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"This is easily one of the best interviews I’ve ever done…” David Nathan, founder, Soul

Phone interview conducted March 2, 2011

Tying in with the reissue of her 1991 Arista album, I’M ON YOUR SIDE on Soul Records, site founder David Nathan spoke with the original ‘Dreamgirl,’ the ever-soulful Jennifer Holliday. He notes, “I had tried to find Jennifer to get quotes for the notes but never caught up with her in time. It was when D.C. publicist Bill Carpenter heard in church that I was trying to reach her that he arranged for us to talk. I had interviewed Jennifer on a couple of occasions before and found her reluctant, reticent and not particularly forthcoming. What I did not expect or anticipate is that this 2011 interview would go down as one of the most inspiring and candid conversations I’ve ever had. This is easily one of the best interviews I’ve ever done…”

David Nathan: Well, I’d like to welcome today to Soul a lady whose voice has been heard on a Broadway stage; has been heard on many great recordings—a lady whose music has definitely stood the test of time. And I’m particularly happy because I’m welcoming this lady today on the occasion of the reissue of one of her great albums on Arista Records that’s coming out on our Soul Records reissue label….Miss Jennifer Holliday.

Jennifer Holliday: Thank you—thank you so much, David. I’m very glad to be with you today.

DN: Okay, and I’m speaking to you Atlanta, correct?

JH: Yes, I now live in Atlanta, Georgia. Recently moved down here from New York.

DN: Okay, and how long have you been in Atlanta?

JH: Almost two years.

DN: Really? And how do you find living there compared to the hectic pace of New York?

JH: I actually really love it; you get the best of both worlds down here. There’s plenty of music in Atlanta, that’s for sure, and now there’s been more of the industry as well in terms of movie things being filmed here, television shows being filmed here. So it’s becoming quite a small Hollywood of its own, but with a great Southern drawl, in the sense that there is a touch of warmth and that little, extra-special thing that you can only get from Southern hospitality.

DN: Okay. And of course for those who may not know, you were born in Texas…

JH: Yes, I was born and raised in Houston, Texas.

DN: I guess that Southern hospitality of which you speak is something that you grew up with.

JH: Well, I did grow up with it. And I do think that Texas is different than Georgia in the sense where it’s Southern but it’s also Western at the same time. But I left Houston as a teenager, so therefore I do think things do come full circle and you want some things that you kind of remember as you grow older.

DN: Absolutely.

JH: So as I was looking toward my fiftieth birthday—I just turned fifty - and as I was looking toward that I wanted to have a lot more rounded environment so I could keep a balanced life; that sort of thing.

DN: Absolutely. When was your birthday?

JH: In October.

DN: And was that really what prompted you to move from New York, the desire for a different environment?

JH: Yes, yes. I didn’t want to wait till after I was fifty, or I didn’t want to wait till I got older to move, because life happens and things out of our control can happen. So I said, well, ‘let me go ahead and do that transition now’ since I know that that’s something that I want to do, and then that way as I get older I can have friends or meet people that I can grow older with. That’s how I was lookin’ [at it], creatin’ me a senior citizens’ community [laughs].

DN: Well, I think you might be a little too young for senior, but I do understand the sentiment. I completely understand it because I moved back to London, which is where I was born, after many, many years in the United States. So I can definitely relate to what you’re referring to. There’s a certain comfort in being in an environment that you have some familiarity with.

JH: And that’s a great word—the comfort. You just want, as you begin to get older and take a different kind of assessment of your life and of your own self as a person and who you are and what you want out of life. And the great thing about this age and time that we live in is that you can begin a new life at any age. So, fifty—I could change a lot of things and still shape the kind of life that I’ve always wanted for myself, even at fifty.

That’s the great thing about these days and times, the way we live longer, we live better and we can still go after things that we’ve always wanted. So that was my whole thing. It was like, okay, fifty is a new chapter in my life—a whole new act in my life—so therefore, what do I see myself, next twenty, thirty years? Let me create a place where I can not only be a human being, but also just be a part of the community too. In Atlanta there’s a lot for communities and different charities and different things, so there was a lot that I could get involved with. So I’m not just here just to be comforted. On the other side is, “Look, we have Jennifer Holliday living with us.” I also want to be involved, I also want to help. I also want to do things so that at the end of my life people will be able to say that I was more than just a singer, and that I was more than just a song—that I actually contributed to the community and to the world.

