out. But your performances have not been in promotion or support of new material for a very long time. Are you planning tour dates in support of this album?

Jennifer Holliday: Well, I wanted to get it released first and see the response to it. The material definitely would not lend itself to paying everywhere, but would lend itself to playing some of the smaller places like New York’s 54 Below. So, we will see where we go from here.

For more on Jennifer Holliday and how to get her new CD, visit her Facebook page.

Based out of San Francisco, BEBE SWEETBRIAR is the Omni Present Drag Chanteuse. As an entertainer and hostess, BeBe can be scene every week hosting and performing at countless events and parties in the San Francisco. One of the few drag personalities to sing live while performing, BeBe has literally graced every notable stage in San Francisco, bridging many gay sub-community gaps. She has also been the opening act for Destiny’s Child Kelly Rowland, "Ugly Betty’s" Alec Mapa and Dance Diva Kristine W. Adding recording artist to her list of performance accomplishments in 2008 with the release of her first single "Save Me", Ms. Sweetbriar will soon release her fifth dance single in 2012 called "Show It Off"..
As an actress, BeBe was introduced to film with a lead role in the independent film "Under One Sun" with her character dealing with religious, racial and gender issues. Additionally, she appeared in the campy musical "Devious, Inc" (Australian Film Festival, San Francisco Short Film Fest) also adding additional vocals to the musical soundtrack. Both of these performances led to her selection for a lead role in Aisha Media’s next short film series, "" to be released in 2012.


  • , 2014-02-03 15:00:07

    I enjoyed this insightful interview by BeBe of the incredibly gifted singer Jennifer Holiday. I look forward to hearing the recording, and hoping that the club owners will welcome her back with open arms. I certainly would. Continued success for you and Jennifer.

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