When the always modishly attired vocal quartet En Vogue called their debut album Born to Sing, few listeners acquainted with their flawless harmonizing and stylistic range disputed the title’s claim. But the name of their follow-up recording, Funky Divas, raised a few eyebrows. How “funky” could a group of fashion-obsessed vocal athletes assembled by a producer really be? They answered with an album that tackled funk, hip-hop, rap, hard rock, reggae, and a bevy of other styles with aplomb, scoring a Grammy nomination and several hits. In the wake of Funky Divas the group seemed to be everywhere, achieving the coveted “crossover” audience that has eluded many artists lumped in the R&B category; in January of 1993 they backed up President Bill Clinton’s brother Roger on the song “A Change Is Gonna Come” during inaugural festivities, putting their musical stamp on what looked to be a harmonious new era.
En Vogue was in fact the brainchild of producer-songwriters Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster. In 1988 the two held auditions in Oakland, California, for a
Members include vocalists Terry Ellis (born in Texas c. 1967);Cindy Herron (born in San Francisco, CA, c. 1966);Maxine Jones (born in Patterson, NJ, c. 1966); and Dawn Robinson (born in New London, CT, c. 1969).
Group formed in Oakland, CA, 1988; signed with Atlantic Records and released debut album, Born to Sing, 1990; appeared on various television programs and commercials.
Awards: Soul Train Music Award for best R&B performance by a duo or group, 1991, for “Hold On”; American Music Award for best soul/R&B album and Grammy Award nomination for best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocal, both 1993, for Funky Divas; platinum record for Born to Sing, 1991, and multiplatinum record for Funky Divas, 1993; MTV awards for best R&B video, best choreography, and best dance video, 1993, all for ’Free Your Mind.”
Addresses: Record company —Atco/Eastwest Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
female vocal group they intended to use on an Atlantic Records album called FM2. “We wanted the girls to be beautiful, but not too beautiful,” McElroy told Meredith Berkman of Entertainment Weekly. “Intelligent, but not nerds or anything. And more than anything else, when they sang we wanted people to go, ‘Wow!’” The other criterion for the group was an element of high style. “We tried to make En Vogue very womanish, with a very sophisticated flair,” choreographer Frank Gatson told the New York Times. “But we didn’t want to make them slutty.”
The finalists for the project were San Franciscan and Miss Black California Cindy Herron, transplanted Californian Maxine Jones, Texan Terry Ellis, and Connecticut native Dawn Robinson. The four had pursued acting and singing careers during the 1980s, and some of their paths had crossed before; Herron met Jones during the course of a San Francisco stage production and encountered Ellis at a Houston audition, while Jones and Robinson became acquainted at their hairdresser’s. It seemed a joyous coincidence, then, when the four not only converged at the FM2 auditions, but beat out the competition to become the sought-after stylish vocal quartet.
Robinson began singing in the Youth Voices of Zion Choir at her A.M.E. Zion Church. Herron, who lived with both of her parents in turn after they divorced, saw Motown’s famous singing brothers the Jackson Five during her childhood and thought, as she told Upscale, “Kids can do it too.” One of Ellis’s four sisters was a nightclub singer who “made me aware that I had talent. She heard me humming something one day and wanted me to do it again, and I did. From that day on she had me singing everyday after school and listening to Natalie Cole and all the other people.” Jones was born in New Jersey and decided on a musical career after graduating from Patterson’s East Side High School; she began singing in church and remains a devotee of the “positive and inspirational” sounds of gospel music. The group was originally called For You, but the quartet wanted something more fashionable and settled at first on Vogue; unfortunately, a 1960s Motown group called the Vogues owned the copyright to the name. En Vogue struck the singers and their manager, David Lombard, as an appealing variation.
Born to Sing appeared on the Atlantic label in 1990; the single “Hold On” reached the top of the charts, uniting R&B, hip-hop, and pop audiences and getting substantial play in dance clubs, where deejays remixed it into numerous configurations. The next single, “Lies,” was also a hit, and by the time “You Don’t Have to Worry” entered heavy rotation the album was assured of platinum sales. Born to Sing also included a contemporary dance version of the swing classic “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company C)” and a reworking of Natalie Cole’s “Just Can’t Stay Away.” Atlantic compounded the album’s momentum with creative marketing: A special edition of Born to Sing modeled on a Vogue magazine spread and including promotional materials went out to press, radio, and larger retailers, and University of California, Los Angeles, film student Tarsem was hired to give the video for “Hold On” a more artsy feel than is usually found in conventional dance-diva videos.
