More than most other contemporary singers who attempt the style, Ann Nesby evokes the classic, gospel-drenched soul vocals of Aretha Franklin and the vocal powerhouse for whom she sang backup for a time, Patti LaBelle. Yet Nesby is more than an imitator of the classics; her music makes use of a wide range of styles and modern production techniques. Her fan base encompasses not only gospel audiences but also clubgoers. Known to a wide listenership as the lead vocalist of the Minneapolis-based gospel choir Sounds of Blackness, Nesby has gained new admirers with a variety of appearances on stage and in film.
Nesby has been reticent about her birthdate, but the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Atlanta Journal-Constitution both reported her age as 45 in late 2003. A native of Joliet, Illinois, Nesby was the daughter of religious parents who both sang gospel music. Her father was a minister and her mother, who was a Mahalia Jackson fan, gave her voice lessons from a very early age. When she was four, she sang a solo at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. "I was scared to death, especially when the enthusiastic church members jumped up and started yelling 'Sing, baby, sing!,'" Nesby recalled to Deardra Shuler of the Black World Today website. "At four years old, it seemed they were screaming at me. I jumped out of the chair crying and ran to my mother tearfully." Nesby's mother explained that the churchgoers were encouraging her, and a vocal career was born.
Although only gospel was permitted in the family home, Nesby also developed secular leanings. She and two friends formed a talent show trio, with Nesby playing the role of Aretha Franklin, while her friends impersonated Gladys Knight and Mavis Staples. They emerged as winners after a Chicago nightclub appearance, but Nesby gave in after her father ordered her to withdraw. After Nesby graduated from Joliet Central High School in 1973, her family moved to Rockford, Illinois, where her father became pastor of a church. Nesby had a child out of wedlock at 16, married at 19, and confined her artistic activities to singing on Sunday and serving as minister of music at her father's church. She held down a job as a cosmetologist, so she had few opportunities to apply her talent beyond a local level. Two of her three children grew up to have musical careers, and the third studied for the ministry.
Nesby's emotionally abusive marriage broke up, and she began taking steps to broaden her musical horizons. She took vocal workshops with the legendary singer and choir leader the Rev. James Cleveland, and in 1984 began singing backup for Patti LaBelle, who would later record a number of Nesby's original songs. In 1986 Nesby appeared in a gospel musical, Sing Hallelujah, that premiered in Cincinnati and moved on to New York City the following year.
In 1988 Nesby made a trip to Minneapolis to visit her older sister, Shirley Marie Graham, a member of the Twin Cities-based and nationally known Sounds of Blackness choir. Sounds of Blackness director Gary Hines was aware of her talent and was also sensitive to her relative lack of experience; hoping to sign her to the group, he asked her whether she could fill in at a rehearsal for a Christmas musical in which the choir was participating. Nesby was quickly made a part of Sounds of Blackness and was featured as lead vocalist on recordings like "Optimistic," which, thanks to the sharp production values overlaid on a gospel foundation by the hitmaking team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, attracted listeners far beyond regular gospel circles.
Several times, Nesby got a taste of fame at the highest levels. In 1992, as Sounds of Blackness prepared to sing backup for vocalist Luther Vandross at the Grammy Awards ceremony, Vandross brought her to meet Aretha Franklin, another program participant. "Imagine this, being introduced to Aretha Franklin by Luther Vandross," Nesby told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Two Sounds of Blackness albums—Evolution of Gospel and A Soulful Celebration, the latter based on classical composer George Friderick Handel's Messiah—won Grammy Awards at the ceremony.
By 1996, Nesby felt ready for prime time and released a solo album, I'm Here for You, on Jam and Lewis's Perspective label. Nesby saw chart action with the single "I'm Still Wearing Your Name," but the album, which was divided between religious and secular material, didn't carve out a distinctive image for Nesby in the marketplace. After a merger between Perspective and the giant hip-hop label Interscope, Nesby found herself without a contract.
Moving from Minneapolis to Atlanta in 1997, Nesby quickly found other outlets for her vocal talents. She appeared on stage in "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" playwright Tyler Perry's "I Know I've Been Changed," whose touring production featured Nesby's "I'm Still Wearing Your Name." That led to a slot in a gospel musical, Cover Girls, written by Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes. Nesby contributed songs to several film soundtracks, including that of Batman. The acting experience led to a part for Nesby in the Beyonce Knowles/Cuba Gooding film The Fighting Temptations (2003). She played the role of a woman named Aunt Sally, who offers a large bequest to her nephew (Gooding) if he will agree to direct a church choir and enter it in a gospel music competition.
Music remained front and center in Nesby's life, however. In 2002 she and her second husband, Timothy Lee, formed their own Time Child label and released the Put It on Paper album, a rousing collection of old-school tracks that won distribution from the large Universal conglomerate. The album's title track was a duet with another of Nesby's idols, Al Green, and it brought the singer another Grammy nomination, this time in the Traditional R&B category. Green, according to Craig Seymour of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, complimented Nesby as "a real soul sista."
"Put It on Paper" scored some radio airplay, but not enough to persuade Universal to renew Nesby's distribution deal. Undaunted, she and Lee pushed forward with the 2003 release Make Me Better, which featured a guest appearance by rapper King Cyz and won praise from the Washington Post as "a spirited and spiritual blend of gospel, soul, and hip-hop, pitched somewhere between the pulpit and the disco." By that time Nesby had amassed a solid base of fans—many of them, atypically for a gospel-based artist, in the gay community. Nesby embraced her gay listeners. She told the Washington Blade, "This walk is about love. Some people make the mistake of believing it's something else."
Various projects were on Nesby's plate in 2005. She had never cut her ties with Sounds of Blackness, and was featured that year on the choir's Unity release. Nesby auditioned for a part in an upcoming production of the Broadway musical Hairspray, and she and Lee readied a new album, Ann Nesby Live, for release in 2006. That album, her admirers hoped, would enable listeners to experience the full force of what Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star Tribune called "one of the most magnificent voices of our time."
For the Record …
Born c. 1958 in Joliet, IL; father was a minister, and mother sang gospel music; married and divorced; married second husband, Timothy Lee; children: three.
Began singing backup for Patti LaBelle, 1984; performed in musical Sing Hallelujah, 1986; joined Sounds of Blackness gospel choir, 1988; released solo debut album, I'm Here for You, 1996; performed in Tyler Perry play I Know I've Been Changed, 1997; formed label Time Child and released Put It on Paper, 2002; released Make Me Better, 2003; Ann Nesby Live, 2006.
Addresses: Agent—KBM, 1830 Westholme Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90025, website: http://www.creativesoulartists.com. Website—Ann Nesby Official Website: http://www.annnesby.com.
I'm Here for You, Perspective, 1996.
Put It on Paper, Universal, 2002.
Make Me Better, Time Child, 2003.
Ann Nesby Live, 2006.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 19, 2002, p. E2; January 26, 2003, p. M4; August 13, 2003, p. E2; September 22, 2003, p. E1.
Ebony, July 2005, p. 44.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), May 19, 1996, p. F1; December 19, 2003, p. E1.
Washington Blade, September 19, 2003.
Washington Post, April 2, 1999, p. C1; December 12, 2003, p. T7.
"Ann Nesby," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 3, 2005).
"Ann Nesby," Creative Souls Artists, http://www.creativesoulartists.com (September 3, 2005).
"Ann Nesby: God Spoke and Nesby Sang," The Black World Today, http://www.tbwt.org/index.php=?option=content&task=view&id=530 (September 3, 2005).
Ann Nesby Official Website, http://www.annnesby.com (September 3, 2005).
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