DN: Wow, that’s beautiful. That’s really touching, actually. The way you expressed that was really beautiful, and I… wow, I’m really speechless for a moment there. Because what I think is great about what you just shared is that for so many people, I think that they look at an entertainer and they think, “Well, that’s all there is. They’re out there, they’re entertaining, they’re making loads of money—it’s all about that,” rather than what’s really at the heart of it for many people, and the way you just expressed it, is ‘how can I make a contribution? How can I leave something, how can I make a difference in people’s lives?’ And sometimes it isn’t just through music.

JH: Right, right. And then a lot of people may look at it and say that the music that I leave and everything will be enough, and I do run into people who say, “Your music has helped so many people through some hard times.” And that’s fine, but that’s my music. And some people may say I am my music, or we’re one and the same—and in one way maybe that’s true, that my music is an extension of myself. But that’s all it is, is an extension of myself. When they speak words over me before they put me away, I want people to say, “She was more than this: she was more than just music or just singing.” So I’m not negating that the music has meant something, and I don’t want fans to think, “She doesn’t feel that her music is worthy”—no, I do feel that the music is worthy and I am grateful that so many people who have over the years said, “Your music helped me through hard times, helped me through breakups, helped me through my depression”—I get all of that. But that’s my music, though, so I know that you’ll be able to hear that; but for me, though, I would love for people to be able to stand up and say that they actually met me, that they actually had time with me, that they actually knew me as a human being.

DN: Wow, that’s a lot—you just said a whole lot, you really did. That’s just really beautiful.

JH: Thank you.

DN: It really is. Well, let me ask you, since we are going to talk about music—but before we get to that, since you’re talking about this move and… how has life been for you since you’ve been in Atlanta? It sounds like, from what you’re saying now, that you’ve already begun to have that experience of contributing and being a part of the community. Is that true? Is that something you’ve already begun to experience?

JH: Yes, I dove right in. I didn’t even start unpacking, and I got right involved right away in this community—

DN: I love it.

JH: —and different things, and started really getting involved with different charities: Big Brothers/Big Sisters; the AIDS community, in terms of people who work with HIV/AIDS here— —a host of organizations. And [I] just have gotten to be a part of the Atlanta Women’s Fund, which helps women who need help who have suffered abuse, and looking at trying to get their lives together and have children. So I really just went straight to work, I didn’t wait. I wanted to be already participating and trying to find out what things I could do and how I could make a difference. There are a lot of colleges here, so I’ve been speaking with young people here—there’s young girls, and even other young students as well in different schools here. So I’ve really just begun to get started—I haven’t totally got started. And I’m not looking to have my own foundation or anything like that—we have so many, and we have so many that need help. So basically I’m just looking to help those who’ve already established things, who have a track record of giving and helping where it makes a difference. So that’s the only requirement for me, is that I just need to know that they’re established, that they have been doing what they’re doing for a while and that the money’s gonna go where they say it’s gonna go and it’s not a scam.

DN: Absolutely, absolutely. Now, let me ask you: it would be hard for me to believe that the way you’re feeling about this is something that just occurred. Obviously this is something that you’ve been doing to some degree at different times in your life prior to moving to Atlanta, but being in Atlanta has given you more of an impetus to just get involved. Is it true to say that prior to moving you were already doing things in other places?

JH: Well, I think that people will probably say that I have been a giver for many years; that I have helped many organizations over the years. But…when you’re the entertainment to help raise funds, very seldom do you even get to meet people outside of that charity. You’re whisked in - your name is used to help raise money, you do the performance; you’re whisked out —you go on to the next thing. What I’m saying that [what] I’m doing now is that I actually get to meet people. If we’re raising money for people who are sick, I get to actually visit those with the sick; or if we’re raising money for different things I get a chance to actually participate with those people. So yes, some people will probably say Jennifer Holliday has been very generous. Some might even go as far as to say that I’m a philanthropist, in the sense that I do support so many charities. But supporting and giving of yourself isn’t the same. You can send a check and you can make an appearance, but you don’t have to be involved, though—see, that’s the difference.

