R&B vocal trio
As legend has it, the three singers who founded the group Brownstone were pounding the pavement in their quest for a record contract when they abruptly found themselves facing a terrifying tryout. At one of their many boardroom auditions in the early 1990s, pop deity and record label exec Michael Jackson casually arrived to hear the session. Although the prospect of performing in front of the “King of Pop” triggered an instant case of the jitters for the members of Brownstone, they persevered. When the trio launched into a stunning a capella number, Jackson declared their heartfelt harmonies extraordinary, and soon they were recording their debut album, From the Bottom Up, for his fledgling MJJ Music label. After the record’s release, critics were as equally impressed as Jackson. “This set stands on its own,” stated a review in Billboard. “With the trio… expressing themselves on such flavorful tracks as the enchantingly serene ‘Sometimes Dancin,’ the soulful rendition of the Eagles classic ‘I Can’t Tell You Why,’ the inspirational ‘Don’t Cry for Me,’ and the hip-hop/G-funk-influenced ‘Pass the Lovin.’”
The record, which included a variety of producers, was released in January 1995. It went gold and spawned the hit single “If You Love Me,” which climbed to the pop Top 10 and reached No. 2 on the R&B chart. The follow-up single, “Grapevyne,” also cracked the R&B Top 10. Brownstone was suddenly in demand. They joined Boyz II Men on a sold-out U.S. tour, performed with Patti LaBelle, Anita Baker, Maze, and Blackstreet. In addition to performing with these renowned stars, Brownstone appeared on The Soul Train Music Awards, The Lady of Soul Awards, and the BET network’s Video Soul. In January 1996, “If You Love Me” received a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group.
Brownstone was founded by twenty-something singers Nicole Nicci Gilbert, Charmayne Maxee Maxwell, and Monica Mimi Dolby. They came together in Los Angeles, where each had come in search of a music career: Dolby from New Orleans; Gilbert from Detroit; and Maxwell from Guyana. “The threesome began singing together after seeing each other perform at a seemingly endless series of auditions,” Essence magazine reported in 1995. “There was instant chemistry. Vocally, we had a really strong blend that sounded good,” Dolby told the magazine. “We picked our name because brown is the earth and stone is solid.” Gilbert has said that shared sense of strength and stability also inhabited the friendship between these three women. “Together,” she told Essence reporter D.G. “We have a strong foundation and act as a unit.”
As it turned out, however, that foundation was not enough to keep the threesome intact. Dolby left the group in 1995, reportedly for health reasons. She was replaced by Detroiter Kina Cosper, a college friend of Gilbert’s. Cosper acknowledged the pressure she faced in joining the already successful combo. As a new member, “fitting in with the group was a challenge,” she admitted in the band’s Epic Records biography. “I was nervous when we first started recording the new album. But I’m very excited about how it turned out.” She was not the only one feeling the pressure, however, as the realigned trio began recording their second record in mid-1996. “We had to get over the sophomore jitters,” Gilbert explained in the Epic bio. “It was really important for us to realize that our job was not to try and outdo the first record, but to make an album of songs from the heart.”
They need not have worried. The album, Still Climbing, was released in June 1997 and became another critical and popular success for Brownstone. “In these days of sisters with sound-alike voices, Brownstone is one of the few female R&B groups with a distinct vocal style,” Jeremy Helligar wrote in People. “Their swaying, three-part harmonies build, build, build, then soar into what
For the Record…
Members include Nicole Nicci Gilbert, vocals; Charmayne Maxee Maxwell, vocals; and Kina Cosper, vocals; Cosper replaced founding member Monica Mimi Dolby, 1995.
Addresses: Record company —Epic Records, P.O. Box 4450, New York, NY 10101-4450.
could pass for a full choir. Unlike many of their counterparts, who seem too attached to mechanical, mid-tempo beats, Brownstone nails the emotional bull’s-eye with their torchy, slow rhythm & blues.” Helligar went on to say that Still Climbing was reminiscent of the late-70s heyday of singing groups like the Emotions and the Jones Girls, when R&B albums offered groups more than a good excuse to flounce about in fancy videos.
On Still Climbing, the group continued to work with a variety of writers and producers and again managed to create an album which was both eclectic and cohesive. The record displayed a seamless consistency derived from the threesome’s hands-on approach and special touch. Of the 12 tracks on Still Climbing, for example, eight were written or co-written by the three group members. Meanwhile, MJJ Music and its partner, Epic Records did their part by launching a strong promotional campaign that pushed Still Climbing to retailers, radio stations, and video networks. Brownstone promoted the record during a European tour, then joined singer Keith Sweat for a series of concerts in the United States.
“We didn’t necessarily set out in a different direction (on the second record) but we’ve grown more,” Gilbert told Billboards J.R. Reynolds. “One of the things that we’re most recognized for is our singing ability, and with the addition of Kina, there’s a new energy with [Still Climbing ] just like when we were recording the first album.” The first single released from Still Climbing, an R&B standout called “Five Miles to Empty,” received solid airplay and reached the R&B Top 10. The video for the song was aired on VH1, the Box, and BET. Gilbert has suggested that, despite Brownstone’s lineup change, the new album picked up where the group left off with From the Bottom Up. “It shows our vocal and creative growth,” she proclaimed in the Epic bio. “And I think it shows that, if we stay focused, we can take this all the way and be one of the best girl groups around.” Many listeners would say they’ve already reached that plateau.
From the Bottom Up, MJJ Music/Epic, 1995.
Still Climbing, MJJ Music/Epic, 1997.
Billboard, January 21, 1997; July 12, 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, February 10, 1996.
Essence, June 1995.
People, July 14, 1997.
Additional material was taken from the Epic Records website.
brown·stone / ˈbrounˌstōn/ • n. a kind of reddish-brown sandstone used for building. ∎ a building faced with such sandstone.