With a voice that PopMatters described as "phenomenal, rich yet versatile, robust yet capable of communicating the subtleties of emotion," Elizabeth Withers-Mendes seemingly burst onto the music scene out of nowhere. In 2006, she sang her way to a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in The Color Purple. The next year, she grooved to the top of the R&B charts with her sexy solo album It Can Happen to Anyone. But Withers-Mendes' rise was neither sudden nor—for those who knew her talent—surprising. Singing from almost the moment she could speak, Withers-Mendes has pursued her craft with vigor and passion. She told Dana Roc Productions that she hoped to one day be remembered for "being honest and true to every role that I play and every song that I sung." So far, that plan has been working perfectly.
Early Love of Singing Led to Master's in Music
Elisabeth Withers-Mendes was born and raised in the small town of Joliet, Illinois. Her father was a deacon at a town church and a powerhouse in local politics. Her mother was a mathematician who set aside her career to raise Withers-Mendes and her three siblings in a loving, tight-knit household where education was stressed. "My parents were strict—we had to be accomplished in our education and graduate from college," Withers-Mendes told the on-line Singer Universe Magazine. However, the Withers family also encouraged their children to pursue their dreams and for young Withers-Mendes that was singing. At the age of five, she got a record player and immediately began emulating her favorite singers. "All of my brothers, including my dad, would laugh at me," she said in her biography on her official Web site. "Just picture a little me belting out some Natalie Cole or Gladys Knight over dinner, veins popping out of my neck, trying to reach all of these notes. It was too funny. But I remember my mom would get angry and say, ‘You guys will not laugh at your sister. She's going to sing!’"
Withers-Mendes developed into a performer who thrived in front of a crowd by pretending to entertain thousands of audience members in her childhood bedroom. At the age of six, she wanted to join the adult choir at her family's church. When the choir said no, her mother found a church that would let Withers-Mendes sing with her elders. From there, she began singing in local competitions and events. She attended high school at the Chicago Academy for the Arts where she studied classical, jazz, and gospel music. After graduating, she took off a few years to travel and to avoid going on to college. "I could not stand the rigor of school because I liked being creative and school just moved too slowly for me," she told Dana Roc Productions. Her parents were not convinced and made a deal with her. If she succeeded at a local junior college, they would agree to let her attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. In two years of junior college, Withers-Mendes made the Dean's List and earned a scholarship to Berklee.
At Berklee, Withers-Mendes learned techniques of songwriting and singing, belonged to the gospel choir, and performed in front of the largest audiences of her life. "I've always been a performer at heart, so the more people I see, the more charged I am to perform," she told Berklee Today. After graduating in 1997, she performed as a back-up singer with a variety of gospel artists including the The Winans, Amy Grant, and Yolanda Adams. However, like many aspiring performers, Withers-Mendes was soon drawn to the glittering possibility of fame in New York City. She enrolled in New York University's music program where she majored in music composition and education. Dividing her time between her studies and pounding the pavement in search of work, Withers-Mendes landed several commercials and back-up gigs. By the time she graduated in 1997, Withers-Mendes was a regular on the back-up singer circuit, working for a roster of chart-topping artists including Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Lopez, R. Kelly, Celine Dion, George Clinton, and Stevie Wonder.
Found Fame on Broadway Stage and Billboard Charts
Withers-Mendes' first major tour was with Erykah Badu. "They called me on a Wednesday and wanted me to come in on Saturday knowing all the parts. I came prepared to sing the soprano, alto, and tenor parts because I didn't know which one they wanted me to sing," she recalled to Berklee Today. Withers-Mendes also lent her voice to the small screen as one of the singing Vowelles on the PBS show Between the Lions and in the recurring skit "Sweet Tree & Morgan" on NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Withers-Mendes also wrote songs, most notably the 2002 dance single "Emotions," produced and co-written by music producer Tony Moran, famed for his work with Patti Labelle, Whitney Houston, and Luther Vandross. Performed under the pseudonym Elle Patrice, the song topped the Billboard music charts for three weeks, drawing the attention of Nick Ashford of the famed musical duo, Ashford and Simpson.