DN: That’s true, that’s true.

JH: People can solicit you to help, but that’s as far as it can go—you don’t have to involve yourself, you understand? I just would like to know a few more things and be a bit more involved, that’s what it is. And I don’t have one cause yet; I think that as the years will go and I begin to meet more people or learn about more organizations, then I will pick a cause. And there are things, of course, over the years that have meant a great deal to me: HIV/AIDS, because of the fact that in Dreamgirls we lost pretty much our whole creative team to AIDS. Michael Bennett, the director, died of AIDS; Tom Eyen, the writer of Dreamgirls, died of AIDS; Michael Peters, the co-producer, died of AIDS; Teddy Azar the hair designer died of AIDS— pretty much the entire male chorus of Dreamgirls died of AIDS. So that has always been a cause that I’ve always tried to champion—since Michael Bennett’s death, so that I’ve been involved with.

Mental health and depression, because I had suffered greatly from depression many, many years ago. So I’m an advocate for that; that’s been important to me—any organizations that deals with that, that’s been important to me. And then I also have multiple sclerosis, I’ve had that for well over fifteen years…so helping people understand that you can live with a debilitating disease and that you can still cope and make life work… my illness is a very painful illness, but I deal with everything as I go, and still do my work and still am able to live a full life. If I wanted to just whittle down a cause, I could whittle down to those three causes. But since my life and the world goes beyond those three causes, I just try to help everybody. I just want to help everybody, you know?

DN: Well first, I want to totally commend you. I’ve spoken to dozens and dozens—probably hundreds, at this point—of artists throughout my own career as a music journalist and a writer, and it is very, very, very seldom that I speak with anybody who’s as committed and clearly is interested in what I would call ‘hands-on’: it’s not just, as you said, about going in and doing a performance and lending your name to something, but actually going in there hands-on to meet the people and to actually participate with the people who are dealing with different situations. I just really commend you for having the kind of spirit that wishes to do that—is willing to do that. Because a lot of people shy away from the actual hands-on part and they don’t want to talk to the people who have AIDS; they don’t want to talk to the people who are dealing with different situations. They feel like just doing the performance is sufficient and you don’t have to meet the people. But the way you’re speaking is clearly that for you, it is about being hands-on.

JH: Right, right.

DN: I have to say personally I find this part of the conversation and what we’re talking about very rich and very interesting, and I think that it’s really great to hear you share about this, for those who are going to be listening and reading, because it shows a whole other dimension to what it means to be a public figure—it really does. And of course, one doesn’t have to be a public figure to do all the things you’re talking about.

JH: Right.

DN: Anyone can volunteer—anyone can be part of all manner of community events and charities if they so choose. So it’s clearly who you are as a human being—not necessarily that one has to be an entertainer, of course, to do those things. But I want to ask you, was the desire to do this—I think you already answered it, but just so I can be clear—[your] desire to be more involved, more engaged, something that was part of what prompted you to move to Atlanta rather than staying in New York?

JH: That is definitely what happened. And not that New York isn’t community-oriented, but … if you’ve been to New York, there’s just a different thing about it. You’re caught in a fast pace and you do get invited to a lot of social things, a lot of charity things, things like that. But again, you’re moving from this to that—you’re moving from one event to another social event. And by it being a concrete city, you’re just going from building to building, fabulous gala to fabulous gala, da-da-da, raising lots of money, doing things. But you don’t really get to see the heart of the situation. In Atlanta… now I don’t drive, but in Atlanta I take the bus—

DN: I love it, I love it, I love it.

JH: —and I take the MARTA train. And one thing about that: there’s something about riding the bus where you get to hear about the average person’s day and how difficult it is, maybe, that if this bus isn’t on time that they can’t get to work, and how it triggers something else, and then how the day has ended and then the bus isn’t on time at the end of the day, and how they have to go home and prepare and spend time with the children and do all these things to make real life work. And so I like just to know what it is that people are dealing with—not that I could change anybody’s life by a wave of a wand—and I wish that I could, I wish that I had some magic like that—but at least I could know what’s going on and be a part of it. So it’s just different here, in the sense where you’re actually right in the heart of the people and it’s more of where you can get to the people. New York, you have a real way of just sweeping through everything and being invited to everything, and still not being there. You can be there and not be there.

