What Ever Happened to … Jennifer Holliday?

Veteran singer and actress Jennifer Holliday chats about her new album, "This Song is You," "Dreamgirls" and more.
Photos courtesy of Jennifer Holliday.

In 1981, Jennifer Holliday was cast in what became her career-defining role as Effie in the original stage play Dreamgirls. Her performance garnered a Tony and a Grammy for the song, “And I’m Telling You.” Now, the 53-year-old singer/actress is delighting fans with a new album, This Song is You, her first secular recording in more than 20 years. The Houston native opened up about her dynamic career and lessons she’s learned along the way.

JET: Your latest album was 23 years in the making. What inspired this project?

Jennifer Holliday: The generation who has made me relevant and given me a rebirth. It was about being rediscovered. Younger people are singing my music today on TV shows. If they think they can win doing a Jennifer Holliday song, maybe Jennifer Holliday can win doing a Jennifer Holliday song. I said, let me try it while I’m relevant again. Let me see what can happen for me.

With this album, I wanted to reflect on our musical past and interpret some classic R&B love songs and jazz standards sung by amazing artists. For example, people haven’t given Nancy Wilson enough credit to her contribution to entertainment. She has always been so classy and elegant, and puts her heart and soul into the music. And while we had Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, we have a new history we don’t often celebrate— like Vesta, Whitney Houston and Phyllis Hyman. I feel grateful to be relevant in the 21st century and represent that new history.

JET: You dedicated a song on the album to Whitney Houston. What do you remember most fondly about her?

JH: Whitney had one of the greatest voices of our time. I loved that she could take a pop ballad and sing it straight, with no riffing, and just let it build. Her gift was like no other. And her leaving so soon left a great void in all of us.

JET: Who have been your musical influences?

JH: First and foremost, it would be Aretha Franklin. She always puts her everything into the music and that comes through in every song. You can feel that.

JET: Are there any artists you are looking forward to collaborating with?

JH: I never got a chance to sing with Aretha Franklin, that’s a lifelong dream. Michael Bublé is one of my favorites, and l love Ledisi’s voice and her musical interpretations.

JET: Did you always know you wanted to become a performer?

JH: No, I didn’t. When I was young, I enjoyed school. Growing up in Houston, I admired Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, and wanted to be like her. But when I was 21, I decided I wanted to become a performer when I had an opportunity to audition for a Broadway musical. In 1980, I went straight from Texas to New York to join the musical Your Arms Too Short to Box With God. I had been singing in the church choir, and a young man named Jamie Patterson, who was touring with the national company of A Chorus Line, discovered me. He heard me sing and said, “You should be on Broadway.”

JET: What was most challenging about the entertainment industry when you first started out?

JH: Not knowing anything about show business. Show business is a business, and not just about performing.

JET: The first time you sang “And I’m Telling You,” did you realize it would be such a hit?

JH: I had no idea that one song would have so much relevance and meaning over three decades later.

JET: Why do you think this song has resonated with fans for all these years?

JH: I think that it was one of the first of its kind in a long time. Everyone wants to be loved. You’re just vulnerable, putting your heart out there. It’s not so much of how I sang it, but what the lyrics are saying.

JET: What was your last musical theater role and is there one coming up soon?

JH: I would love an opportunity to have something new created for me. As an actress, you want to sink your teeth into a nice, meaty role. I last played Mama Horton in Chicago on Broadway. I would love to go back. Performing in a theatrical production is almost like doing a concert. You’re a character telling a story. There’s nothing like that nightly experience. You have to be on. If you can’t deliver or make the audience believe that character, you haven’t been successful.

JET: What are your current professional projects?

JH: The album is on my own label. I’m so grateful for how people have received This Song is You. It’s recognizably me. I have preserved my instrument. People are used to me grunting, blowing and riffing. I’m soft and more controlled on some songs. I didn’t know if folks would think I was selling out. People have said they love my pure voice. This has been an inspirational and rewarding experience for my career. I currently do a lot of corporate and symphony gigs. If the album does well, I would love to go on tour, or be on someone’s tour. Maybe in 2015.

JET: Having dealt with depression, what advice do you have for someone going through such an emotional battle?

JH: Don’t be ashamed to seek help. I suffered for many years and didn’t understand what it was. The stigma associated with depression is still high. A lot of our churches will have to recognize that depression is an illness and that more is required than prayer. We have a partnership with God: We can rely on him, but we also have to do the work. Get counseling, reach out to friends. It’s a serious illness. If it lasts more than a couple of months, you have to get help. Tell somebody you’re hurting. Be exposed and get the help; it’s not a sign of weakness. Everyone doesn’t have to know that you’re getting counseling. Your life can be saved.

JET: To what do you credit your resilience?

JH: Really, God’s love for me… holding on to me in spite of myself. Every time I thought I was going to give up, I could feel God fighting for me. God wouldn’t let it happen. He would not let me die.

JET: Regarding your career, what are you most proud of?

JH: Still, it would be my moment in Dreamgirls with my portrayal of Effie. The fact that I could create a character and song with such an impact. Remember, we didn’t have YouTube and Facebook in the ’80s. People carried me in their hearts for years before social media existed and they could post videos of my work. Creating something that goes down in history books— that’s an incredible thing. Long after I’m gone, I’ll be a part of musical theater history.

Follow Jennifer Holliday on Twitter @LadyJHOLLIDAY