Ferrell, Rachelle 1961–
Rachelle Ferrell 1961–
Jazz and pop vocalist
Though the worlds of jazz and black pop have numerous musical interconnections, the divide between them has been an increasingly difficult one for performers to surmount in recent years. That difficulty is vividly demonstrated by the career of Rachelle Ferrell, a superbly talented vocalist who has steadfastly attempted to make her mark in both realms. Though she has amassed a strong following in both genres and can sell out large urban auditoriums across the United States and in several foreign countries, her recording career has been only an intermittent one.
Ferrell was born outside Philadelphia in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, in 1961. Her childhood was suffused with music; her father had played jazz, the family listened to gospel, and she took classical music lessons in violin and piano. She found her musical calling at age 13 as a substitute vocalist, and from then on took any opportunity she could to sing. Ferrell attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston, a unique institute of higher education with a curriculum that focused on popular music. There Ferrell honed her already strong musical foundations and cultivated her songwriting and arranging abilities; among her classmates was the soon-to-be jazz star Branford Marsalis.
Teaching music in a program run by the New Jersey State Council for the Arts, Ferrell made the acquaintance of the legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie, she told Ebony, told her parents that “Rachelle is gonna be a major force in the industry.” Ferrell built a fan base in local venues around Philadelphia and began singing backup on recordings by various artists; some of them, such as Patti LaBelle, with Philadelphia roots. By the late 1980s, Ferrell had evolved into a formidable musician, with strong songwriting skills and a six-octave vocal range that was matched among active singers only by superstar Mariah Carey.
But her skills and work in the industry still had not brought her a recording deal. That changed after executive Bruce Lundvall of the jazz-oriented Blue Note label heard a demo tape of her pop compositions and sought out one of her live jazz performances. Impressed, Lundvall realized the range of Ferrell’s talents and arranged an unusual contract with Blue Note and its parent company, Capitol, that called for one pop and one jazz album. The jazz disc was recorded first, but, mindful of the limited market for jazz in its U.S.
At a Glance…
Born in 1961, in Berwyn, PA. Education: Berklee School of Music, attended.
Career: Jazz and pop vocalist. Began singing at age 13; appeared in clubs in Philadelphia area and sang backup on recordings by Patti LaBelle, George Duke, and others, 1980s; signed to Blue Note label; released debut jazz album, Somethin’Else, in Europe and Japan, 1990; toured Europe and Japan, 1990-92; appeared at Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland, 1990; released pop debut album, Rachelle Ferrell, 1992; Somethin’ Else re-released in U.S. as First Instrument, 1995; released Individuality—Can I Be Me?, 2000.
Addresses: Record Label —Blue Note Records, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, 35th Floor, New York, NY 10104.
birthplace and the commercial risks of categorizing Ferrell as a jazz artist, the label decided to release it only in Europe and Japan, where African-American jazz artists have a long history of finding appreciation.
Entitled Somethin’ Else, the album topped Japanese charts in 1990 after it was released by Capitol’s Toshiba EMI branch and Ferrell supported it with an appearance at Japan’s Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Recorded with a group of veteran jazz players with whom Ferrell had worked for years, the album featured standards such as Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” but also ventured into more unusual material for a jazz artist such as Sam Cooke’s pop hit, “You Send Me.” In her Blue Note biography, Ferrell pointed to her long experience as a performer as a reason for her interpretive abilities: “…When one performs four sets a night, six nights a week, that experience affords you the opportunity to present the song from the inside out, to express its essence.”
The album also included two Ferrell originals, and it was Ferrell’s songwriting that came to the fore on her R&B debut, entitled Rachelle Ferrell and released in 1992. Industry insiders were well aware of Ferrell’s talents, and the album got strong advance buzz, won positive reviews from critics, and climbed to the top of Billboard magazine’s Heatseekers chart of emerging recordings. But there things stalled—partly, Ferrell believed, because Capitol’s marketing efforts were so strongly geared toward young listeners that adult releases like hers tended to get lost in the shuffle. Rachelle Ferrell received little radio airplay.
Ferrell’s ace in the hole, however, was her continuing appeal to live audiences. Touring in support of the album, Ferrell packed such huge venues as the twin Fox theaters in Detroit and St. Louis, elaborate 1920s movie palaces usually reserved for big-name headliners. Capitol took notice and belatedly began to support the album with a major marketing effort. After languishing in the lower reaches of the charts for over two years, sales picked up, and Ferrell received a gold record for sales of 500,000 copies. She also picked up an award from the live-performance trade magazine Pollstar for Best Adult Contemporary/Jazz Artist in 1994.
The Blue Note label decided to capitalize on this new success by releasing Ferrell’s Somethin’ Else album in the United States. It was given the new and more distinctive title First Instrument, a title that was Ferrell’s own suggestion. “I chose this title to remind people that the voice was and is the first instrument,” she told Ebony. “Today, the voice has taken a bit of a backseat to the technology…. I want to bring back the intrinsic value of the voice.”