DN: Yeah, I know what you mean.

JH: It’s kinda like, “Okay”…. But here, you’re actually—

DN: In it—you’re in it.

JH: You’re there, you’re in it, and you know very well that you’re making a difference.

DN: Well, I just have to tell you as an aside, I also don’t drive. When I lived in Los Angeles—and you can imagine what that was like, living in Los Angeles—

JH: Oh, I can imagine.

DN: —I used to take the bus everywhere. Of course on occasion when I needed to, I took taxis. But as you know, in L.A. you don’t get the taxi in the street; you have to call for a taxi. So most of my twenty years in L.A. were spent going on the bus, so I know exactly what you’re talking about.

JH: And I had no problem with those buses. Now, those buses at least run somewhat better than the Atlanta buses. They’re still working on it. They’re still working on their transportation. But I’ll tell you a funny story, because it kind of throws some people off sometime, in terms of if they actually see you. Now one day I was waiting at the bus stop in L.A., and I had gone to an audition on the bus. I was waiting, coming back, and [comedian] Jackée Harry and her husband at the time, Elgin, they were driving by, and she pulls up and she goes, “Jennifer! Jennifer! Get in this car! Get in this car!” And I said, “What is wrong with you?” She said, “Are you on the bus stop? Girl, get in this car.” So Elgin looked at her and just said, “Jackée, maybe Jennifer want to ride the bus.” I said, “I can ride the bus—I ride the bus all the time. I’m not ashamed to ride the bus. I do not drive; it does not mean that I am homeless. It means that this is a way of convenience to me and that…” She said, “Girl, get in this car right now or I’m gittin’ out.” So I had to get in the car, because she was making such a big scene. But she was absolutely livid. And really though, it was kind of sweet because she was embarrassed for me. She was like, “You need to be not on a bus stop. You in Hollywood, this could be embarrassing. I’m your friend; get in this car!” In a way she was trying to protect me, but in another way I wasn’t embarrassed about it, I was like, “I’m waiting on the bus because I could not get a cab”—

And I was like, “The bus is coming quicker. I know what times they come and I know which one to ride.” But she was so embarrassed for me, and I thought it was so sweet. So I had to get in the car for her, because she was having a fit. And her husband was like, “Jackée, Jennifer rides the bus all the time. She might be fine with it.” She was like, “Nah, I want her to get in the car. Get in this car, Jennifer—get in this car!”

DN: Well, it’s funny, because I had the same experiences—not with her…

JH: Yeah, but with different people trying to be ashamed for you—

DN: —if I was standing at the bus stop—

JH: —and I’m like, “Okay, I’m not embarrassed, I don’t want you want to be embarrassed for me.”

DN: I’ll never forget, I have to share with you a funny, similar story. One day I was going off to interview Anita Baker. Now I’d already interviewed Anita Baker before, so I knew her and she knew me. And I got there, and of course to get to where she was in Beverly Hills—and at the time I lived on Wilshire and La Brea, right in the mid-Wilshire district of L.A.—I had to get the 212 bus, and it wasn’t as quick as I would like it to have been; and then I had to change buses because I was going to Beverly Hills. And when I got there I was probably about ten or fifteen minutes late—

JH: And Beverly Hills is what, the 67 bus or the 66 bus? Something like that.

DN: One of those, yes. And of course I apologized; I said, “I’m really sorry, Anita, I apologize. I had to get the bus.” She said, “You got the bus?” I said “Yes, that’s how I get around.” She said, “Well, which bus did you get?” I said, “I got the 212 on LeBrea.” And she said, “You know what? When I first moved to L.A., I was doing my first album for Beverly Glen Records called The Songstress”—and I didn’t have any money and they didn’t give me any budget or anything. And I lived in the Oakwood Apartments over there in Burbank,” she said, “and I had to get the bus every day, and it was the same bus: the 212 to take me from Burbank to go to the studio.” So she said, “Honey, I know about the 212.” And we both roared!. I said, “Well, at least we can say that we had that in common—we both had been on the 212 bus in L.A.” So I totally, completely not only understand but I’ve had that exact same experience that you’re talking about, of having people pull up—people in the music business who knew me would say, “What are you doing at the bus?”

