It's been almost 20 years since she last performed on a Broadway stage — and a little more than that since recording pop music — but Tony and Grammy Award-winning powerhouse Jennifer Holliday is getting back into the swing of things.
This month, the Dreamgirls legend releases her long-awaited new music opus, "The Song Is You," on the heels of performing a string of sold-out shows at 54 Below, which has fastly become New York City's most in-demand hotspot for Broadway royalty.
"I feel that that was a really great experience," Holliday reflected on her 54 Below performances, which saw her bringing down the house twice a night with a demand so high that patrons were put on a waiting list to get in. "To get so much mad, crazy love from New Yorkers, it was a like a homecoming of sorts.
"I thought [performing there] would be a good fit for this album, since it's really jazz and love songs," she continued. "The album lends itself to a supper club environment like those great ladies did back in the day — they weren't playing arenas or anything like that." "The Song Is You," scheduled for commercial release Jan. 21, marks a grand return to the pop music spectrum, after a 23-year sabbatical, for the songstress famed for her rendition of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." Though she recorded acclaimed gospel music projects in the interim, Holliday performs R&B, jazz and pop standards on the self-produced album. "The music industry kept changing and there wasn't an opportunity to record," she explained, rationalizing her lengthy absence.
The Houston native was also overcoming major health challenges. Over the last decade Holliday, 53, became an ambassador for mental illness (admittedly battling clinical depression for years); she also suffers from multiple sclerosis (MS), which she revealed was diagnosed 17 years ago.
"I've been blinded and paralyzed and after the last episode of blindness in 2007, I said 'Okay, I need to change my environment and how I do my work and live my life.'"
Making a home in the southern metropolis of Atlanta has become a salvation for the woman who made a name for herself immortalizing the role of tortured Effie Melody White in Michael Bennett's legendary Broadway musical in 1981. "I needed to have an environment that was much more peaceful and homelike, so Atlanta was just a great place for that," Holliday shared. "It's the best of both worlds because a lot of entertainment is here and also just the southern hospitality... and people just really look after you here. I just needed an environment like that."
The music project was two years in the making. On the 15-track set, Holliday is putting her special vocal flourishes on songs popularized by Dionne Warwick ("The Look of Love"), Etta James ("At Last") and Frank Sinatra ("The Song Is You"), alongside newer material like the self-penned "The One You Used To Be" (dedicated to her late friend Whitney Houston) and the Gordon Chambers-crafted "It's Not About You."
"Jennifer Holliday is one of the greatest voices of our time; her many fans are hungry for new music from her," Shanchie general manager Randall Grass said in a statement. "This new album may be the most complete fulfillment of her artistry and vision as she recorded it free from any pressure to fit a commercial format."
Holliday credits her publicist Bill Carpenter for introducing her to the Newton, NJ-based independent music company, which has distributed noteworthy albums from the likes of fellow R&B veterans Jody Watley, Deniece Williams, Vesta and Maysa.
She also credits the late, great Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch with reigniting her career over the past decade. "There were many years that I couldn't find work and... Marvin Hamlisch really encouraged me to learn this type of music and it opened up doors for me," she explained. "It opened up a lot of opportunities for me to get work. And even though people have not seen me around, I have been working in other venues that people haven't expected me, like performance arts centers, symphony dates, private corporate galas and that sort of thing."
As a tribute to Hamlisch, Holliday recorded one of his most popular compositions "Nobody Does It Better," which was popularized by Carly Simon as the theme to the 1977 James Bond movie "The Spy Who Loved Me." As far as returning to her Broadway roots, Holliday said she hasn't been offered anything new but is hoping for someone to create a project "that would show different sides to me and to my growth as an artist."
Until then, there's always the music, and, of course, the performing.
"Well, I'm out here just doing my thing," she chuckled. "It's just now I get an opportunity for people to see it on a wider platform."