The pop landscape isn't exactly crowded with divas. While the Sixties produced Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and other flamboyant goddesses on earth, the current decade seems destined to be remembered as a time when many female performers preferred toughness and outrageous behavior to ease and grace. For example, it's hard to imagine the late soul singer Tammi Terrell following the lead of a member of L7, who last year removed a tampon on stage and tossed it into the audience.
So it comes as something of a surprise to discover N'Dea Davenport, lead singer for the British dance band called the Brand New Heavies. Davenport is no mock deity of the sort portrayed by Whitney Houston in a recent AT&T advertising campaign. No, she's the real thing: a fur-wearing glamourpuss with a funky yet imperial mien and a rich, dynamic voice that she's gracious enough to share with the rest of us serfs. Better yet, she was not to the manor born but rose to her present status from a humble Atlanta girlhood. A dreamgirl for a new generation, she's a throwback to a time when stars were expected to sparkle.
Still, Davenport doesn't want anyone to think that the Heavies (also featuring guitarist Simon Bartholomew, bassist Andrew Levy and drummer/keyboardist Jan Kincaid) are simply on a retro trip. "We're not really doing anything so particularly new," she says from London, a city accustomed to royalty. "But at the same time, it has such a new spirit and a different type of image. Maybe a little bit is borrowed from something old, but we give it a hip twist. I like to think of it as sunshine music."
The Heavies' latest album, Brother Sister (released on the aptly named Delicious Vinyl imprint), bears out this contention. The lead cut, "Just Have a Good Time," initially sounds as if it had been taken directly from a compilation of classics on Stax Records, but a closer listen reveals contemporary production touches and guitar riffing that borrows as much from acid jazz as it does from traditional rhythm and blues. Other tracks include funk, reggae and soul stylings that are held together by tight musicianship and Davenport's divinely flexible vocals. Unlike the Mariah Careys of the world, Davenport doesn't simply rely on her pipes to blow away all comers. Rather, she employs a subtle sense of dynamics that gives listeners the impression that she's actually feeling the words she's singing.
"I'm a very emotional, spiritual type of person," she says, "and I've paid my dues. In many respects, I feel like I am still paying them. With all due respect to Whitney and Mariah, who I don't know personally, they're a part of big, big marketing strategies and always had a lot of money and power behind them. That can sometimes bring in a stale type of thing. Whereas I've had to do a little struggling. You've got to cry before you know how to sing the blues, you know?"
From an early age, Davenport knew that singing was her destiny, and as soon as she was old enough, she moved from Atlanta to Los Angeles, determined to make a name for herself. "It was a real culture shock," she admits. "I'd never been to L.A., I didn't know anybody, and for the first time in my life, I really knew what it was like to be hungry. I wasn't homeless, but I was living in an attic of a theater. But at the same time, I was happy, because I knew this was what I really wanted to do."
Over the course of the next several years, Davenport made herself noticed in the music community and became one of the city's most in-demand background singers. Her list of credits includes work with Roger Waters, Al Jarreau, Tone Loc, Young MC and pop's ruling queen, Madonna. "I was doing a performance as part of this project I was working on with Malcolm McLaren, Bootsy Collins and Dave Stewart," she says, dropping these names with charming casualness, "and in the middle of this star-studded audience, she was there. After it was over, she told me she was quite impressed with what I was doing and asked me to do the `Blonde Ambition' tour with her." Already quite sure of herself, Davenport actually declined Madonna's offer, but wound up appearing on the Dick Tracy soundtrack, adding her singing to the hit single "Vogue."
Nonetheless, Davenport had no interest in making background chores her career. While she says she learned a great deal about writing, producing and professionalism from her brushes with the famous, she adds, "Sometimes background singers don't get the recognition they deserve. If you look back, some of the most phenomenal singers started out doing background work: Minnie Riperton, Luther Vandross. But at the same time, there's still this kind of stigma attached to it."
Escaping this trap proved simpler than Davenport thought. She signed a solo deal with Delicious Vinyl and was asked if she would be interested in flying to London and working with a band in need of a singer, the Brand New Heavies.
Bartholomew, Kincaid and Levy had been gigging around London since the mid-Eighties, gaining some notoriety from their first single, "Got to Give," issued in 1987. The act's self-titled debut album was released by the Acid Jazz label in 1990 and sported lead vocals by Jaye Ella Ruth. The recording was less than a hit, but Delicious Vinyl saw promise; the company inked the Heavies sans Ruth. The band subsequently rerecorded a number of songs from its previous disc with Davenport. One track, "Dream Come True," later became a smash in Britain, while a second, "Never Stop," charted in America.
In spite of this success, Davenport was not made a permanent member of the Heavies at that time. Instead, the group recorded Heavy Rhyme Experience: Vol. 1, a hip-hop platter featuring guest raps from Main Source, Gang Starr, Grand Puba, Masta Ace and members of the Pharcyde. Unfortunately, the album seemed more than a little stiff, and it painted the Heavies as musical dilettantes. The missing ingredient, clearly, was Davenport. She had not spent her time idling: She co-wrote and co-produced "Trust Me" and "When You're Near," a pair of strong tracks on Jazzmatazz, an ambitious album made by Gang Starr leader Guru. But when the Heavies called, she answered--and it's a lucky thing she did. Brother Sister is far and away the Heavies' best album, thanks in large part to Davenport's enlarged role. The disc is no soul classic, but it's a danceable groovefest that flows effortlessly from beginning to end.
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Davenport realizes that the new disc marks the first time her talents have been effectively showcased. "I feel that I have so much more to contribute--so much more that nobody's even scratched the surface of knowing what I'm capable of," she says. "The closest I've gotten so far, I think, is the song `Brother Sister,' because I feel so close to it lyrically. It's a representation of what my parents instilled in me, kind of an anthem to kids who might be a little discouraged about life. It's telling them that even if you don't have anybody out there who's backing you up, you should make an effort and try. You might be surprised by the results. I'm a witness to that."
Whether or not songs like this succeed in raising her to full-fledged divahood, Davenport feels that the Brand New Heavies already are performing a valuable function simply by reminding Americans about their own traditions. "I'm a product of America, but at the same time, I had to get very popular in England before I got noticed in America," she notes. "People here and in Europe really appreciate the music that America has just kind of tossed aside--the traditional soul music and so forth. They study it and really give it the praise that it deserves. I just hope that starts to happen back home."
The Brand New Heavies. 8 p.m. Wednesday, August 17, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $15.75 in advance/$17.80 day of show, 290-