Armstrong, Vanessa Bell 1953–
Vanessa Bell Armstrong 1953–
In the 1990s, gospel music expanded tremendously in popularity as artists such as Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams, and CeCe Winans turned the excitement inherent in secular musical styles to religious ends. The music shed its big-Sunday-hat image, and made inroads with the younger audiences that singers hoped to reach. Vanessa Bell Armstrong, an artist steeped in the enduring gospel traditions of Detroit’s black churches, did much to blaze the trail that later artists could follow. But when Armstrong first began to merge sacred and secular in her music, she had to endure criticism from the faithful, and it may be that she has received insufficient credit for her part in creating an extremely significant musical movement.
Armstrong was born Vanessa Bell in Detroit on October 2, 1953. Her father was a minister, and she began singing in churches around the city when she was only four years old. In 1966 the gospel choir leader Mattie Moss Clark heard Armstrong sing and took her under her wing. Armstrong traveled with Clark, and under her tutelage received a gospel vocal education in some truly stellar company; among the acts with whom she appeared were the Rev. James Cleveland, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Clark Sisters, and the Winans.
Another key early influence on Armstrong’s style was the singing of the most famous performer ever to emerge from Detroit’s gospel scene, Aretha Franklin, and when Armstrong emerged into her own career, many observers noted a vocal resemblance between the two singers. A married woman with five children, Armstrong made her recording debut late, releasing the album Peace Be Still on the small Onyx label in 1984, when she was 31. The album, produced by Minister Thomas Whitfield, went to the top of the gospel charts.
The year 1987 marked a turning point in Armstrong’s career. The success of Peace Be Still attracted the attention of big-time talent scouts, and Armstrong was signed to the flourishing r&b label Jive Records. That year, she served notice of her vocal capabilities when she edged out both Franklin and virtuoso songstress Patti LaBelle in auditions to perform the theme song of NBC television’s Amen situation comedy. She also appeared in a Broadway theatrical production called Don’t Get God Started. But the crucial event of the year was the release of Armstrong’s Jive debut album, simply entitled Vanessa Bell Armstrong.
The album drew denunciations from fans of traditional gospel, who, according to MusicHound R&B, accused Armstrong of “backsliding” and “selling out.” The source of their negative reactions was the album’s stylistic foray into contemporary urban sounds, which was achieved expertly enough that one of its single releases, “You Bring Out the Best in Me,” ended up as a hit on the r&b
At a Glance…
Born Vanessa Bell on October 2, 1953, in Detroit, Michigan; daughter of Jesse Bell, a minister. Married with five children.
Career: Gospel vocalist. Began singing at age four in Detroit-area churches; worked with Mattie Moss Clark from age of 13; toured and sang with top gospel stars including Rev. James Cleveland, the Clark Sisters, and the Winans as a teenager; released Peace Be Still, 1984; signed to Jive label and released Vanessa Bell Armstrong, 1987; recorded theme for television comedy Amen, 1987; appeared in Broadway musical Don’t Get God Started, 1987; released Wonderful One, 1990; released Chosen; 1991; released Something on the Inside, 1993; released The Secret Is Out 1995; released Desire of My Heart: Live in Detroit, 1998.
Addresses: Label—BMG Entertainment/Verity Records, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
charts. The song drew on a lyric device that would become a staple of both black and white contemporary gospel styles: it intentionally blurred the boundary between religious feeling and romantic love. When Armstrong employed it, though, the idea was still comparatively young.
Despite the criticisms, Vanessa Bell Armstrong was a strong seller and propelled the singer’s career forward. She released two more albums in the early 1990s, Chosen (1991) and Something on the Inside (1993), but after that, she took a two-and-a-half year break to appear with television talk show host Oprah Winfrey in a made-f or-TV film of the novel The Women of Brewster Place; the film was widely publicized and exposed Armstrong’s image to a mass audience. Armstrong’s second Jive album, Wonderful One, extended her crossover experiments. It featured the duet “True Love Never Fails,” recorded with jazz guitarist Jonathan Butler. In 1990 Jive attempted to cash in on the publicity surrounding Armstrong with a greatest-hits album.
When she reemerged in 1995 with the album The Secret Is Out, she stayed on top of new currents in black popular music and incorporated them into her sound. Increasingly asserting control over her own music, she hand-picked the producer for the new album, the Charlotte, North Carolina-based gospel impresario John P. Kee, known as “The Prince of Gospel,” whose album The New Life Community Choir Featuring John P. Kee was one of the biggest gospel records of the middle of the decade.