The group endured countless comparisons to the 1960s girl group the Supremes, though their tight harmonizing had more in common with swing’s Andrews Sisters. And unlike the Supremes, who were led by the glamorous Diana Ross, En Vogue didn’t have a lead singer. “We all sing lead,” Ellis explained to Seventeen. “Dawn’s sound is funky, Maxine’s is sort of sultry/gospel, and Cindy’s is more jazz-oriented.” In fact, Herron told Dennis Hunt of the Los Angeles Times, “There may be some Supremes-like stuff in our overall concept, but it was hipper groups like the Emotions and Sister Sledge that we’ve borrowed from. The Supremes may have started a certain kind of soul girl-group thing, but what they did is old-fashioned now.”
In 1991 En Vogue received five nominations at the Soul Train Music Awards, and “Hold On” won as best single by a band or group; the foursome was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best R&B performance by a duo or group. They performed on numerous television shows and went on the road with rap superstar Hammer and popular vocalist Freddie Jackson. That year also saw the release of Remix to Sing, a six-song recording comprised of Born to Sing remixes and the previously unreleased Christmas song “Silent Nite.”
Soon En Vogue was everywhere, gracing magazine covers and appearing in a Diet Coke commercial directed by famed filmmaker Spike Lee; Herron, mean-while had a role in the film Juice. As their fame increased, the members of En Vogue claimed more control over career decisions, leaving musical matters to their producers but participating in wardrobe, photography, and choreographic choices. “Denzil and Tommy are so honest and fair,” Jones insisted in Us. “And we want to be that way. We don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, but at the same time, we want to get what we want.” What they want seems to work, particularly onstage. “Humorous and titillating, the fab foursome lived up to its self-described reputation as the ’Funky Divas of Soul,’” attested Variety’s Adrianne Stone in a review of an En Vogue performance.
By 1992 the stage was set for Funky Divas, released on the Atco/EastWest label. The premiere single, “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It),” was an instant smash, quickly dispelling any concerns about a sophomore jinx. The number was ultimately nominated by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for R&B song of the year. Other singles further widened En Vogue’s already burgeoning and diverse following: the Curtis Mayfield torch ballad “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” the hard-rocking “Free Your Mind,” an apparent nod to father of funk George Clinton, and the breezy “Give it Up, Turn it Loose.” “En Vogue didn’t just try on a few different hats,” Spin noted of the album’s multifarious styles, “it set up a chapeau shop.” As Jim Farber of the Los Angeles Daily News commented, “By combining such slick moves with gritty talent, En Vogue posed a new melding of R&B’s past and present, making them models in the best sense of the word.” Vogue observed, “En Vogue updates the Motown dream-girl act for a brave new world.” And for its part, People offered some criticism but noted that overall, with their second album, En Vogue “dip into a grab bag of styles to distance themselves from the competition.” Rolling Stone, on the other hand, did not find the divas sufficiently funky, giving the album only two stars.
As had become customary, each single was accompanied by a lavishly produced video, and each video offered a different side of En Vogue, from slinky sirens to runway revolutionaries. The “Free Your Mind” video took four trophies at the Music Video Producers Association Awards. Funky Divas made numerous critics’ best lists and garnered a 1993 American Music Award for soul/R&B album of the year. The group went on to more television appearances, including guest spots on In Living Color and Saturday Night Live. They also performed the theme song for the ABC series Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper. And their performance at the 1993 presidential inauguration festivities in Washington, D.C., supporting President Bill Clinton’s singing brother Roger led, perhaps unsurprisingly, to a meeting with the chief executive himself. “Is there anything these women can’t do?,” asked James T. Jones of USA Today rhetorically, answering his question in the negative.
Their ballooning success aside, the members of En Vogue appeared to be having a lot of fun together, often traveling, in Entertainment Weekly writer Berkman’s words, “publicly joined at the hip like quadruplet Barbie dolls.” In Upscale, Robinson insisted, “We are just like sisters. We love each other.” And in her interview with Seventeen, she gave a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes life En Vogue’s fans dream about: While on tour, she said, “We hang out, eat junk food, and watch the shows from the night before.”
Born to Sing (includes “Hold On,” “Lies,” “You Don’t Have to Worry,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy [of Company C],” and “Just Can’t Stay Away”), Atlantic, 1990.
Remix to Sing (includes remixes of “Born to Sing” and “Silent Nite”), Atlantic, 1991.
Funky Divas (includes “My Lovin’ [You’re Never Gonna Get It],” “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” “Free Your Mind,” and “Give it Up, Turn it Loose”), Atco/EastWest, 1992.
Runaway Love (EP), EastWest, 1993.
Amsterdam News (New York), October 16, 1992.
Billboard, April 28, 1990; April 4, 1992; October 17, 1992; November 7, 1992; November 21, 1992; July 31, 1993.
Chicago Sun-Times, September 20, 1992.
Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1992.
Daily News (Los Angeles), September 17, 1992; January 12, 1993; January 18, 1993.
Daily Variety, October 20, 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, June 5, 1992.