Impressed with her voice, Ashford recommended Withers-Mendes to his friend Quincy Jones who was casting the 2005 Broadway adaptation of The Color Purple produced by Oprah Winfrey. Withers-Mendes and husband Damon Mendes just had a baby and she did not feel ready to pursue such a big commitment. "So I went to audition. I asked my husband to wait downstairs in a ‘No Standing,’ ‘No Parking’ area because I was going to sing my song and come right back downstairs," she told Dana Roc Productions. To her surprise, she won the role of Shug Avery, one of literature's sexiest, sassiest, and most complex characters. Though she did not have any acting experience, Withers-Mendes took on the job with characteristic confidence, researching the role, the story, and the era carefully. "I had to figure out why Shug Avery was so significant to that time period and a shock to that little town," she told BetJ. "It was because Shug didn't give a damn. But she was still very sensitive, loving and caring. So I embraced all of those elements and brought them to the stage"
At a Glance …
Born in 1973(?), in Joliet, IL; married Damon Mendes, 2001; children: Chelsea. Education: Berklee College of Music, BS, music, 1997; New York University, MA, music composition and education, 2000.
Career: Singer and actress, 2005-; Blue Note Records, label artist, New York, NY, 2005-.
Awards: Theatre World Award, Outstanding Broadway Debut Performance, 2006; Tony Award nomination, Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, 2006.
Addresses: Producer— Toby Gad, 21 West 46th Street, Suite 1201, New York, NY 10036. Record label—Blue Note Records, 150 5th Ave., New York, NY 10011.
Withers-Mendes' preparation, combined with her powerful voice made Shug—and The Color Purple—a major Broadway hit and garnered her a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance. She also earned a World Theater Award for best Broadway debut. However, even as her star was rising on Broadway, her musical dreams were taking flight. After Bruce Lundvall, CEO of Blue Note Records, heard the demo for The Color Purple's cast album, "[he] wanted to sign me as a solo artist, sight unseen," Withers-Mendes recalled to Berklee Today. Her debut album, It Can Happen to Anyone, was released in January of 2007. Though Blue Note is known as a jazz label, Withers-Mendes' release was pure neo-soul, highlighting her versatile vocals through 11 songs tinged with influences from pop and funk to gospel and jazz. Two early singles found their way onto the Billboard R&B charts—the seductive "Be With You" and the soulful "Simple Things." Reflecting on the album's name, Withers-Mendes told Jet, "If a little girl from Joliet, Illinois…can go and star on Broadway and get a Tony nomination and get a record deal, it can happen to anyone." Withers-Mendes' talent and lifelong commitment to music is what really made it happen for her, and as 2007 came to a close, with The Color Purple still drawing sold-out audiences and It Can Happen to Anyone still sitting on the charts, her success was poised to continue growing.
Baltimore Sun, January, 25, 2007.
Dallas Morning News, January 29, 2007, p. 39.
Jet, February 12, 2007, p. 30.
Washington Post, July 6, 2007, p. T7.
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"Broadway Star ElisabethWithers of The Color Purple Enjoys Hit R&B Success with Her Debut Album," Singer Universe Magazine,ttp://www.singeruniverse.com/elisabethwithers123.htm, (October 18, 2007).
"Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, Broadway Star of The Color Purple," Dana Roc Productions,http://www.danaroc.com/inspiring_050106elisabethwithersmendes.html, (October 18, 2007).
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"Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, It Can Happen to Anyone," PopMatters,http://www.popmatters.com/pm/music/reviews/11462/elisabeth-withers-it-can-happento-anyone, (October 18, 2007).
"Elisabeth Withers: R&B's New Feisty Songstress," BetJ, www.bet.com/BETJ/elizabethwithers.htm?wbc_purpose=Basic&WBCMODE=PresentationUnpublished&Referrer=%7BB19D52C6-34DF-44AE-9DEE-8BD67FAD5E50%7D, (October 18, 2007).