The album featured an even wider stylistic mix than Armstrong had previously attempted. “It’s traditional and churchy, but also hip-hop,” she told Billboard. “There’s the blues … classical… he’s (Kee) just exploring my talent and challenging me all the way.” Such tracks as the hip-hop-inflected “Love Lifted Me” earned Armstrong a place, along with Yolanda Adams and CeCe Winans, in a 1996 Essence magazine feature on the “divas of gospel.” A reviewer for American Visions seemed both attracted and unnerved by the new energy of Armstrong’s style: “I’m almost afraid to say it, but she does indeed belt out her music with such conviction that the line between gospel and contemporary is blurred. But the meaning is the same: salvation.”
Indeed, even as she continued to break new ground, Armstrong reaffirmed her commitment to gospel traditions. She questioned some of her label’s more blatant efforts to cross her over to a secular audience, observing to Billboard, “They were trying to direct me into the secular market, and they just lost me. Fans were wondering, ‘What’s up, you’re going secular.’ But I never left. I’m gospel, and I’m not going anywhere.” She continued to exert influence over secular artists—it was said that vocal diva Mariah Carey studied her singing— but she would close out the 1990s with a spectacular return to gospel basics. In 1998 Armstrong recorded Desire of My Heart—Live, recorded at the Perfecting Church in her hometown of Detroit. The album was released on the Verity label, and its release was accompanied by a video made as it was being recorded. Desire of My Heart—Live marked a homecoming and a moment of renewal for Armstrong in several ways. She wrote the album’s title track, the first time one of her own compositions had been included on one of her releases, and she served as the album’s co-producer. Armstrong’s father, Elder Jesse Bell, was featured on the track “Labor in Vain,” and Perfecting Church pastor Marvin Winans joined Armstrong and the church’s choir on the barn-burning “He Is Lord.” Billboard called the album “an enduring classic.” Reflecting on her unheralded influence on gospel music the magazine observed, “It took a while, but the world seems to be catching up to Armstrong.” Her second greatest-hits release, which appeared on Verity in 1999, gave gospel listeners the chance to survey the development of her immensely important career.
Peace Be Still, Benson, 1984.
Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Jive/Novus, 1987.
Wonderful One, Jive/Novus, 1990.
Chosen, Onyx, 1991.
Something on the Inside, Jive/Novus, 1993.
The Secret Is Out, Verity, 1995.
Desire of My Heart: Live in Detroit, Verity, 1998.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 24, Gale, 1998.
American Visions, December-January 1995, p. 49.
Billboard, April 29, 1995, p. 42; May 30, 1998.
Essence, February 1996, p. 64.
Armstrong, Vanessa Bell
Singer Vanessa Bell Armstrong has been praised for her r–b-flavored contemporary gospel music and has met with success in both the gospel and secular realms. She has often been compared with another Detroit native, Aretha Franklin. At times, Armstrong has stretched so far afield of “traditional” gospel music that in the 1980s, she was at times considered too contemporary for gospel. Billboard, in a 1998 review of Desire Of My Heart—“Live,”wrote, “A lot has changed [since 1988] and Armstrong has stood her ground, emerging with a work that is the perfect summation of gospel’s rich history and its cutting-edge presence in the mix of today’s R&B music… It took a while, but the world seems to be catching up to Armstrong.”
Vanessa Bell was born in Detroit, Michigan on October 2, 1953. She was raised in the Church of God in Christ, a denomination that had nurtured other gospel greats such as BeBe and CeCe Winans, Andre Crouch, Edwin, Walter and Tramaine Hawkins, and others. In 1957, when she was four years old, Vanessa began traveling with her mother, singing in various churches in the Detroit area, singing. It was clear even atthatyoungage that she had both remarkable stage presence and the vocal control of someone considerably older.
In 1966, when she was thirteen years old, Vanessa was discovered by Dr. Mattie Moss Clark. Clark became her mentor. She began traveling with Clark, singing in her various choirs and sharing the stage with such gospel titans as Rev. James Cleveland, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Clark Sisters, and the Winans. Other early influences included Marion Williams, Mahalia Jackson, Inez Andrews, and Aretha Franklin. Armstrong’s first recording experience was an appearance on Donald O’Connor’s 1981 release, Bring Back Birdie. Her own recording career began in 1984 when, atthe ageof 31, she signed with the Onyx label and released Peace Be Still.
In 1987 Armstrong’s career took off in earnest. She beat out stiff competition—including the likes of Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle—for the chance to record the theme song for the popular television sit-com Amen. Armstrong had her Broadway debut in 1987, captivating audiences in the musical Don’t Get God Started. She also made a guest appearance on Tom Jones’ Move Closer.
When she signed with Jive Records in 1987, Armstrong began a period of prolific recording activity. Her eponymous album, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, released in 1987, yielded the crossover r&b hit, “You Bring Out the
For the Record…
Born Vanessa Bell on October 2, 1953, in Detroit, MI; daughter of Jesse Bell, a minister; married with five children.
