After making an impact on the R&B charts with a series of hits in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Miki Howard’s career was derailed by personal problems and the public’s changing musical tastes. An abusive relationship with her husband had spilled over into her professional life and contributed to her problems getting a recording contract by the mid-1990s. The trend toward a harder, hip-hop sound also left Howard’s jazz-oriented R&B out of favor, further dimming her commercial prospects. Gradually putting her personal and professional lives back on track, Howard took on some cameo roles in the films Malcolm X and Poetic Justice, toured in the stage production of Dream Girls, and then returned to the studio in 1997 to record her first album of original material in several years with Can’t Count Me Out. In 2001 Howard reaffirmed her status as a respected soul artist with the acclaimed album Three Wishes, which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional R&B Recording in 2002.
Born in 1962 in Chicago, Illinois, Alicia Michelle “Miki” Howard was the daughter of two well-known gospel singers. Her father, Clay Graham, sang with the Pilgrim Jubiliees and her mother, Josephine Howard, was a member of the Caravans, a group that would eventually be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. During her childhood in Chicago and Detroit, Howard met some of the best singers of the day when they visited her family. “It was nothing for me to see James Cleveland, Billy Preston, and Fats Domino in my house,” she related on the Peak Records website. “I was surrounded by music every day, so I knew I wanted to sing professionally someday.” Among Howard’s earliest influences were family friends Dinah Washington—to whom she would later be compared—and Aretha Franklin. Howard also counted Nina Simone, Shirley Bassey, Lena Home, and Judy Garland among her favorite vocalists.
When Howard was in her early teens, her mother moved the family to Los Angeles. Already aiming at a career in music, the 15-year-old Howard received her first break when she participated in a teen beauty contest. Augie Johnson, leader of the group Side Effect, happened to be in the audience; impressed with Howard’s singing talent, he introduced her to Wayne Henderson, who signed the teenager to a contract with his At Home Productions. Howard also joined the lineup of Side Effect in 1978 when another singer departed. For the next couple of years, Howard continued to sing with the group and performed backup vocals as a studio singer for jazz great Stanley Turrentine, Wayne Henderson, Roy Ayers, Grover Washington, Jr., and Philip Bailey. Howard and Johnson also began a personal relationship that produced two children.
Side Effect’s last album appeared in 1982. Already in demand as a session vocalist, Howard credited her appearance with Side Effect on comic deejay Rick Dees’ singles in the early 1980s as the catalyst for her solo career. “It was my experience with Rick that made me want to go solo,” she recounted on the Peak Records website. “We performed at the L.A. Amphitheater and I saw the dressing room marked ‘Star’ and I was jealous and wanted my own room.” Howard signed a contract with Atlantic Records in the mid-1980s and recorded her first solo album, Come Share My Love, in 1986. The title track from the album was its first single, hitting the top ten of the R&B charts and reaching number five in late 1986. A remake of the pop standard “Imagination,” which Howard had fought to include on Come Share My Love, was another hit from the album.
Howard’s second solo album, 1988’s Love Confessions, offered another top-five R&B hit with “Baby Be Mine.” “That’s What Love Is,” a duet with Gerald Levert, also hit the R&B charts; the song reflected a real-life romance between the two singers that lasted until 1990. In the meantime, Howard’s third solo album, Miki Howard, was released in 1989 and proved her most commercially successful to date. The single “Ain’t Nuthin’ in the World” became Howard’s first number-one hit on the R&B charts and another song cowritten by Howard and Levert, “Love under New Manágement,” followed it to number two. Although it was not her biggest hit, “Love under New Manágement” became one of Howard’s signature tunes.
For the Record…
Born Alicia Michelle Howard in 1962 in Chicago, IL; married and divorced, early 1990s; two children.
Sang with Side Effect, 1978-c. 1982; signed with Atlantic Records, c. 1985; released first solo album, Come Share My Love, 1987; signed with Giant Records, 1991; made movie acting debut in Malcolm X, 1992; toured with stage production Dream Girls, c. 1997; signed with Peak Records, 1999; released Three Wishes, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Peak Records, 22761 Pacific Coast Hwy., Suite 240, Malibu, CA 90265, website: http://www.peak-records.com.
