Singer, songwriter, producer, arranger
Drawing on her gospel roots and her professional experience dating back to Stevie Wonder’s group Wonderlove in the late 1970s, Angela Winbush has established herself as a gifted rhythm and blues singer and songwriter and as one of the few successful women producers and arrangers in the industry. On her 1994 album, Angela Winbush, she combined the best of new production technology and the old-fashioned bottom line—musical talent. “It’s fun to create new things, and I’m not against that,” she told J. D. Considine of Musician in 1994. “But I am against losing a sense of how to pass on a certain type of creativity and musicianship.… I look for the feel, so I find myself trying to mix the two so I don’t lose either one.”
In addition to her solo work, Winbush has made her mark as a producer, mixing 1990s beat-heavy “New Jack” sound with impressive vocals and instrumentation. She has earned production credits on albums by such artists as Janet Jackson, the Isley Brothers, Sheena Easton, Stephanie Mills, and Lalah Hathaway. After doing some recording, in 1990 she started her own production company, Angela Winbush Productions, which she manages with her husband, Ronald Isley. Commenting on Winbush’s musical talent, Jeryl Bargin-ear of the Michigan Citizen wrote, she is “a musician’s musician with a savvy approach, sassy delivery and effortless sensuality.”
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Winbush grew up grounded in gospel. In a feature in the Philadelphia Tribune on the impact of the Black Church on African-American music, Judson Alexia wrote, “From gospel to jazz, rap to rock, the tentacles of the Black Church’s influence stretches the musical gamut.” Winbush herself attested to the importance of the church to music and cited her own involvement in the church and in other musical circles. “I grew up in the church,” she recalled in the Philadelphia Tribune. “I’m still in the church. I also grew up on jazz and I love it.”
A music teacher in St. Louis recognized Winbush’s talent early on and encouraged her to develop her gifts. Winbush listened. She enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and took lessons from the same vocal coach who had instructed Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. Winbush was soon singing with Stevie Wonder.
In the late 1970s, Winbush began her career singing live and in the studio with Wonder and a number of other artists, including Lenny Williams, Jean Carn, and Dolly Parton. Wonder’s group, Wonderlove, and the album
For the Record …
Born in St. Louis, MO; married Ronald Isley (a recording artist), 1993. Education: Attended Howard University.
Singer with Stevie Wonder’s Wonderlove, late 1970s; singer with René & Angela, 1980; embarked on solo recording career and released Sharp, Mercury, 1987; coproducer for the Isley Brothers, beginning in 1987; toured U.S., England, and Japan with the Isley Brothers, beginning in 1990; writer, arranger, and producer for such artists as Janet Jackson, Sheena Easton, Stephanie Mills, and Lalah Hathaway, beginning in 1980s; founded production company Angela Winbush Productions, 1990; released solo LPs The Real Thing, Mercury, 1989, and Angela Winbush, Elektra, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra Entertainment, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
Songs in the Key of Life provided Winbush with her start. From the positive notices she received from that work, Winbush began singing in the duo René & Angela and launched a career as a producer in mainstream pop and R&B. By the mid-1980s, she was enjoying broad success.
In 1985 René & Angela gained notoriety with their Street Called Desire LP. The Top Ten R&B album included Winbush’s song Til Be Good”—a hit on the dance chart—and the popular rap-tinged single featuring Kurtis Blow, “Save Your Love (For #1).” Five singles in all made it to the Top Ten of the R&B chart. Rolling Stone’s Davitt Sigerson offered a positive yet qualified review: “René and Angela are like lovers who drive you crazy for just long enough to convince you they know what they’re doing but stop before they finish you off.” While some of the tracks were superb, noted some critics, the album as a whole was uneven. Winbush explained Street Called Desire’s eclectic mix as a refection of the character of the duo René & Angela itself.” I think what we’ve done is blended two different flavors and chemistries together, and then we try to show those in all capacities,” she observed in Musician.
Street Called Des/’re was Rene & Angela’s fourth album. Winbush and René Moore had begun recording together on the Capitol label in 1980, with guidance from bassist Bobby Watson of the R&B group Rufus. For Street Called Desire, the pair switched to the Polygram label Mercury and hired engineer Bruce Swedien to finish up their studio work. While working as one half of René & Angela, Winbush also did some solo work, writing the Number One R&B hit “Your Smile” and the Number Two single “You Don’t Have to Cry.”