Began singing in various Detroit area churches at the age of four; discovered at the age of thirteen by Dr. Mattie Moss Clark; sang with gospel performers such as Rev. James Cleveland, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Clark Sisters, and the Winans as a teenager; appeared on Donald O’Connor’s 1981 release, Bring Back Birdie; released Peace Be Still in 1984; released Vanessa Bell Armstrong album in 1987; recorded the theme for the television sitcom Amen in 1987; appeared in the Broadway musical Don’t Get God Started in 1987; appeared on Tom Jones’ Move Closer in 1988; released Wonderful One in 1990; released Greatest Hits and The Truth About Christmas in 1990; released Chosen in 1991; released Something On The Inside in 1993; released The Secret is Out in 1995; released Desire of My Heart: Live in Detroit in 1998; featured on the 1995 compilation A Tribute to Rosa Parks, on John P. Kee’s 1994 release, Color Blind, and on Kee’s 1995 release, Stand.
Addresses: Record company —BMG Entertainment/Verity Records, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10019, (212) 930-4000.
Best in Me”. Her 1990 release, Wonderful One, featured a duet, entitled, “True Love Never Fails,” with Jive label-mate jazz guitarist Jonathan Butler. The track was also included on Butler’s acclaimed More Than Friends album. In 1990, Jive released a CD of Armstrong’s greatest hits album along with the highly praised Truth About Christmas. In 1991 Chosen was released.
The multi-talented Armstrong branched out even further afield of gospel music in the late 1980s when she appeared with Oprah Winfrey in the Women of Brewster Place, a made-for-TV movie which enjoyed widespread critical acclaim. Armstrong continued her brisk recording pace; she released Something On The Inside in 1993, The Secret is Out\n 1995, and her first live album, Desire of My Heart: “Live” in 1998. Armstrong was a featured guest on the 1995 compilation release A Tribute to Rosa Parks, and on two John P. Kee CDs, the 1994, Color Blind, and the 1995, Stand.
Armstrong has continually expanded her horizons and her audience, performing on Broadway and releasing eclectic, contemporary albums such as Truth About Christmas, Something on the Inside, and The Secret is Out. Mainstream entertainment and her music has been praised figures such as Oprah Winfrey, Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Tisha Campbell; artists such as Sandra Crouch and Donna McElroy have found musical guidance and inspiration in Armstrong’s music and career.
Desire of My Heart —“Live,” released in 1998 on the Verity label, was recorded in Detroit’s Perfecting Church, and accompanied by a live video shot during the recording session. The recording shows the spiritual and artistic growth Armstrong has undergone over the course of her career. Its title track was the first song she wrote herself. And while recording the album, Armstrong reconfirmed her life’s desire, above all else, to please God. Armstrong was the record’s co-producer, also a first for her.
She decided to release a live recording for two reasons: her fans had wanted one for some time, and Armstrong felt it would be a new challenge. Recording in a studio afforded her a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere; the live CD brought Armstrong’s fans into the recording process and reproduced the concert experience. The CD was something of a family affair—her father, Elder Jesse Bell, contributed the track “Labor In Vain.” Joining Armstrong on the live recording were the Perfected Praise Choir; Perfecting Church pastor Marvin Winans sang with Armstrong and the choir on the powerhouse track “He Is Lord.”
Armstrong’s career has flourished throughoutthe 1980s and 1990s, and gives every indication that she will continue to challenge herself and delight listeners. Billboards gospel reviewer brimmed with praise for the live CD, calling it “an enduring classic.” Darren K. Greggs of Love Express wrote, “It’s always a pleasure to see someone continue to grow in their ministry, and that’s just what sister Vanessa Bell Armstrong appears to have done. The evidence is manifested in … Desire of My Heart —Live. Each song on this one is powerful and displays the talent that sister Vanessa returns to God in his service.”
Whether singing urban contemporary ballads, secular material, powerhouse gospel tracks, or television theme songs, Broadway hits, or forging into completely new territory, Vanessa Bell Armstrong will continue to astound her fans and to test the limits of her seemingly boundless talent.
Peace Be Still, Benson, 1984.
Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Jive/Novus, 1987.
Wonderful One, Jive/Novus, 1990.
The Truth About Christmas, BMG, 1990.
Chosen, Onyx, 1991. Something On The Inside, Jive/Novus. 1993.
Malaco’s Greatest Gospel Hits: Vol. 2, Malaco, 1995.
Desire Of My Heart—“Live,” Verity, 1998.
Billboard, May 30, 1998.
Love Express, 1998.
All-Media Guide: http://www.amg.com
Additional information provided by the publicity department at Verity Records.
—B. Kimberly Taylor