JH: What are you doing?

DN: I’m like, “I’m getting on the bus.”

JH: And really just irate about it: “Get in this car, what are you doing?”

DN: Yes, I know. But hey, people have different concepts. And I had the same experience in terms of really finding that going on the bus, in a sense, kept me very grounded and made sure that I understood about the reality of life. And that even though I might be going to some wonderful function or going out to interview some major person, that it’s still just about ordinary life and we’re all human beings and it doesn’t matter—

JH: We’re all human beings and it’s just the connection. It’s just the heart-to-heart connection, even if it’s only for a moment. And you know that these people on the bus are not able to go buy a five-dollar Starbucks coffee, in the sense where [they can] get a relaxing moment or something. It’s just a whole different outlook that you’re able to have, and it is very grounding to me and it is very centering to me, in the sense where, okay, let me just be able to empathize with them, if they’re out in the rain and the cold waiting on a bus, and how much it’s important for that bus to be on time. That they’ve been standing out there, especially for people who have to connect from a bus to a train, and that sort of thing. I just think that it’s something that has helped me a great deal.

DN: Yes. Well, let’s now talk about some music. First, I thank you for sharing all that. I think that is so great and gives people such an insight into, again, that it isn’t always about the glitz and the glamour; it’s about finding other ways to contribute and other ways to make a difference. And so thank you for sharing all that, I really, really appreciate it.

JH: Thank you.

DN: It’s certainly not what I expected the beginning of our interview to be, but I love it—I love it, absolutely. Well, let’s talk about a few things to do with music. Let’s start out of course with the reissue that you know is coming out of I’M ON YOUR SIDE. And I just want to get a few comments from you about that, about the reissue and how you feel about it, and how you feel about that particular project in hindsight.

JH: Well, I am so elated that this is being re-released. And the project did fairly well back in 1991 when it was originally released on Arista; the only problem is that I had done that album at the only time that Clive Davis was having a rough spell in his music life—the only period ever, I was caught in [laughs]… he’s never had any rough period, he’s always had the golden touch— This particular time was the only rough spot in his life. He was coming off of the Milli Vanilli scandal, Whitney Houston was having a hard time with the I’M YOUR BABY TONIGHT album—they kept releasing single after single, nothing was catching. And I was in the midst of that, along with some others who had releases at that time—Jeffrey Osborne—a lot of us got caught in this only one bad cycle.

DN: Oh, no. Oh, dear.

JH: And he was then fighting with whoever was the head of Arista at that time, a German company—

DN: Oh, Bertelsmann—BMG.

JH: Yes, right, and they were going to replace him at that particular time. So this was the only time in his career that he wasn’t the Clive Davis who was making gold eggs out of regular raindrops. It was kind of like, he was caught in it and so we got caught in it as well. And of course he bounced back out of it, because he is that type of an amazing man and does have that kind of ear and success with music, but that was the only time. So that one album, we didn’t get a lot of attention to it. It did very well, though: I’M ON YOUR SIDE went maybe even as high as number two, I think maybe, on the R&B charts. But it still did very well without any kind of promotion, without whatever, the turmoil that Arista and Clive Davis was going through and the powers-that-be at that particular time. And it was just one of those times, so it didn’t get a lot of the record company attention that Clive Davis usually gives to a project and an artist. So that’s basically what happened with that. But it was one of my favourite projects.

