Singer Jennifer Holliday

Originally aired on July 2, 2014

The award-winning singer-actress discusses her much-anticipated new CD, “The Song Is You,” and shows off her powerhouse vocals with a performance.

Jennifer Holliday started her career on Broadway in musicals and later became a successful recording artist. She's best known for originating the role of Effie White in the 1981 Broadway musical, Dreamgirls, and her signature ballad, "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going"—a performance that netted her a Tony Award for best leading actress in a musical, a Grammy for her recorded version of the song and several Drama Desk and Theater World awards. She subsequently scored a number of R&B and pop hits and performed with symphony orchestras at major concert halls around the world. After an absence from the spotlight, Holliday has released her first new secular album in 22 years.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Grammy and Tony winner, Jennifer Holliday’s voice has been described as soaring and commanding. To be sure, it is. But it’s also been absent from the recording studio for far too long. That’s changed now with the release of her first CD, solo CD, that is, in 23 years. It’s title “The Song Is You.”

She’ll close our show tonight, and I’m glad about it, with a performance of “The One You Used To Be.” And you do not want to miss this. I saw her in rehearsals and can’t wait to hear it. Jennifer Holliday, I’m honored to have you on this program.

Jennifer Holliday: Thank you so much.

Tavis: And you look great.

Holliday: Thank you.

Tavis: I mean, this is such a huge issue in our society. Let me hit this and move real fast. Such a huge issue with people trying to manage weight, but you’re one of those persons who took the weight off and you’ve kept it off for how – it’s been years now.

Holliday: It’s been since 1990.

Tavis: Since 90, yeah.

Holliday: Yes.

Tavis: Has it been a struggle? Have you gotten used to the way you live your life now?

Holliday: Well, you know, everything is our mind and I had to change my mindset toward food. So I love food for nourishment, but I don’t take home doggie bags. I don’t feel the pressure to finish my plate. And it’s all mental for me, you know.

Tavis: To my ear – I’m obviously a huge Jennifer Holliday fan for years, as you well know, seeing you perform all across the country. To my mind, I did not notice any difference in your sound before or after. The instrument has always been there, but that’s just my ear. You’re the artist here. Anything different about your sound?

Holliday: Well, yes. It did change quite a bit as a lot of entertainers will tell you. And like I said, it’s all mental, so I couldn’t fathom putting on 200 pounds again. When I lost the weight, my voice was lot thinner, so I began to work out and, during my aerobics, I would sing. So it’s all now breathing and actually I think my voice is a little higher and stronger.

But I had to work at it to sound like myself, to get it back. ‘Cause you know how people are. They say, “Child, she don’t sound the same. She look good, but she don’t sound the same, okay? I think she need to eat some chicken, all right?” [Laugh]

Tavis: Not hitting them notes like she used to, yeah, yeah. What did the American Idol appearance do for you? I raise that because there is a whole new generation of kids, young people, who got to know you when you showed up on American Idol.

Holliday: Yes. Well, it made me relevant again. And even though they were talking about the attendance in terms of watching was lower, 14 million is 13.99 million more than I had before [laugh], so I was grateful.

And so many people all over the world saw that performance with little Jessica Sanchez and have brought me back to this place where I could sing, now where I can perform live and have some courage to just kind of step out there even though I’m late, but I’m happy and late, you know, in a better space.

So I’m hoping that God as He would be in His grace would let me do this now another 15 years now that I’ve gotten…

Tavis: So then after 23 years – and for me, it doesn’t seem like 23 years only because I find myself listening to your stuff all the time.

Holliday: Thank you.

Tavis: That album, “I’m On Your Side,” oh, Lord.

Holliday: Thank you.

Tavis: I mean, I could literally – I’ve listened to it so many times over the years, I could literally run the sequence on the songs on the record ’cause I hear it all the time. So for me, you’re always present in my iPod. And yet it has been 23 years which leads me to ask what took so long for a solo project?

Holliday: Well, you know, life for me ain’t been on a crystal stair, as they say.

Tavis: Yeah. I love that line.

Holliday: And as you know, when you first started your show, I suffered greatly with depression and you had me on with Dr. Alvin Poussaint and we talked about it. So depression, plus I had Multiple Sclerosis and that had its terrible effects of not feeling well.

But greater than the MS is the mind. I tell you, if you don’t have a will to get that mind together, I don’t see how you could win.

So when I got diagnosed with MS and I asked them, I said, “Well, why aren’t I able to walk?” and they said, “Well, your brain is not sending a signal to your legs.” and I’m like, well, I already have a brain disease. I have depression, so one of them gotta go. You know, one of them gotta go.

