Lisa Stansfield—the 23-year-old British pop and soul vocalist who won international fame in 1989 with the release of her first solo album, Affection— simultaneously achieved a strange kind of notoriety in the music world. Critics responding to her music have largely focused on her use of 1970s disco sounds, creating a controversy over the reemergence of a musical style that, since the “death” of disco in the early 1980s, many had come to assume was universally despised. Rolling Stone correspondent Rob Tannen-baum’s description of Stansfield’s impact on the music scene typifies the terms that many reviewers have used: “All right, so disco has never been scientifically proven to be harmful. But a dozen years ago, when Stansfield was necking to Sylvester records in England, [disco film]Saturday Night Fever backlash was turning ’Disco sucks’ into an American motto. So when the musician describes her music as disco, without embarrassment or apology, a sociocultural moment has evolved.”
Stansfield was born in 1966, the second of three daughters. Her family lived in the small suburb of Rochdale, in Northern England, not far from the industrial and economically depressed city of Manchester. The area has produced a number of England’s most successful rock and pop music bands, particularly those with alternative or new wave sounds, but it was unlikely that Stansfield’s musical influences would take her in that direction. She told Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, “Most of my influences were soul singers... Diana Ross, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, among the women.” It was their records that her mother had around the house; others included Barry White, George Benson, Sylvester, and Curtis Mayfield. However, a People correspondent wrote that her “dad... used to play his favorite records too. ’But I never sang Black Sabbath, “Stansfield [said].” The first record Stansfield ever bought herself was teen idol Donny Osmond’s “Puppy Love” in 1972.
Despite the fact that, in the words of Rolling Stone’s Tannenbaum, there “was no evidence of musical talent in the family,” Stansfield’s performing career started quite early and rose steadily. At the age of 14, she left school to become the hostess for a variety show on a local television station. Stansfield described her role on the show in People, reporting, “I was 14 and being dressed like Joan Collins on a bad day.” She eventually left this show for one called Razzmatazz that offered a larger audience and a larger paycheck, about which the singer added in People, “I was a minor celebrity getting £500 a week, just for saying a few words and smiling a lot. I thought, “This is scandalous!”’
Born in 1966 in Rochdale, England; daughter of Keith (a draftsman) and Marian Stansfield; divorced.
Singer, 1980—. Performed in local clubs and on television variety shows, including Razzmatazz, early 1980s; collaborated with Andy Morris and Ian Devaney, c. 1984; with Morris and Devaney, formed group Blue Zone, 1986; produced dance singles with Coldcut (English production duo Matt Black and Jonathan More), 1988-89; released first solo album, Affection, 1989; contributed “Down in the Depths” to Cole Porter tribute anthology Red, Hot and Blue to raise money for AIDS research, 1990.
Selected awards: BRIT awards for best newcomer, 1989 and 1990, and best female artist, 1990 and 1991; Silver Clef Award for best new artist, 1990; Ivor Novello awards for best contemporary song, 1990, and best international song, 1991, both for “All Around the World.”
Addresses: Manager —Jazz Summers, Big Life Management, 15 Little Portland St., London WIN 5DE, England. Record company —Arista Records, Arista Building, 6 West 57th St., New York, NY, 10019.
In the early 1980s, while she was smiling and singing on television, Stansfield also sang in some local social clubs and recorded a few singles that were never released. As she explained to Tannenbaum in Rolling Stone, Stansfield found those first efforts to be “a total embarrassment.” It wasn’t until 1984, at the age of 18, that Stansfield found the opportunity that allowed her to begin recording with greater success. She began working with two friends whom she had known in school, Andy Morris and Ian Devaney. The three had first worked together in a school production—a musical—in which Stansfield had a leading role and Devaney and Morris played in the band. The two young men began writing music with her—as well as playing guitar and horns on the recordings—and eventually became her producers.
In 1986 the trio chose a name for the group, calling themselves Blue Zone. Two years later they recorded the tracks for an album, tentatively titled Big Thing, but were ultimately dissatisfied with the work and chose not to release it. They did, however, release a single by the same title that became popular in British dance clubs. Consequently, an invitation arrived from Coldcut, the working name for producers Matt Black and Jonathan More. Black and More—an important duo in the British music business—wanted a guest appearance from the group on their dance collection, What’s That Noise? Blue Zone not only contributed “People Hold On,” but also prepared another single with Coldcut, “This Is the Right Time.” Both ventures became popular club tunes in England, inspiring the musicians to produce another album—this one presented as a solo vehicle for Stansfield—that was the beginning of Affection, released in 1989.
While her career became increasingly successful, Stansfield’s private life also underwent some dramatic changes. The singer made a point, however, of keeping the two worlds apart; consequently, according to Nick Coleman in Vogue, “Stansfield has a vanished past.” Protected by this silence are details concerning a brief marriage that ended before Stansfield’s rise to fame. After the break-up of that mysterious relationship, Stansfield became seriously involved with Devaney—the two started a home together sometime around 1988, before the production of Affection.
As soon as her first solo album hit the airwaves and record stores in 1989, Stansfield became the kind of celebrated “new face” in the music world that inspired euphoric commentary by reviewers. The excitement about her voice and her musical style blended fluidly into statements about her presence in general. David Fricke concluded in his Rolling Stone review of Affection: “Stansfield evokes the great black soul stylists of the mid-Seventies with a natural ease and practiced elegance that make the simple ’ay-ay-ay-ay’ hook in ’All Around the World’ sound like dancefloor Shakespeare. Stansfield could arguably have made it this year on her Ingrid Bergman-as-disco-urchin looks alone. That voice makes her a real Dreamgirl for the Nineties.”
Added to the generally positive tone of the reviews for Affection were the professional rewards that the album prompted. Soon after its release, the album jumped into the Top Ten on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. “All Around the World” quickly emerged as the hit single, reaching a Number One spot on rhythm and blues and dance charts in at least seven countries by June of 1990. Most notably, “All Around the World” and “You Can’t Deny It” were consecutive Number One hits on the Billboard black music chart, making Stansf ield the first British woman to achieve this distinction. The achievement was a particularly significant one—in 1990 Robert Hilburn reported in the Los Angeles Times that ’“All Around the World’ is one of the few singles in recent years by a white artist to reach No. 1 on the black music charts in the United States.”
Something aside from music did eventually prompt derogatory remarks from a few quarters. After the release of Affection, journalists and fans commented a great deal on Stansfield’s image, which tenaciously resisted sexual stereotypes with her closely cropped hair and menswear clothing. Upon the release of Real Love in 1991, however, Stansfield also unleashed a new image, including tight minidresses and chic curls.
This transformation in no way slowed the sales of Real Love, which garnered the same kind of attention for the quality of her voice and the “disco” sound in which she and her production duo continued to indulge. In 1992 Stephen Holden voiced the official Rolling Stone evaluation: “What makes the mix special is Stansfield’s wantonly emotive singing, which is as luscious as melting chocolate.... Her voice is even richer and the arrangements more inventive and far-reaching than on Affection.”
Affection (includes “All Around the World” and”You Can’t Deny It), Arista, 1989.
Real Love (includes “Change”), Arista, 1991.
(Contributor)Red Hot and Blue, Chrysalis, 1990.
(Contributor)Red Hot and Dance, Columbia, 1992.
Advocate, August 25, 1992.
Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1990.
Mademoiselle, June 1990.
People, July 30, 1990.
Rolling Stone, July 12, 1990; December 13, 1990; January 9, 1992.
Vogue, August 1990.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an Arista Records press biography, 1991.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc