Rhythm and blues trio
SWV, an acronym that stands for Sisters With Voices, has both an immediate and a general reference. The trio of rhythm and blues women vocalists who use it as their official moniker have won the praise and money of a large portion of the record-buying public. The broader reference, however, notes the group’s history—its place in a long line of what music critics and students call the “girl groups” of the 1960s. Although the formula is enjoying a revival with such ensembles as En Vogue and Jade, SWV has set itself apart through a particularly 1990s style of self-presentation. Consequently, critics acclaim the trio as the best of the old and the new.
After En Vogue set the trend in the music industry in the early 1980s, a slew of similarly fashioned female groups followed, saturating the market in a brief period of time. That saturation, of course, meant that a certain number would fade from sight fairly quickly. The combined voices of Cheryl “Coko” Gamble, Leanne “Lelee” Lyons, and Tamara “Taj” Johnson introduced SWV in the spring of 1993, when Billboard’s Janine McAdams caught
Members include Cheryl “Coko” Gamble, Tamara “Taj” Johnson, and Leanne “Lelee” Lyons . All members born in early 1970s in New York, NY.
Gamble and Johnson sang together casually and in church choir during childhood; Gamble and Lyons began singing together in high school when Lyons moved to South Bronx; became trio and took name SWV, 1990; signed contract with RCA Records and released debut single, “Right Here,” and debut album, It’s About Time, 1992.
Addresses: Record company —RCA Records, 6363 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90028.
them “emerging from the pack of En Vogue inspired female groups.” The trio quickly rose to the top, some critics even arguing that they eclipsed their forerunners.
Gamble, Lyons, and Johnson were all born within three years of one another in the early 1970s. Gamble and Johnson grew up in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where both sang in church, consuming a steady diet of gospel music. By the time they were 13, they had become regulars on the local talent-show circuit. They were also “known locally for breaking out into song on every corner from the school yard to the grocery store,” according to Deborah Gregory in Essence.
Gamble and Johnson’s passion, however, was the R&B sound epitomized at the time by the teenage crew of New Edition, a group of male vocalists outrageously popular with adolescent girls like Gamble and Johnson. The two expressed their devotion by naming their earliest attempt at a group Female Edition, in honor of their heros. “We were in love with them,” Johnson told Rap Masters. “The plan was to form a group, so that we could meet them. We used to get together in the hallways in school and sing all of the New Edition tunes, and fight over who would be [lead singer] Bobby Brown.”
The pair became a threesome when Gamble’s mother moved to the South Bronx, where Gamble met Lyons. At first, Lyons and Gamble joined their singing talents in a gospel group with several other girls, but they soon shifted to R&B. In 1990 Johnson rejoined her earlier singing partner and the trio became SWV.
Maureen Singleton, SWV’s manager, secured them a contract with RCA in 1992 after presenting a demo tape to Kenny Ortiz, an executive at the company. Ortiz had already decided that the label needed a way to break into the girl group revival that was taking place; when he heard SWV, he believed they could do it. As Christian Wright told the story in Vibe, Ortiz thought that “the female strength implicit in many of the smooth, sexy ballads would distinguish SWV from their peers, the seemingly endless blur of girl groups from En Vogue to Express.” With this in mind, RCA released It’s About Time at the end of October, 1992.
The album rode in easily on the success of the first single, “Right Here,” which broke the Top 100 on Billboard’s singles charts and made the Top 20 in the R&B category. Ironically, however, the album’s success happened despite the mainstream airwaves and the music press, neither of which took much notice. But a few radio stations with large black audiences, particularly in St. Louis, Missouri, and Detroit, embraced the single, exposing their listeners to it at every turn.
While airplay mainly on black stations might once have meant a permanent following on the margins, in the early 1990s it meant increasing attention from mainstream pop markets. “Black radio wields more and more influence over pop as more black music crossed over to the Top 10,” explained Wright. “Pop radio has even started looking for urban product earlier than black stations do,” RCA executive Ronald Edison told Vibe’s Wright. SWV came along at a critical moment, when they could benefit from this trend and contribute to it.
After the success of the group’s second single, “I’m So Into You,” the following spring, RCA knew that SWV was their ticket into the burgeoning R&B market. Company executives hoped that SWV could help them in their quest to “actively turn around [RCA’s] fortunes with the R&B market,” as Billboard’s McAdams wrote. Skip Miller, an executive in RCA’s black music division, elaborated on the label’s sense of the group’s success; he told McAdams that SWV’s output was “indicative of the music we want to make. We’re in the building stage of making music and SWV is our flagship.”
The flagship built up speed when a second single, “Weak,” followed “I’m So Into You” into the upper-stratosphere of the R&B singles chart by the fall of 1993, at which time both singles went gold and the album went platinum. Wright noted that “Weak” sold 50,000 copies in one day, ultimately eclipsing both preceding singles and topping the charts. Not surprisingly, the strength of the singles from the debut album carried the group through 1993 and 1994.
“What distinguishes SWV,” wrote McAdams in Billboard, “is street-level imaging and aggressive, swing-style harmonies, which place them in the burgeoning ’ghetto soul’ category.” Kenny Ortiz, the executive who first tagged SWV for RCA, described them further for McAdams. “They have to be the first female group out there that has a real soulful, nonbubblegum sound,” he commented. “They have a real New York vibe to them in the way they act and look.” Speaking with Wright in Vibe, Ortiz characterized it as “an aggressive edge.” Nelson George, a prominent black culture critic who appears regularly in the pages of the Village Voice, described the new phenomenon in his column. He specifically lauded the power of SWV’s “hard-eyed, I’m-going-for-mine edge that is so authentically New York it makes females from any other city seem too coy to be taken seriously.”
Nothing exemplified this in the SWV repertoire so much as the cut “Downtown,” which Vibe’s Wright described as “a sexy, forthright confrontation with a black male taboo: oral sex.” Johnson explained the trio’s purpose in just as forthright a manner, telling Wright, “We’re taking a stand for the ladies, telling the guys that this is the ’90s. We’re allowed to ask for what we want. And we’re allowed to get what we want.” Lyons told People’s Janice Min, “Some guys call us nasty dirty whores because of the songs. But the people doing all the talking, I’m sure they’ve done it once in their lives.” Certainly, the song had enthusiastic listeners who put it at the top of the R&B charts. SWV elaborated on the theme with a cut called “Blak Pudd’n.”
SWV has earned the adulation of their audience, often to the point of adoration. “Sometimes it gets real bad,” Johnson told Min, “and we have to let security handle it. They mostly give us the usual ’we love you, I love you, I want to marry you.’” The group quickly consolidated a general media reputation, but they became icons in venues focusing on black audiences. Teenage girls embraced them as role models, bringing them regularly to the pages of magazines like Hype Hair, Right On!, and Sister 2 Sister.
Billboard’s McAdams noted that SWV has made national tours of radio programs and college campuses, as well as the usual concert tours, and that they have appeared before television audiences on many programs, including Showtime at the Apollo, MTV’s Fade to Black, and Black Entertainment Television’s (BET) Video Soul. By 1993 they had become one of the main attractions of the massive entourage of the Budweiser Superfest, the longest-running and most reputable rhythm and blues music festival in the country. And they were, of course, contenders for best new artist at the 1994 Grammy Awards ceremony.
It’s About Time (includes “Right Here,” “I’m So Into You,” “Weak,” “Downtown,” and “Blak Pudd’n”), RCA, 1992.
“I’m So Into You” (maxi single), RCA, 1994.
“Always on My Mind” (maxi single), RCA, 1994.
“Anything” (maxi single), RCA, 1994.
The Hits Re-Mixed, RCA, 1994.
Billboard, January 30, 1993; March 13, 1993; July 24, 1993.
Essence, March 1994.
People, September 6, 1993.
Rap Masters, spring 1994.
Right On!, March 1994.
Source, January 1994.