First Instrument topped jazz charts, but Ferrell noticed that despite her best efforts, she felt increasingly constricted by the categories that are such a prominent feature of the contemporary music marketplace. Asked by the San Francisco Chronicle whether she would choose jazz or pop if forced to pick one or the other, Ferrell retorted: “If you have to choose between your right leg and your left leg…” She noticed that the new fans she had acquired with the Rachelle Ferrell album seemed disappointed when she sang jazz exclusively at concerts after the release of First Instrument.
“I live comfortably in the worlds of pop, R&B, jazz, gospel, and even classical music,” Ferrell explained in her Blue Note biography. “Ultimately I would like to be accepted on the basis of the full scope of my music rather than the narrowness of music and marketing,” she continued. Nevertheless, a struggle over the direction of Ferrell’s career ensued, and for a period of several years she grew disaffected with the music business and even stopped writing new music.
Ferrell reemerged in late 2000 with a new album, Individuantiy (Can I Be Me?); she told Essence that her time away from music entailed “giving myself permission to be who I am.” That new identity seemed to encompass a reconciliation of the various musical impulses that had defined Ferrell’s career, for it included both jazz and R&B elements that showcased Ferrell’s magnificent and undimmed voice to best advantage. Individuality (Can I Be Me?) featured Ferrell’s own compositions. “This entire album was written from the space of personal experience,” she told Essence. “I’m so grateful to be able to express these things. It’s beautiful to be in a daily state of gratitude.”
Somethin’ Else, 1990 (released in Europe and Japan).
Rachelle Ferrell, Capitol, 1992.
First Instrument (U.S. re-release of Somethin’ Else), Blue Note, 1995.
Individuantiy (Can I Be Me?), Capitol, 2000.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 17, Gale, 1997.
Billboard, September 5, 1992, p. 27.
Down Beat, July 1995, p. 13.
Ebony, December 1996, p. 62.
Essence, December 2000, p. 58.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 29, 1993.
—James M. Manheim
Rachelle Ferrell began performing professionally when she was a teenager—writing much of her own material, accompanying herself on piano, singing both popular and jazz styles with equal ease. In her late twenties she secured a record deal. Since the release of her first album in 1990, her reputation has spread slowly but steadily. She has toured Europe and the United states, performing to rave reviews at both pop concerts and jazz festivals. Said Washington Post contributor Mike Joyce of Ferrell, “More than a natural singer, Ferrell is a natural wonder… [She is] capable of singing anything and everything… Few, if any, singers on the pop scene can match Ferrell’s dynamic, octave-leaping range, bordered by low, resonating chesttones that imbue her ballads with a sultry allure, and ear-splitting falsetto flourishes.”
Ferrell, raised near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was surrounded by music as a child; her father was an amateur jazz musician, and she heard jazz, gospel, and classical music around the house. She studied violin at school and piano at home. She told USA Today, “I consider myself an instrumentalist first.” At 13 Ferrell began singing professionally when she was asked to be a last-minute substitute for another singer. From then on, she sang every chance she got—“from funerals to dog fights,” she joked to the San Francisco Chronicle’s LeeHildegrand.
After attending the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston, Ferrell returned to the Philadelphia area. For the next decade she continued to sing in a variety of venues, from bars to gospel choirs, from opera companies to recording studios as backup for singers like Lou Rawls, Patti LaBelle, Vanessa Williams, and George Duke. In her solo performances she frequently sang her own pop songs in addition to jazz standards. During those years she developed a devoted following. She told the San Francisco Chronicle that her Philadelphia-area audiences frequently knew the songs she’d written almost as well as she did. “I don’t [always] have background singers” she explained. “[The audience members] will take it upon themselves to sing all the background parts and will be in tune, too. It’s quite a surprise.” Despite this local success, though, Ferrell could not secure a recording contract. She characterized her problem to USA Today, saying, “I’d get letters from record companies saying ‘Dear Rachelle. You’re wonderful. Unfortunately, we’ve filled our roster for black female vocalists.’”
But by the late 1980s Ferrell’s luck had changed. She sent a demo tape of her own compositions to Blue Note Records’ Bruce Lundvall, who was impressed enough to catch her live. While the demo she’d sent Lundvall included only pop songs, the performance he saw was
Born in 1961 in Berwyn, P.A. Education: Attended Berklee School of Music.
