Like many Soul music singers, Heather Headley's love for music began in the church, but her route to Soul stardom was anything but usual. Born in Trinidad, the daughter of ministers at Barataria Church of God, Heather was singing and playing the piano before kindergarten, and lived a life in which music was always integral. Not just Gospel, but also Soul, reggae, calypso and other styles popular on the island.
When Headley was a teen, her family moved stateside to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where her father became pastor of a local church. After graduating from high school in Fort Wayne, she attended Northwestern University, where she studied communications and musical theater. Her strong, clear singing voice brought attention, and she played roles in a number of regionally produced plays, including Dreamgirls. By the end of her college days, she was offered a role on Broadway in Ragtime, which ultimately led to a much larger role -- to play the lioness Nala in the Broadway production of Disney's The Lion King. She was a smash in the role, and Disney followed in 2000 by offering her the lead role in its Elton John/Tim Rice musical Aida. While the show received mixed reviews, Headley again excelled and received a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
Headley's growing notoriety led RCA to offer her a recording contract, the first fruit of which was the 2002 album This is Who I Am. The disc was clearly a priority for RCA, and Headley was teamed with an A-list of producers, including legends Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Dallas Austin (Brandy, Debra Killings), Shep Crawford (Deborah Cox, Whitney Houston), and D'Influence. But while the multiple producers put their imprint on the CD, it was clearly guided by Headley's vision. Combining strong tunes with intelligent, accessible lyrics like few other soul album of that year, This Is became a favorite among critics and among traditional Soul fans. Much of the appeal of This Is Who I Am was not just that it was a fine album in its own right, but also that it was so different than what was playing in 2003. While modern R&B was thematically angling toward a more down and dirty, sex-based appeal, and Crossover Gospel was combining spiritual lyrics to modern beats, Headley was, in large part, writing intelligent, sensitive secular lyrics with a clear underlying Gospel sound.
The disc kicked off excellently with the churchy sounding "He Is," a cut that virtually screamed that a new talent had arrived. Even stronger was the follow-up, the Jam/Lewis composition "I Wish I Wasn't," one of the year's most plaintive, powerful ballads. Headley co-wrote three of the album songs, including the joyous "Sunday," and clearly set the tone for an album that would not simply be another Janet or Mariah sound-alike disc. The disc finished with the beautiful "If It Wasn't For Your Love," a crisp, theatrical ballad that bridged modern Soul sounds with Headley's stage background.
By the end of 2003, Heather Headley had become one of the rising stars of modern Soul music, and a newfound talent who clearly had the goods to be around for a long time.
In early 2006, Heather released In My Mind, which debuted in both the pop and soul Top 10. She followed it three years later with Audience of One, her first Gospel album, featuring a duet (with Smokie Norful) remake of the Commodores' "Jesus Is Love." The album was another critical and commercial success, debuting in the top 20 on both the Pop and Soul charts, and topping the Gospel charts.
By Chris Rizik