After her romance with Levert ended, Howard entered into a marriage that would prove disrupting to her both personally and professionally. In addition to physically assaulting Howard, her husband also interfered with her recording contracts. “The first year that we were married, he started beating me up,” Howard admitted to David Nathan of the R&B and Soul Newsletter. “He was also my Manáger and he was responsible for taking me away from Atlantic Records in the first place, back in 1990. It got worse over the years: I knew I had to get away especially when he sat on a roof opposite where I was living for five days after he had threatened to kill me.” Despite turmoil at home, Howard continued with a successful solo career after switching to Giant Records in 1991. Her first single under her new contract, “Ain’t Nobody like You,” became Howard’s second number-one R&B single. The subsequent album, 1992’s Femme Fatale, featured Howard’s renditions of classic tracks originally performed by Dinah Washington (“This Bitter Earth”) and Billie Holiday (“Good Morning Heartache”).
After a casting director saw her perform some Billie Holiday tunes at a New York City concert, Howard was offered the chance to portray Holiday in a nightclub scene in director Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X. The following year, Howard recorded an entire album of Holiday songs, Miki Sings Billie, including her favorite Holiday tune, “Don’t Explain.” In 1993 Howard made another movie appearance in director John Singleton’s Poetic Justice. By that time, the singer had extricated herself from her disastrous marriage, but not before her husband had damaged her career. As she explained to Nathan, “I found out that after he had gone to Giant Records and made a scene, I had become ‘blackballed’ in the industry because of what he had done.… For instance, I remember I was about to sign with RCA Records and the deal fell through. That was a crushing blow. With all that was going on in my life at the time, I decided to ‘retire’ for a while to get myself together.” Howard’s career also suffered in the early 1990s from her lack of crossover success on the pop charts. As Mark Anthony Neal wrote in a review of Howard’s career on the Pop Matters website, “She did not fit the standard ‘lite, bright, and tight’ criteria that the recording industry expected of its most commercially successful sirens” such as Whitney Houston and Jody Whatley. On the other hand, neither did Howard’s music or image fit in with the edgier hip-hop movement beginning to dominate the charts.
Moving to Atlanta with her three children in the aftermath of her divorce, Howard was comforted by friends Chaka Khan, Cherelle, and Patti LaBelle. She released Live Plus in 1996 and a comeback album of original material, Can’t Count Me Out, in 1997. Howard also toured in the road company of the Broadway musical Dream Girls in the role of Deena. By 1999 Howard was ready to revive her recording career in earnest. As she related to Nathan, she simply contacted her Manágers and said, “I need to make a record.” “One of my co-managers at the time had started Peak Records so it was uncanny,” Howard continued. “I got a deal pretty quickly with the label! Lots of my friends started coming out of the woodwork to give me songs and before we knew it, we had ten ready to go.”
Howard’s first album of original material in four years, Three Wishes, was released in 2001 to excellent reviews. The album earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Traditional R&B Recording; although she lost out to Gladys Knight in that category, the nomination itself represented an artistic comeback for Howard. After 25 years in the music business, the singer was comfortable with her place in the industry and resigned to the compromises it demanded. “I know the album [Three Wishes] isn’t as gritty as a general Miki Howard record because it wouldn’t fit today’s millennium climate,” she told Steven Fullwood in an interview for Africana.com. “Oh, no doubt, we love those records, and I can sing ‘em live, but they wouldn’t work in today’s market. On the radio, it’s even hard for Aretha to scream and holler, hard for Chaka. It’s hard for us big mouth girls. It’s not the time of the big mouth girls.” In 2001 The Very Best of Miki Howard, including her top R&B hits from the late 1980s and early 1990s, was released on Rhino Records.
Come Share My Love, Atlantic, 1986.
Love Confessions, Atlantic, 1988.
Miki Howard, Atlantic, 1989.
Femme Fatale, Giant, 1992.
Miki Sings Billie, Giant, 1993.
Live Plus, Warlock, 1996.
Can’t Count Me Out, HUSH, 1997.
Three Wishes, Peak, 2001.
The Very Best of Miki Howard, Rhino, 2001.
Billboard, April 7, 2001, p. 18; July 21, 2001, p. 21.
“Miki Howard,” Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com/ (April 17, 2002).
“Miki Howard,” Peak Records website, http://www.peakrecords.com/bios/miki.html (April 16, 2002).
“Miki Howard,” R&B and Soul Newsletter, http://www.davidnathan.com/april2001news.htm (April 16, 2002).
“Miki Howard,” R&B Page, http://www.rbpage.com/artists/MikiHoward.html (April 17, 2002).
Miki Howard,” Soul Walking, http://www.soulwalking.co.uk/Miki%20Howard.html (April 16, 2002).
“Soul Survivors,” Pop Matters Music Review, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/h/hewitthowardverybest.html (April 17, 2002).
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