Made professional debut, c. 1974; performed in clubs in Philadelphia area and sang backup for Lou Rawls, Patti LaBelle, Vanessa Williams, and George Duke, 1975-90; signed to Blue Note Records; released debut album, Somethin’ Else, 1990; toured Japan and Europe, 1990-92, and U.S., 1992-94; appeared at Montreux Jazz Festival, 1990, and Newport, Martinique, and Santa Lucia jazz festivals, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —The Blue Note Labels, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, 35th Fir., New York, NY, 10104.
strictly of jazz material. Lundvall found Ferrell’s command of both styles compelling, so he signed her to a contract that allowed for one pop record and one jazz record. She recorded the jazz album, Somethin’ Else, first, but for commercial reasons Blue Note only released it in Japan and Europe, where jazz has greater mainstream acceptance than in the U.S. This was fine with Ferrell, who noted in USA Today, “I didn’t wantto be pigeon-holed. [Singer] Dianne Reeves would tell me horror stores. Her first album was jazz, and no matter what kind of album she puts out now, it’ll be in the jazz bin.” Coinciding with the release of this album, Ferrell began a lengthy tour of both Europe and Japan.
Ferrell’s second album, consisting strictly of popular music, was released in the United States in 1992. She wrote ten of the 13 songs represented and played piano on three cuts. One song, Too Late,” was written for her father, with whom she has had a troubled relationship. It was born out of excruciating pain,” she confided in USA Today.’ Ferrell worked with producers George Duke and Michael J. Powell on the album, which took two years to complete. It was recorded almost fully live, which is unusual in an industry where synthesized instruments, layered vocals, and electronic correction of mistakes is the norm. “I wanted something … that somebody can put on and change their mood, and something I would be proud of ten years down the road,” Ferrell asserted in USA Today.
The self-titled album received excellent reviews; its commercial success, however, was limited, partly because the record received scant radio play. Ferrell was disappointed by Blue Note’s promotional efforts. “It did not get the attention from the record company it deserved,” Ferrell told The San Francisco Chronicle. It’s lasted a year as kind of an orphan child.” Part of the problem, she pointed out in USA Today, is that the music market is geared towards young artists and a young audience. Expressing the concerns of many an artist, Ferrell said, “We’ve honed our art for years, but right now, the trend is toward the very young and the immediate dollar.”
In an unusual turnaround, Capitol Records, parent company of Blue Note, decided to put some muscle behind the album—two years after its premiere. As Ferrell continued her extensive performance tours in America, the label began to blitz each city on her itinerary with heavy sales promotions just before and after her concerts. The company also produced a promotional concert video for local broadcasts to coincide with area appearances. In August of 1994, a fourth single, “With Open Arms,” was released to radio. Sales of Rachelle Ferrell steadily increased with these renewed efforts.
As she has released further albums and her fame has spread, Ferrell has steadfastly resisted the efforts of some in the industry to force her to narrow her musical range to just jazz or pop. She summed up her struggle in The San Francisco Chronicle: “After close to 20 years of being accepted for who I am … and having diversity being a moniker for my sound, to have to deal with the constant pressure from the record company, as well as the media, to have to choose or splinter myself in order to accommodate their structures is a bit much after a while…. My major focus and goal right now, if I am to remain in this industry, is to be able to find some type of way to strike a balance in my life and in my career and to be able to retain my integrity. If I can’t do that, the cost is gonna be too much and I’m not willing to pay it.”
In fact, Ferrell seems to have no choice but to work in both the pop and jazz idioms. She told The San Francisco Chronicle that when asked “’Rachelle,” if you had to choose between jazz and pop, which would you chose?’ “she responds with, If you have to choose between your right leg and your left leg….” Fortunately, her adoring fans do not seem to want her to make such a choice.
On Blue Note/Capitol Records
Somthin’ Else, 1990.
Rachelle Ferrell, 1992.
Nothing Has Ever Felt Like This, 1994.
With Open Arms/Peace on Earth, 1994.
First Instrument, 1995.
Billboard, September 5, 1992; February 20, 1993; July 3, 1993; January 8, 1994; September 10, 1994.
Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1993.
Essence, February 1993.
Los Angeles Times Calendar, October 23, 1992.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 29, 1993.
USA Today, September 24, 1992; October 16, 1992; December 30, 1992; June 3, 1993; May 10, 1994.
Washington Post, October 21, 1992; February 5, 1993; October 14, 1993; August 16, 1994.
Ferrell, Rachelle, American singer; b. Berwyn, Pa., 1961. A professional singer since the age of 13, Ferrell has an unusual, two-label recording contract. She records R&B for Capitol and jazz for Blue Note, and no matter what she’s singing, her multi-octave vocals are a joy to listen to. She attended Boston’s Berklee Coll. of Music with Branford Marsalis and later taught music for the N.J. State Council of the Arts with Dizzy Gillespie. In fact, it was Gillespie who once told her parents that she would be a “major force” in the music industry. For such a prolific composer, she records relatively infrequently.
Rachelle Ferrell (1992); First Instrument (1995); Individuality (Can I Be Me?) (2000).
—Dean D. Dauphinais