LaShell Griffin - Free (2004)

LaShell Griffin
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Thank you Oprah Winfrey.  On the heels of the success of Fox's American Idol, Oprah created her own talent contest, The Oprah Winfrey Pop Star Challenge, designed to find a talent in the over-25 group.  And out of that forum came a 36-year old LaShell Griffin, who blew away the audience and the competition with her rendition of "The Greatest Love of All." 

Thank you Oprah Winfrey.  On the heels of the success of Fox's American Idol, Oprah created her own talent contest, The Oprah Winfrey Pop Star Challenge, designed to find a talent in the over-25 group.  And out of that forum came a 36-year old LaShell Griffin, who blew away the audience and the competition with her rendition of "The Greatest Love of All." 

Griffin grew up in Detroit as a lover of Gospel music, and by age thirteen was singing solos in her church choir.  That continued to be her exclusive singing forum for the next twenty years, through her marriage to talented local singer Lee Griffin (who sounds like a slightly gravelly Frank McComb) and the birth of their five children.  She became popular in the community as a wedding singer and was eventually singing two or three per weekend.  Encouraged by her husband, she entered the Winfrey contest in 2004 and became a wonderful National story of perseverance and faith as she sang her way to victory and to a recording contract with Epic Records.  Her debut album, Free, was released in June 2004.

As is the case with American Idol, there was certainly a desire to capitalize on the Winfrey contest and to release an album by Griffin as soon as possible.  The Idol formula has been to put together a series of competent producers and songwriters and to quickly release an album with a few catchy upbeat tunes but mostly a focus on The Big Ballad -- hooky adult contemporary fare a la "You Light Up My Life" that appeals to twenty- and thirty-something year old women.  In that respect, while Free definitely bears the mark of an album put together relatively quickly with a MOR formula, it is far superior to any Idol spinoff album.  And the key is Griffin.  While an artist like Clay Aiken didn't have the vocal personality to lift the bland music of his disastrous debut, Griffin has a warm, soulful voice that shines on Free's high points and is strong enough to rescue the more pedestrian portions of the disc.

Griffin has lyrically kept a mild Gospel focus on Free, but -- save a couple Jill Scott-like Neo Soul cuts ("You are Mine" and "Get Away") -- the album is musically aimed directly at adult contemporary radio.  Safe, well written ballads such as "Learn to Breath," "Rise," "Man From Galilee" and "He's Coming Again" could have appeared on a Faith Hill album, but Griffin's performance gives these songs a soulfulness not found in their arrangements.  Better are Jam/Lewis-like cut, "Better Days," and the album's stroke of genius, a Gospel-tinged cover of Mercy Me's "I Can Only Imagine," which may even surpass the fine original CCM version of that song.  Griffin is at her finest, however, on the album's title cut, a fairly ordinary ballad that is absolutely lifted up by her explosive performance. That cut also highlights the album's biggest weakness: Other than on "Free" and "Faith" (a Gospel duet with husband Lee Griffin), the disc's MOR arrangements rarely allow Griffin to break loose, leaving her in a space more like Anne Murray than Ann Nesby.  That being said, there are no real clunkers on the album, and her warm, rich voice, even at subdued levels, makes for a very nice listen. 

Her live performances on Oprah and her release of Free demonstrate that LaShell Griffin is a uniquely talented singer who deserves the spotlight now being shone on her.  Her vocal performance is strong enough to raise Free from the ordinary to something pretty special, reminiscent of some Aretha Franklin's early triumphs over attempts to suppress the Gospel singer she truly was.  But Free leaves me hoping that, like a young Aretha, LaShell will ultimately find material and production that will better reflect her Gospel personality and her extremely soulful voice.  She is a talent to watch.

 
Album of the Month - Juewett Bostick - Shades of Blu
Choice Cut - Kea Michaels - "Not My Friend"
Song of the Month - Bryan Andrew Wilson - "Only You'

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