Angela Bofill, who wrote “I’m On Your Side”, had always been one of my favourite songwriters and I had wanted to do a couple of her songs, so to remake that song was important to me. And a lot of people liked the song, and as I say it did very well. Then as the years went along, even though I continued to sing “I’m On Your Side” from the CD, I also began to sing another song on the CD called “There’s A Dream Out There With Your Name On It”. And that particular song is a personal mantra of my own at this particular point: that no matter what you’ve gone through, no matter how much of a mess you’ve made of your life, no matter what age you are, you can dream new dreams. You can make your life start again. And that’s what it’s like: there’s a dream out there with your name on it. And I think that a lot of times we get so caught up in that the dreams we started with at one particular age, and if they don’t manifest themselves, or whatever, then we look at ourselves as being a failure, not understanding that life continuously has to be negotiated, life continuously has to be reevaluated and reassessed from our own standpoint. And I had to look at myself and realise, and say, “Okay, Jennifer—what part of this is your mess that you made and what part of this, out of this, can you actually clean up, fix, change, readjust, whatever, or just totally discard so that you can move on and have the kind of life that you know you desire and is worthy for you? How can you fashion together a life for yourself?” So I had to do that, take a good look at my own self in the mirror first and say, “Okay. Well, Jennifer, your problem is this. You should do better at this, you should do better at that… and then some things that you like about yourself are okay to like about yourself, even if others don’t like it.” That’s the thing I had to realise too, is that, okay, now, there’s some things that some people may feel that they don’t like about me that I may want to change, but there’s some things that they don’t like about me are staying. So there. Okay?

DN: [Laughs]

JH: Now, some things that I like about me that other people don’t, and some everybody like about me that I like. So let’s just go with that and see if we can find the happy medium. Some things that I have done in my life—throughout in my career especially and throughout my personal life—have caused me to set my own self back—to hold my own self back in my career as well as my personal life in moving forward, in that sense. So that particular song; the fact that now people will be able to buy that song [A Dream With Your Name On It], I do sing it; I sing it live and I have sung it over these past thirty years—well, not past thirty years, but past twenty, twenty-eight years—something like that…. And that way, people have said, “Where can I get that song?” And I’m like, “Well, it’s out of print.” So now I can tell people, “You can go online and get the song.” And so that’s one of my favourite albums and one of my favourite songs.

DN: I’m so happy to hear that. I of course would have had no idea of the importance of the song to you. I’m aware of it on the album, totally; but I had no idea that it had that much meaning for you and that it’s a song that is still part of your repertoire—that is really, really great.

JH: Right. And it’s so funny, because it’s just amazing how things don’t mean as much to you at the time. But at the time when Clive Davis played the song for me, he says, “Well,” he says, “I don’t know if this song is your kind of thing. I’ve got it, I’ve been listening to it. I like the song, I don’t know if you like it, but I do like it.” And it was a person that he knew who wrote it, she had a debilitating disease and she was able to write this song. At that particular time, I remember that what had touched me more so than the lyrics of the song was that here was someone who was suffering with an illness, but yet wanted to encourage and inspire someone else. And little did I know that I too would be diagnosed with a debilitating illness some four years later.

DN: Amazing.

JH: And so that’s why this song meant so much to me, because it is about… that adults—and way, way grown adults—can have dreams. And they say, after the football game when you win the Super Bowl and they say, “What are you going to do now?” “I’m going to Disneyworld.” And you kind of look at it and you say, well, ‘why would somebody grown go to Disneyworld’ after they’d won, or whatever? But I think what it says is that every now and then we still have to touch within our inner child, that one that still dreams—the one that still hopes so innocently, even after they’ve fallen and gotten a scrape. They get right back up, not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s like, “Okay, well, I fell, got a scrape, my mommy says it’s okay—I’m gonna get up and I’m gonna try again.”

I think at some point we just stop trying. We just kind of give up, especially if things have not gone the way that we think they should. So I just think that my quest in life now is to touch as many people as I can and let them know, ‘let’s love ourselves unconditionally’and find that little inner child in ourselves that says, “You can dream. You can be somebody. You can do it, even at this age.” And I’m fifty, and I’m looking at things brand-new. I’m looking at everything brand-new, and not discounting anything of my past—not even discounting any of my own behaviour or any of my own problems that I caused, or anything like that; I’m not discounting all of that, but I am saying that all things can be new and I have to take that step to do it. No one else can do it for me.