USA Today, March 1, 1994.
Vibe, September 1993.
Village Voice, August 24, 1993.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from RCA Records publicity materials.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc
"SWV." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/swv
"SWV." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved January 16, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/swv
Modern Language Association
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American Psychological Association
Members: Cheryl "Coko" Gamble, lead vocals (born Bronx, New York, 13 June 1974); Tamara "Taj" Johnson, vocals (born Bronx, 1974); Leanne "Lelee" Lyons, vocals (born Bronx, 1976)
Best-selling album since 1990: It's About Time (1992)
Hit songs since 1990: "I'm So into You," "Weak," "Right Here (Human Nature)"
SWV debuted in 1992 following a formula that had brought success to artists such as Jade, En Vogue, and TLC: old-fashioned, 1960s girl group-style harmonizing over the hip-hop infused R&B known as "New Jack Swing," with a playful sense of female empowerment. SWV's distinctive vocal talent and songwriting ability helped set them apart from the many so-called "New Jill Swing" groups flooding the market at the time. A string of Top 10 R&B singles, a number of which crossed over to the pop charts, made them one of the most successful R&B groups of the 1990s.
The members of SWV met while in high school in New York. Lead singer Coko is the daughter of gospel singer Tibba Gamble, who began grooming her daughter for a career in music from a young age. In 1990 the sixteen-year-old joined forces with two of her classmates, Leanne Lyons and Tamara Johnson, and the trio began performing at local talent shows under the name "Female Edition." In 1992 they attracted a manager, who changed their name to SWV, an acronym for "Sisters with Voices," and landed them a contract with RCA Records.
Their debut album, It's About Time, was released in the fall of 1992. It features SWV's deft harmonizing and lead singer Coko's impressive vocal range, which alternates between sweet and gritty. The album helped cement the group's down-to-earth, neighborhood-girl image. The first single, "Right Here," reached number thirteen on the R&B chart, but quickly fell off, and the album only sold a few hundred copies in its first few weeks. Sales picked up with the release of the next two singles. "I'm So into You," a ballad from the perspective of the "other woman," hit number two on the R&B chart and number six on the pop chart. Soon after, SWV scored a number one pop and R&B hit with "Weak," in which Coko's confident mastery as a singer contrasts with lyrical declarations of emotional helplessness: "Time after time after time I try to fight it. / Your love is so strong it keeps on holding on." "Weak" was quickly followed up with producer Teddy Riley's remix of It's About Time 's disappointing first single, "Right Here." Riley, widely credited with inventing New Jack Swing, blends the song with a sample of the 1983 hit "Human Nature" by Michael Jackson, whose falsetto moan serves as the hook. A classic of early 1990s "urban" R&B, "Right Here (Human Nature)" became another number one hit for SWV, and helped It's About Time to sell 5 million copies. It emerged as one of the best-selling albums of 1993, a year SWV ended with a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.
In the spring of 1994 SWV released a remix album titled Remixes, which includes a collaboration with New York City rap collective the Wu-Tang Clan, then at the peak of their popularity. Their second album of new material, New Beginning, appeared in 1996. Although it yielded the number one R&B hit "You're the One," and sold well, it never equaled the success of It's About Time. Nor did their third album, the more hip-hop-oriented Release Some Tension (1997). In 1999 SWV broke up, citing personal differences and the desire to pursue solo careers. A greatest hits collection soon followed, along with Coko's solo album, Hot Coko.
Although neither the first nor most original of the girl groups to dominate R&B in the 1990s, SWV's tight harmonies and distinctive lead vocals made them stand out from many of their peers. While reaping commercial success, they also contributed a few songs that will endure as landmarks of 1990s R&B.
It's About Time (RCA, 1992); Remixes (RCA, 1994); New Beginning (RCA, 1996); Release Some Tension (RCA, 1997); A Special Christmas (RCA, 1997); Greatest Hits (RCA, 1999); The Best of SWV (RCA, 2001).
"SWV." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/swv
"SWV." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved January 16, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/swv