Interview, March 1992.
Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1992; October 11, 1992; October 19, 1992; January 13, 1993.
Los Angeles Watts Times, February 4, 1993.
New York Newsday, January 20, 1993
New York Times, September 17, 1992; January 31, 1993.
Newsweek, September 28, 1992.
Rolling Stone, April 30, 1992.
Seventeen, December 1992.
Spin, June 1992; December 1992.
Upscale, February 1993.
Us, May 1992; December 1992.
USA Today, March 27, 1992; September 22, 1992; December 30, 1992; January 20, 1993; January 21, 1993.
Village Voice, April 29, 1992.
Vogue, September 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Atco/EastWest publicity materials, 1992.
Formed: 1988, Oakland, California
Members: Amanda Cole (born Mississippi, 6 January 1974); Terry Ellis (born Houston, Texas, 5 September 1966); Cindy Herron (born San Francisco, California, 26 September 1965). Former members: Maxine Jones (born Paterson, New Jersey, 16 January 1965); Dawn Robinson (born New London, Connecticut, 28 November 1968).
Genre: R&B, Pop
Best-selling album since 1990: Funky Divas (1992)
Hit songs since 1990: "Hold On," "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)," "Free Your Mind"
Mixing sweet-sounding harmonies with the grit of hip-hop and adding a dash of old-fashioned glamour, En Vogue became one of the most successful vocal acts of the 1990s, paving the way for later female groups such as TLC and SWV. En Vogue's hits, featuring funky, 1970s-style rhythms overlaid with catchy melodies and clever lyrics, appealed to pop audiences while retaining a toughness favored by R&B and hip-hop fans. The group was most notable, however, for the flashy vocal interplay of its four original members. Switching off on lead vocal parts, frequently embellishing their high soprano notes with sexy growls, the women sounded street-tough and classy at the same time. The group's success was fueled by its glossy, photogenic appearance; attired in sleek designer clothes, En Vogue embodied a 1990s ideal of cool elegance, beauty with an attitude.
Although the group's members—Dawn Robinson, Terry Ellis, Maxine Jones, and Cindy Herron—sounded as if they had been singing together their whole lives, in reality En Vogue was assembled during a series of open auditions held by the production team of Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy. Aside from Herron, a former Miss Black California, none of the women selected for the group had previous show business experience. At the time of En Vogue's inception Robinson had been working as a grocery store clerk, while Ellis possessed a bachelor's degree in marketing. All four, however, quickly proved their talents on the group's initial album, Born to Sing (1990), which features the smash pop and R&B hit, "Hold On." Opening with an a cappella rendition of the Jackson 5's 1969 hit, "Who's Lovin' You," the group effortlessly segues into a hard, funky vamp inspired by the guitar and rhythm track from "The Payback," a 1974 recording by "Godfather of Soul" James Brown. While "Hold On" borrows the sinuous percussion and guitar sound of 1970s funk, its use of a thumping bass line grounds it in the burgeoning hip-hop movement of the 1990s. Vocally, En Vogue's soulful sound recalls pop and R&B "girl groups" of the 1960s such as the Vandellas, but their polished style owes a greater debt to the Andrews Sisters, the 1940s group whose rhythmic swing and angelic harmonies bridged the gap between pop and jazz. In fact, one of Born to Sing 's most exciting moments is a one-minute version of the Andrews's "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," which the singers perform with a zesty sense of play rarely encountered in 1990s pop music.
En Vogue's most commercially successful album, marking what rock critic Robert Christgau called "their cultural moment," is Funky Divas (1992). Featuring five hit singles and no weak tracks, the album stands as one of the strongest R&B works of the 1990s. Beginning with the exuberant "This Is Your Life" and continuing through the seductive remake of R&B legend Aretha Franklin's "Giving Him Something He Can Feel," the album maintains an undaunted air of optimism and energy. "Free Your Mind," driven by a rock-inspired guitar part, reflects the group's positive approach to fighting prejudice: "I like rap music, wear hip-hop clothes, that doesn't mean that I'm out selling dope." One of the album's most memorable hits is the slick "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)." Again borrowing the slinky guitar riff from Brown's "The Payback," the song features one of En Vogue's toughest performances, the women boldly informing a would-be suitor that "you're never gonna get it." "My Lovin'" was the perfect soundtrack to the club and party scene of the early 1990s, an era of bitchy camp humor inspired by the popularity of super-models, drag queens, and other "divas." En Vogue's harmonized, rhythmic, "Ooh . . . bop," became the perfect accompaniment for a dramatic finger snap, the era's most vaunted gesture of dismissal.