DN: Absolutely; absolutely. Well I tell you, by just sharing that about that song, you’ve given a whole new meaning to the reissue of this album. You really have. I would have had no idea the impact that this song can have, has had and will have, especially now that it will be available again and people will be able to buy it. And it’s just really exciting to me to know that this one song can have that effect—as well as of course the title track, “I’m On Your Side”, the lyrics of which are also very powerful. It’s really about reassuring people that they’re not alone.

JH: That they’re not alone. And also, too, David, you also have to allow people to be a friend. And that’s something that I did not do most of my career and most of my life. And I spent a great deal of time suffering in vain. We get to a point, especially in show business, where we can’t trust anyone, so we can’t even trust our own mother. It becomes so paranoid to us, and we shut down in a different kind of way to where not only do we lock out where we think people are trying to only take something from us, we lock out people who do have something to give: who want nothing from us but to give.

I spent many, many years alone, unnecessarily… Spent many years alone thinking that no one could care for me as I was or for who I was. And I think a lot of years that I lost to my life and to my career was [because] of my own fear. And I think the words to “I’m On Your Side”… it just says that you’ve got to let somebody care for you—you’ve got to let somebody be your friend. You’ve got to let somebody love you, so that you can understand your own worth and your own capacity to love. So even if people say that you’re a mean person and you’re incapable of this or that - I say, don’t believe it. Maybe you are to some extent, but maybe you haven’t [gone] back to what made you that way. And then it’s never too late to change some things. Like I said, some things I had to change about myself that I did not like that others did not like. Some things other people did not like about me, I decided to keep ’em anyway. Because they are who I am. And that’s what we have to do: we have to be more accepting of everyone as they are, then we go from there, so that people can be who they are first and then work on all the other stuff.

DN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

JH: We can fine-tune ourselves and do that, but if we think that we’re not good enough right off the bat, or if we think [there’s] something wrong with us right off the bat, then we’re never gonna move forward. So I think that both of these songs I have kept in my repertoire as I have grown and changed because they have helped me.

DN: Well, you’ve made me really happy. You really have.

JH: Oh, I have?

DN: Well yeah, because we have the reissue label here in London and it’s been really going since last September. And when it came to choosing albums to reissue, I just thought, ‘well, Jennifer Holliday, a lot of her albums are not available anymore; the Geffen albums are not in print’ and very hard to licence—we tried to ask to get some of those, it’s taking a long, long time to get the licence from them from Universal Music, who owns them. So I’m thinking, and I was talking to one of my colleagues who lives, actually, in Maryland, in Silver Springs - one of my partners - [Michael] at Soul—and I said, “Well, maybe the Jennifer Holliday Arista album?” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s a good album and it’s not in print anymore.” And I thought, “Well, you know… sure, why not?”

So it came through, then we got the approval from Sony Music—because of course we do everything legitimately, because we want to make sure that the money, whatever money there is, goes to the artist’s royalty account. We do everything above board, go through Sony and make sure of all of that. When we got the approval for the album, I thought, “Well, all right, we’ll put it out. We don’t have any bonus tracks to add, it’s simply the album as it is.” And I was happy we were doing it. But now you just gave me a whole other reason. I thought we were just doing it because you have fans, people love your music, the album’s been out of print—but you just gave me a whole other reason why we did the right thing by putting it out.

JH: Well, I’m so happy because like I said, I still do concerts—and these songs are in my repertoire. So I’m very happy.

DN: We will make sure you have a way to get copies so that you actually can sell them at the concerts too, because you want people to be able to buy them. So we’ll work that out—you and I can work that out together.

JH: Okay, okay; that would be great.

DN: No, absolutely, because one of the reasons we have the reissue label is to be able to make music available to people that hasn’t been available for a long time. We just did one on Dionne Warwick of two of her albums that have been out of print for a long time, and she personally asked that we do them because she has the same thing: some of the songs that are on these albums are things that people ask for, and they can’t buy them anymore. And my thing is, the music is still valid; and if the music is still valid then it should be available, and that’s my mission with the reissue label. So I’m just really elated to know that us reissuing I’M ON YOUR SIDE is going to be beneficial for your fans and for you, and is going to make sure that these two songs in particular are available again. It’s a gift—you just gave me a gift, so thank you for that.