In 1987 Winbush’s producing career flourished, and she also went solo as a singer. She provided a sharp boost to the Isley Brothers by coproducing their Smooth Sailin’ album, which achieved gold sales. Although they had split into two bands in 1984, with the older O’Kelly, Ronald, and Rudolf remaining the Isley Brothers and the younger Ernie and Marvin Isley breaking off into Isley Jasper Isley, the Isley Brothers have been creating lasting hits since the late 1950s. Early Isley Brothers originals include 1959’s “Shout” and 1962’s “Twist and Shout.” The group also wrote and produced the Grammy Award-winning Sly and the Family Stone classic “It’s Your Thing” and helped develop the harder funk of the mid-1970s with “Fight the Power (Part I).” Winbush has remained with the Isley Brothers as coproducer and married Ronald Isley in 1993, the year after the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Also in 1987, Winbush saw the release of her solo debut, Sharp, which included the Number One R&B single “Angel” and the Number Two cut “Run to Me.” Essence reviewer Eric Copage lauded her singing: “On Sharp, the LP Winbush coproduced, cowrote and arranged, her voice cuts through a wide range and variety of textures, from a piercing purity to a husking whisper, bringing a unique intensity to the lyrics.” According to Copage, the album combines dance music, “reggae rhythms,” “earnest bedroom vocals,” and a slower, “jazzy” sound, as in the song “Angel.” Copage suggested that the tune “Sensual Lover” could stand beside R&B legend Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.”
Since the mid-1980s, Winbush has gained increasing prominence in her career as both a producer and singer. In 1989 she followed Smooth Sailin’ with a second production success, the Isley Brothers’ Spend the Night. Although the album did not receive universal acclaim—Andrew Smith of Melody Maker, for example, complained,” Spend the Night is stuffed with downbeat smoochers addressed to one ’gurl’ or another…. It’s all so bloody comfortable”—it achieved gold sales and sponsored another Number One single. One of the few women producers in mainstream pop and R&B, Winbush has also written, arranged, and produced for Stephanie Mills and Janet Jackson. Finally, Winbush set up Angela Winbush Productions, a production company and “rigorous training ground for still more Black talent, much like Motown or Stax [labels] in their heyday,” according to Carol Cooper of Essence.
Winbush’s really phenomenal success, though, has been in her own solo work. In 1989 she released The Real Thing on Mercury to acclaim. “In addition to superbly entertaining you with her four-octave soprano, Winbush demonstrates—on all nine tunes—that she is a talented producer and writer as well,” declared Lynn Norment of Ebony. Following that release, Winbush took four years off from her solo work and switched to the Elektra label before cutting her next LP. She emerged in 1994 with Angela Winbush, on which she sings with her husband, Ronald Isley, on the duet “Baby Hold On” and with Ernie and Marvin Isley, George Duke, Chuckii Booker, and Gerald Albright. The single “Treat U Rite” made Jet ’s Top 20 singles list while the LP reached Number Six on the magazine’s Top 20 albums chart.
On Angela Winbush the singer concentrated on capturing her characteristic mix of new production technology and traditional musical talent. On her cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” for example, Winbush’s band strove for that balance. “We tried to keep a natural groove and bring the new drums to it,” Winbush told Musician’s Considine. For the duet “Baby Hold On,” Winbush and Isley handed over the orchestration to Philadelphia soul star Thom Bell. “Certain chord changes just lend themselves to … I don’t want to say a ’Philly sound,’ but there’s a certain sound he had. I don’t know if it’s relevant for today—I just knew I wanted that,” Winbush confided to Considine.
After touring with the Isleys across the United States as well as in England and Japan and the release of her successful self-titled Elektra debut, in the mid-1990s Winbush hoped for more success on her new career path. “I feel I have more freedom now, on Elektra,” she was quoted as saying in the label’s publicity materials. “That’s been very important in the transition I’m making. I’m looking forward to good things and new horizons.”
“Treat U Rite,” Elektra, 1994.
(With René & Angela) Street Called Desire (includes “I’ll Be Good” and “Save Your Love [For #1]), Mercury, 1985.
Sharp (includes “Angel” and “Run to Me”), Mercury, 1987.
(As producer) the Isley Brothers, Smooth Sailin’, Warner Bros., 1987.
The Real Thing, Mercury, 1989.
(As producer) the Isley Brothers, Spend the Night, Warner Bros., 1989.
Angela Winbush (includes “Treat U Rite,” “Inner City Blues,” and “Baby Hold On”), Elektra, 1994.
Billboard, November 4, 1989; February 12, 1994.
Ebony, April 1990.
Essence, January 1988; February 1990.
Jet, May 23, 1994.
Los Angeles Sentinel, July 28, 1994.
Michigan Citizen, April 16, 1994.
Musician, January 1986; September 1987; March 1994.
New Pittsburgh Courier, March 23, 1994.
Philadelphia Tribune, June 3, 1994.
Rolling Stone, March 27, 1986; February 6, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Elektra Entertainment publicity materials.