Vonda Shepard has risen to national fame as the resident lounge singer on the television series Ally McBeal. Though a struggling musician for many years before working on the show, Shepard did not immediately see the success her work on the series would bring. But as Ally McBeal fans now know, Shepard’s role on the show was a career turning point. A central character in the series, the songs Shepard has performed on McBeal have resulted in four soundtrack albums.
It was famed television producer David E. Kelley who approached Shepard about singing on Ally McBeal, one of the more popular comedy/drama series to debut in recent years. Pleased to find any work at the time, she jumped at the chance, but Shepard had no idea just what a chance she had been given. “I was like, ‘yeah, I’m going to make a couple of thousand dollars,” she is quoted in a Sing365.com biography. “I thought I was going to just have a couple of songs on the show.” It’s not as though Shepard was an overnight wonder, however. She’d worked hard since her early teens to advance her musical career, but before Ally McBeal, she had not had a great deal of success, at least in terms of winning national recognition. But all that changed when she found her name had become a regular fixture in the show’s credits, giving her music a far broader audience.
Born on July 7, 1963, in New York City, Shepard is one of four daughters of Richmond, an actor and acting coach, and Hadria, a former fashion model. She and sisters Rosetta, Luana, and Brianna moved from New York to Southern California when Shepard was still quite young. At age six, she began taking piano lessons and displayed enormous discipline in pursuing her newfound love. Her father recalled for People in 1998 that Vonda “was playing the piano six to eight hours a day from the age of 7.” She later took up the guitar and worked equally hard to master that instrument.
A major trauma for Shepard and her sisters came when Vonda was ten. Her mother, Hadria, walked out on her husband, leaving him to raise all four girls on his own. The abrupt departure of her mother “was the worst,” Shepard later told People. “I didn’t realize how bad it was until later.” But not even this trauma could deter Shepard from pursuing the show business career she had set her heart on. By the time she was 14, Shepard had begun to make appearances in clubs in the Los Angeles area, while still attending Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. By the age of 16, she had left school to devote all her energies to her budding musical career.
Some doubts about her future began to emerge as Shepard entered her 20s. She took a few years off to study acting, a career avenue that she seriously considered for awhile. In the end, however, her love of
Born on July 7, 1963, in New York, NY; daughter of Richmond (an actor) and Hadria Shepard (a model).
Began studying piano, age six; first appeared in Los Angeles-area clubs, age 14; studied acting for four years, early 1980s; played live gigs in Los Angeles area, provided back-up vocals and keyboard accompaniment for recording sessions of Jackson Browne, Al Jarreau, others, mid-1980s; went on tour with Ricky Lee Jones, 1984; scored hit with “Can’t We Try,” a duet recorded with Dan Hill; released self-titled first album, 1989; followed up with The Radical Light, 1992; won critical praise for It’s Good, Eve, 1996; breakthrough came with soundtrack album Songs from Ally; McBeal, 1998; released commercially successful By 7:30, 1999; released additional Ally McBeal soundtrack albums, 1999-2001.
Addresses: Record company —VesperAlley Records, 310 Washington Blvd., Suite 212, Marina del Rey, CA 90292, website: http://www.vesperalley.com/. Management —Gail Gellman Management, 23852 Pacific Coast Highway, Suite 920, Malibu, CA 90265.
music prevailed, and she went back to performing live shows full time. Among her admirers during the early years on the Los Angeles club circuit was actress Michelle Pfeiffer, a contact that was to prove invaluable in the years to come.
In 1984 she went on tour with singer Ricky Lee Jones, providing backup vocals and keyboards. “And we danced and everything, the whole thing,” she later recalled for Lisa McRee on ABC’s Good Morning America. Asked if she ever worried that she would never be more than a backup singer, Shepard told McRee: “I didn’t think I was going to be [just a backup singer], you know, because I had always pursued my own song writing for so long, since a very young age. And I was hoping that this would—you know, that this would happen, and it’s happening.” In addition to her work for Ricky Lee Jones, Shepard provided similar backup in recording sessions for such artists as Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell.
On the strength of her club appearances in Southern California, Shepard was signed in 1987 to a recording contract by Reprise Records. Her first album, selftitled, was released in 1989 and managed to spawn a hit single, entitled “Don’t Cry, llene.” This album was followed three years later by her second effort, also for Reprise, entitled The Radical Light Although two songs from the second album—“Searchin’ My Soul” and “Wake Up the House”—managed to win some radio play, sales of both of Shepard’s albums for Reprise were generally disappointing. Shortly after the 1992 release of The Radical Light, Shepard and Reprise parted ways.
Critics warmly greeted the singer’s third album, It’s Good, Eve, released on the independent VesperAlley label, lavishing praise on the maturity and thoughtfulness of her work. The album, however, was not exactly a roaring commercial success. Two of the singles from the album did reasonably well: “The Wildest Times of the World,” which was eventually used on the McBeal show, and “Maryland.” The lukewarm popular reception for It’s Good, Eve ensured at least for the time being that Shepard would remain tied to the Los Angeles club circuit. She typically played in small clubs like Hollywood’s Genghis Cohen Café.
Shepard’s friendship with longtime fan Michelle Pfeiffer paid off in a big way in early 1997. Pfeiffer had become involved with television producer David E. Kelley, whom she would eventually marry. The two discovered that both were big fans of Shepard’s music. Shortly after Shepard’s appearance at Billboard Live in Los Angeles, Kelley approached the singer and asked if she would be interested in contributing some of her music to a new series he was planning to introduce. That series, of course, was Ally McBeal. However, the enormity of the opportunity she was being given at first eluded Shepard. “When I started, I had no idea Ally would be what it’s become,” she told Hip Online. “But I knew David was a brilliant, respected writer. A lot of people are intimidated by him, but he and I have this mutual respect and regard.” Not long after she had won a permanent place for herself in the cast of television’s Ally McBeal, Shepard told Hip Online: “I think back to a year and a half ago, when I was playing in a club for 35 people and saying, ‘Where is my audience?’”
As of late summer of 2001, Ally McBeal had spawned four soundtrack albums. The first, Songs from Ally McBeal, was released in May of 1998, followed in November of 1999 by Heart and Soul: New Songs from Ally McBeal Featuring Vonda Shepard. Next came a collection of Christmas songs from the television show, entitled A Very Ally Christmas, released in November of 2000, and that album was followed in April of 2001 by Ally McBeal: For Once in My Life Featuring Vonda Shepard.
As to what the future may hold for Vonda Shepard, the singer is somewhat vague. Comparing herself to the title character in the television series that has brought her nationwide recognition, she told Hip Online: “I’m like her in that I’m a ‘90s career woman who works hard and still struggles with the messages instilled in her during childhood. There’s the desire to get married and have kids someday, but questioning that at the same time. Women my age, even if we’re feminists and liberals, we still have these voices that pull at us. And forget all the other stuff—you don’t want to end up alone.”
Vonda Shepard (includes “Don’t Cry, llene”), Reprise, 1989.
The Radical Light (includes “Searchin’ My Soul” and “Wake Up the House”), Reprise, 1992.
It’s Good, Eve (includes “Maryland” and “The Wildest Times in the World”), VesperAlley, 1996.
Songs from Ally McBeal (includes “I Only Want to Be with You” and “End of the World”), 550 Music, 1998.
By 7:30, Jacket, 1999.
Heart and Soul: New Songs from Ally McBeal Featuring Vonda Shepard, 550 Music, 1999.
A Very Ally Christmas, 550 Music, 2000.
Ally McBeal: For Once in My Life Featuring Vonda Shepard, 550 Music, 2001.
People, June 1, 1998, p. 123.
“Biography: Vonda Shepard,” Hip Online, http://www.hiponline.com/artist/music/s/sheparvonda/ (December 11, 2001).
“Vonda Shepard,” Sing365.com, http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/SingerUnid/EA110750DB999D1A4825691C001323F4 (December 11, 2001).
Good Morning America transcript, May 14, 1998.
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