Cox, Deborah 1974(?)–
Deborah Cox 1974(?)–
Divas capable of vocal acrobatics appear and disappear on urban music charts quite frequently, but Canada’s Deborah Cox has qualities that set her apart from the pack: creative ability, canny music-industry instincts, sultry good looks, and a down-to-earth rootedness that enables her to connect with audiences across various lengths of the musical spectrum. Bursting on the scene with her self-titled debut album in 1995, Cox displayed a four-octave range and a smooth, powerful voice capable of standing up to the dance remixes that first brought her to stardom. Her sophomore effort, 1998’s One Wish, propelled her career sharply upward, and she told anyone who asked her that she aimed toward longevity. Few doubted that she could achieve it.
Cox was born in Toronto around 1974; her mother and stepfather had recently arrived in Canada from Guyana, on South America’s Caribbean coast. Her stepfather, Ernie, was a public housing project superintendent. The Cox family was close, with an emphasis on family meals and church attendance, and Cox has never smoked or drunk alcohol. “We were the only black family in our neighborhood with both parents,” Cox told the Canadian news weekly Macleans. Cox could carry a tune at age three; a shy child, she grew up with musical ability as a major contributor to her self-esteem. “I felt it was the thing that made me special,” she told Macleans.
Cox’s parents exposed her to reggae music and to classic R&B and soul from the U.S. She has named Gladys Knight as a strong influence. At 12, Cox won a local singing contest and began to sing jingles for television commercials. She had attended Catholic schools through eighth grade, but her growing musical experience won her admission to the prestigious Claude Watson School for the Arts. There Cox studied classical music and jazz. That “wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Cox told Interview. “But it opened my eyes to classical music, and that became my foundation for vocal training.” She maintained a connection to the R&B music she loved by appearing in the evenings in Toronto nightclubs, and by the end of her high school years was already a veteran performer. Cox also appeared in the U.S. in the 1990 musical Mamma, I Want to Sing.
Another crucial link in the chain of events leading to Cox’s breakthrough also occurred during her high
At a Glance…
Born ca. 1974, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; married Lascelles Stephens, 1998. Education: Attended Claude Watson School for the Arts, Toronto.
Career: Vocalist. Appeared in Broadway musical Mamma, I Want to Sing, 1990; moved to Los Angeles, CA, 1994; personally signed to Arista label by chief executive Clive Davis; released debut album, Deborah Cox, 1995; toured with Celine Dion; released second album, One Wish, 1998; third album slated for release in 2001.
Awards: Juno Award; first Canadian to win a Soul Train Award; platinum album for One Wish, 1998.
school years: when she was just 15, she met and began to work with her songwriting partner and eventual romantic partner Lascelles Stephens. At the time, Stephens was a forklift operator by day and a hip-hop producer and songwriter by night, and he set out to make Cox a star. “There was creative chemistry between us from the start,” Cox told Jet. They mailed out countless demo tapes of songs they had recorded together, but without success.
Frustrated, Cox and Stephens moved to Los Angeles in 1994, although Cox still considers Canada her home. The move to that center of the U.S. music industry paid off, as Cox got the chance to make a personal impression on Arista label head Clive Davis, a star-maker with a long track record that included launching the careers of Bruce Springsteen and Whitney Houston—a vocalist to whom Cox has often been compared. Meeting Davis “was very intimidating,” Cox told Interview. “I changed my outfit about ten times—I didn’t know what was appropriate to wear to a meeting with the CEO of a record company.”
Cox sang unaccompanied for Davis in his office, and he immediately signed her to the Arista label. “That combination of a spectacular voice, beauty and an ability to write songs is very rare,” he told Macleans. Cox went on tour with Canadian diva Celine Dion, learning from that star some of the tricks of keeping a virtuoso voice in top condition under the pressure of a high-profile career. She began to realize the importance of the vocal exercises she had learned while studying classical music in high school in Toronto. As the 21-year-old singer began to learn the ropes of the industry, she recorded and launched her first album, Deborah Cox, in 1995.
That CD sold well in the U.S. and earned Cox a Best New Artist nomination at the American Music Awards. Its lead single, “Sentimental,” was a restrained number that kept Cox’s vocal gifts somewhat in reserve for the future. Internationally the album did even better, reportedly selling in excess of a million copies. With the cosmopolitan influences that resulted from her Canadian upbringing, Cox has always held strong appeal for international audiences. That appeal strengthened when a remix of “Things Just Ain’t the Same” became popular in dance clubs on both sides of the Atlantic.
Cox toured in support of her debut album through most of 1996, learning more and more about how to take control of her own career. “After the first album, I switched management and tightened up the business side of things,” she told Interview. “I came to understand that it is a business—it’s not about friendship. That allowed me to be freer, artistically.” Cox’s second album, One Wish, was released in 1998, with Cox playing a major role in selecting both the songs and the production personnel. Cox co-wrote three of the songs on the album, and enlisted such top R&B producers as David Foster, DJ Quik, and Naughty by Nature’s Kay Gee.
Vocalist and songwriter Montell Jordan and producer-songwriter Shep Crawford contributed the song “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” to One Wish, and the song turned into a career-maker for Cox. A gospel-drenched romantic ballad depicting a woman who finds love when she least expects it, “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” unleashed the full power of Cox’s voice. It featured a gospel-style piano that, Cox pointed out to Ebony, “gave it a live feel like it was recorded in concert.” The song mobilized a huge base of African American female fans for Cox, and spent an impressive 14 weeks at the top of Billboard magazine’s R&B album chart. The album had a wider musical range than her debut release, incorporating hip-hop, jazz, and acoustic influences. In 1999 Cox went on tour with R&B superstar R. Kelly.
Rooted in a renewed Christian faith, in her 1998 marriage to Stephens (which she kept mostly under wraps), and in a deeply positive attitude, Cox looked toward the release of her third album (slated for the year 2001) with the aim of building a long-lasting career. She rejected the ways of those who used negative energy to advance their goals. “There’s this notion that if you’re a female in the business that you have to be a ‘b, ’ and I disagree,” she told Ebony. Instead, she told the magazine, she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her idols—Billie Holiday, Gladys Knight, Tina Turner, and Aretha Franklin. “Those are classic soul singers who have longevity, and that’s exactly what I’m striving for in this business,” she said. “Those are the greats to me—the true divas.”
Deborah Cox, Arista, 1995.
One Wish, Arista, 1998.
Larkin, Colin, ed., The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
Billboard, August 29, 1998, p. 31; November 7, 1998, p. 13; October 16, 1999, p. 88.
Ebony, March 1999, p. 36.
Entertainment Weekly, October 6, 1995, p. 64.
Interview, May 1999, p. 40.
Jet, November 27, 1995, p. 33; December 28, 1998, p. 55.
Maclean’s, March 4, 1996, p. 70; July 19, 1999, p. 38.
Additional information was found online at All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com
—James M. Manheim