Departures and Regroupings
En Vogue never had another recording as successful as Funky Divas, and by the end of the 1990s its popularity had waned. Instead of issuing a follow-up to Funky Divas, group members took several years during the middle of the decade to pursue various interests, including solo careers. Although Ellis recorded a satisfying album during this period, Southern Gal (1995), the years out of the spotlight had diminished the group's luster by the time of its third outing, EV3, in 1997. Prior to the album's release, Robinson, who along with Ellis had been one of the group's most distinctive voices, departed for a solo career. Although the parting was amicable, the remaining members clearly felt dismayed. "We sat down to make plans for [EV3 ]," Ellis told the Chicago Tribune in October 1997, "and Dawn felt it wasn't going to coincide with what she wanted to do. Quite naturally we felt, 'What are we going to do now?'" Reduced to a trio, En Vogue continued to display the assured harmonizing of their previous work, but EV3 suffers from unfocused production and material. Masterpiece Theatre (2000) redresses this problem through a return to the group's former inventiveness. "Love U Crazy," for example, incorporates a famous melody from the classic ballet, The Nutcracker. Nonetheless, critics found the material on the whole to be far less distinctive than their best work of the past. Citing the need to spend time with her daughter, Jones left the group in 2002 and was replaced by Mississippi native Amanda Cole.
Sexy and confident, En Vogue defined an early 1990s brand of seductive R&B, balancing class with a solid dose of funkiness. While talented, the group's members relied largely on creative production elements for the uniqueness of their sound. At their best, they fused the multiple musical styles of the past into a heady combination, setting a standard of edgy sophistication for the future.
Born to Sing (EastWest, 1990); Funky Divas (EastWest, 1992); EV3 (East-West, 1997); Masterpiece Theatre (EastWest, 2000).
En Vogue, female vocalists that updated the girl group for the 1990s, with new jack swing and Motown style (July 18, 1988, San Francisco). Membership: Dawn Robinson (b. New London, Conn., Nov. 28, 1968); Cindy Herron (b. San Francisco, Sept. 26, 1965); Maxine Jones (b. Paterson, N.J., Jan. 16, 1966); Terry Ellis (b. Houston, Tex., Sept. 5, 1966).
Assembled via audition by producers Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, the guiding lights behind Club Nouveau, Tony! Toni! Tone!, and the Timex Social Club, the four young women selected to form this group had never met before. What each brought to the group was a large measure of pulchritude (Herron was a former Miss Black California), a sense of style, and the vocal goods, which they demonstrated by singing a cappella at any opportunity. All of the women shared the spot-light on stage, no one personality allowed to eclipse the others.
They debuted as Vogue on two tracks of Foster and McElroy’s FM2. They followed this with their own 1990 album, Born to Sing, becoming En Vogue when another group claimed the name Vogue. Their first single, “Hold On,” hit #2 on the charts and sold platinum. Their follow-up, “Lies,” topped the R&B chart, but only hit #38 pop. The album hit #21 and followed the first single to platinum.
As auspicious as their debut was, their sophomore effort, Funky Divas, proved that these women were not a novelty. The album kicked off with another #2 single, “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It),” which also topped the R&B charts and went gold. The bouncy, gold selling “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” also topped the R&B charts, rising to #6 pop. Both songs were aided by clever videos, emphasizing the women’s natural allure. Yet another gold single, “Free Your Mind” got to #8 pop and earned three MTV Video awards. The #15 “Give It Up, Turn It Loose” was something of a turntable hit, rising to #12 in airplay but a disappointing #43 in sales. Similarly, “Love Don’t Love You” charted at #36 overall, even with a #28 ranking in airplay. The album sold over three million copies.
Suddenly, En Vogue reached iconic status. They appeared on magazine covers from Vogue to Rolling Stone. They appeared on the late night talk shows and even made a Diet Coke commercial with director Spike Lee. They put out an EP, Runaway Love, with a new title track, four remixes from Funky Divas, and the group’s duet with rappers Salt ’n’ Pepa “Whatta Man.” “Whatta Man” went platinum, hitting #3 pop. The EP rose to #49.
The next few years were relatively quiet for the group. Jones and Herron started families. Ellis recorded a solo album, Southern Girl. They got back together to cut a track for the 1996 film Set It Off. The song, “Don’t Let Go (Love)” rose to #2 on the pop charts. As they started work on their third album, Robinson decided to leave the group and pursue a solo career. The trio continued working together, releasing EV3 in 1997. The single “Whatever” hit #16 pop (#8 R&B) and went gold. The Diane Warren penned ’Too Gone Too Long” rose to #33 pop, #25 R&B. The sales and overall impact of this third effort were disappointing, and it was unclear whether the group could regain the momentum it had just a few years earlier.
During the summer of 1999, the group released a greatest hits collection. They claimed it would be their first of many.
Born to Sing (1990); Remix to Sing (1991); Funky Divas (1992); Runaway Love (1993); EV3 (1997).