So I started kind of really focusing on the mind, trying to get clarity, you know, trying to get hold of my depression and not fight to be in the darkness and crippled. It’s like I can’t be, you know, depressed and crippled. We gotta do something, you know.

So I really fought mentally and it just took time. Then music changed. You know, R&B no longer defined and we don’t even own R&B no more. Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke represent R&B now.

So it’s a whole other life now and so I had to see if there was a time – and actually, that American Idol performance, I’m glad you mentioned it because it did give me courage to say, well, maybe I should sing something again.

Tavis: See, the real challenge for an artist like you, to my mind, is not just that R&B was challenged during that particular period and still may be on some level, but melody went out the window.

Holliday: Yes. It’s all a beat.

Tavis: That’s it [laugh]. I mean, if you want something without melody, you don’t want Jennifer Holliday.

Holliday: Right.

Tavis: I mean, there’s got to be some melody here and that’s so much of what you do. But let me go back to the issues that you were struggling with before I make room for you to perform ’cause I’d rather hear that.

Holliday: Okay.

Tavis: How did this challenge your faith? I have always known you as a person of faith. You come out of the Black church tradition like so many other artists. How did the afflictions challenge your faith?

Holliday: Well, I don’t want to, you know, be disingenuous and say I had so much faith and I believed God would see me through. I actually did not believe God would see me through.

I asked Him, though, quite a few times what was going on, especially when I got the diagnosis of MS. I’m like I’m already struggling. I’m poor, I don’t have a job, I don’t have music, whatever. Where does this go?

But during my dark times, then it was that where God would say I am the one who loves you and I’m gonna stay here and prove it to you and I’m going to bring you out of this. So I fell in love with God in the midst of the illness and not beforehand. And then my faith got even more stronger.

Tavis: 15 tracks on this new project, “The Song Is You.” How would you describe this record?

Holliday: It is love, love in a way that we haven’t heard it in a while, in the tradition of our great veterans like, you know, Nancy Wilson, Etta James, those who poured it out, you know.

Tavis: I should mention – I love liner notes.

Holliday: Thank you.

Tavis: Every track on here, you dedicate to a particular artist.

Holliday: Yes, because, you know, we all get it from somewhere. So I just wanted to bring music back. Also just because I’m just so happy, I just thought maybe I’d try love again too, so I’m going to sing and I’m going to try to live [laugh]. Die? Come on now.

Tavis: You gonna try it on [laugh].

Holliday: I’m gonna try it on. It’ll get greater later is what I tell people [laugh].

Tavis: There you go [laugh].

Holliday: 50 is the new 30 [laugh].

Tavis: Well, if you’re gonna live, you’re gonna walk and you’re gonna not be depressed, you might as well try love.

Holliday: Hallelujah.

Tavis: We gonna try a little love tonight ’cause Jennifer Holliday’s in the house and she is going to perform for us after I tell you that she has a new project out. And while I understand what the delay was all about, it’s about time and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve been playing this thing like crazy in my car.

It’s called “Jennifer Holliday: The Song Is You.” And for those of you who’ve recalled her from “Dreamgirls” back on Broadway in the day, she’s still got it. And if you got introduced to her on American Idol, then you know she’s got it.

And if you don’t know any of that, you’re about to see that she’s still got it ’cause she’s gonna step up and perform right now. What are you singing? You’re singing the…

Holliday: “The One You Used To Be,” a song I wrote.

Tavis: You wrote this song?

Holliday: Yes, I did.

Tavis: Got to look at my liner notes again. All right, so she gonna sing it and she wrote it [laugh]. She’s tried everything, love, writing songs, singing songs. Jennifer Holliday, I’m honored to have you on this program.

Holliday: Thank you, love.

Tavis: I love you and I’m glad to have you back.

Holliday: Thank you. I love you too.

Tavis: Here comes Jennifer performing “The One You Used To Be.” I’m gonna get out of your way and say goodnight. Thanks for watching, enjoy this, and as always, keep the faith.

[Performance]

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • lewis traylor-holliday

    I’m so very happy that you (Tavis Smiley) interviewed this wonderful lady (Jennifer Holliday) she has been over-looked for years and deserve to still be RECOGNIZED in the MUSIC INDUSTRY. Those PIPES are still as strong as they were back in her DREAMGIRL DAYS! Keep up the good work, Miss Holliday. GOD BLESS YOU!

    TRUE FAN
    Lewis Traylor-Holliday
    Dallas, TX

Last modified: July 21, 2014 at 12:18 pm