Possessing one of the biggest and most powerful Soul voices of the last quarter century, Jennifer Holliday was an absolute smash in several seminal roles on stage, but never reached an equal level of success on record. Questionable musical directions and uneven material dogged her recording career, resulting in a few bright spots among large numbers of tracks that simply were not worthy of her vocal talent.
Holliday first reached prominence on stage in the play Your Arm's Too Short To Box With God, but it was her tragic and triumphant role in the musical Dreamgirls and her Act One show-stopping performance of the ballad "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" that made her a star. It led her to an unprecedented appearance on Saturday Night Live and a solo recording contract with Geffen Records.
Her 1983 debut album, Feel My Soul, was produced by Earth Wind & Fire leader Maurice White and was expected to be a smash. Perhaps it was her un-diva like physical appearance at the time (she later went on to lose over 100 pounds), or perhaps it was White's overly slick production, but the album was only a moderate success. Despite the tepid response it received, Feel My Love was a relatively solid album, featuring a couple radio-friendly songs ("I Am Love" and "Just For Awhile"), some decent album cuts, and an absolutely dynamite Gospel ballad, "This Day," which is still perhaps Holliday's finest interpretive piece on record.
She followed with two significantly weaker albums, 1985's Say You Love Me and 1987's Get Close To My Love. Both were more dance-oriented, and tended to be so beat-heavy that her formidable voice was drowned in the mix. While she scored a club hit with "No Frills Love," the albums were commercial failures. Her move to Arista for 1991's I'm On Your Side (the title track of which was a cover of the great Angela Bofill tune) brought a mild creative rebound, but by that time Soul radio had moved on.
While her solo recording career was essentially done, Holliday continued to perform admirably onstage, scoring in multiple plays including the national tour of Sing Mahalia Sing. She briefly returned to record as a Gospel performer, releasing the enjoyable On And On in 1994. She has recorded sporadically since then, mostly as a guest vocalist on the projects of other artists.
Holliday made headlines again in late 2006 when Dreamgirls was adapted for the big screen. The exposure allowed her to tell the world more of the years of clinical depression and weight fluctuation that dominated her life after she left the Broadway musical, as well as the personal healing and redemption she later found. When Jennifer Hudson won her 2007 Oscar for her Dreamgirls performance, she finished her acceptance speech by acknowledging Holliday's performance and her role in creating the juggernaut that Dreamgirls became. And to bring things full circle, in mid-2007 Holliday returned to the role of Effie in the 25th Anniversary production of Dreamgirls at Atlanta's Theater of the Stars.
In 2014, Holliday returned with her first solo album in years. The Song Is You was a lush album of standards and new material. The following year her life was featured on the TV One series, Unsung.
by Chris Rizik