JH: Oh, we’ve given each other a gift, that’s what it’s about.

DN: There you go. Well, I know we could probably stay on the phone forever, which would make this an extremely long interview, but I do need to ask you one more question, and then we can always have a part two.

JH: Okay.

DN: But my next question is really about whether you are actually doing any new music, and if so, when people can expect some new music from you.

JH: Yes, I am doing new music. Now I just did a gospel CD project with my church here in Atlanta—I belong to Ebenezer Baptist Church here in Atlanta, which is the historic church, the spiritual home of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I did a unique kind of project, where it’s spoken word and singing on that. And that’s going to be out in a couple of weeks. And then I’m working on a love songs album of just classic standards, and hopefully that’s going to be out by the next birthday—hopefully in the fall. And that will be all romance and love songs, and stuff. I am hearing new music. And I haven’t actually recorded anything new in about seventeen years, so actually I’M ON YOUR SIDE was the last secular album that I did do. Yeah, 1991 was the last secular album. I did do a gospel album in 1994, but other than that I’ve done no new recordings of an entire CD.

DN: Well, we’ll be looking forward to that.

JH: Thank you.

DN: In fact, you just reminded me by mentioning classic love songs that of course, one of your Grammy Awards, if I’m not mistaken, is for a classic Duke Ellington song, “Come Sunday”.

JH: That’s right, that’s right.

DN: I’m sure that you will be doing something very special with the classic love songs that you choose and that people will get a whole other flavour of what you do and what your art is about. So I’m certainly looking forward to that.

JH: Thank you, thank you. I usually try to leave the way the original form of a song is, and then after that I usually try to ‘Jennifer-ize’ it. Usually when I cover a song, I cover it pretty much like it’s done originally; and then at the end I usually, either at a bridge, or I add something or whatever to make it my own. But usually I have so much respect for the original recording of something, especially for the original artist who recorded it, and then I take it and then I go for it. Because even with “I’m On Your Side”, I had so much respect for Angela Bofill—not only her writing but also just her own artistry—that I kept the song pretty much as she sang it. And then I just kind of let it yield to my own flavour toward the middle and toward the end. So that’s pretty much how I do things, so you’ll be able to definitely recognize the tune, but then it’ll have a little something on it.

DN: Well, I know I’m speaking for all the many people who have been touched by your music over the many years—we’ll be certainly looking forward to that. But I thought that I had no other questions—of course, I probably have many, many more questions—but there is one question I must ask you.

JH: Yes?

DN: And that is, of course, that over the last ten years at least, any time that there’s been any kind of TV show—we’re talking about X Factor, American Idol, Pop Idol, Britain’s Got Talent—no matter where, somebody in the audition is going to do “And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going”. Somebody somewhere is going to do that song as their audition piece. Did you have any idea when you first did that song as part of Dreamgirls that it would actually become, in a sense, a standard? It’s really a contemporary music standard at this point, given how many times people choose it as their audition piece for these shows. Did you have any clue that it would last as long as it has and become, essentially, a standard?

JH: No, I didn’t have any clue at the time. When we were working on Dreamgirls, we did what they call a workshop—a lot of people don’t create Broadway shows like that anymore because it’s expensive, but we were doing a workshop. So we knew that we had something, but we didn’t know what we would have. And then I don’t know if you remember, but not all of the critics were as kind, in terms of thinking that the show was a hit show. They did point me out, as to what I was doing, and point out to my moment in the show. And this is something I’d like to say to the young people, now that the young people have found me through YouTube, and that they have been reintroduced to me, of course, through the Dreamgirls movie and now they all know who I am. Even as I go around, young people as young as seven and eight years old know who I am and know this song, so it’s a wonderful thing. But what I would like to say to some young people who are in the industry today: even though there’s not a record company executive today deciding your fate, whether they like something, actually I think you have a better chance of doing things now that you can take your case to the public. In one way people think that the Internet is not a good thing because of royalties, but I think that the Internet is a great thing in the sense that if you have something, the public can vote on you—not some executive sitting in a chair who’s having a bad day or hasn’t gotten laid yet—

DN: [Laughs] Right.

JH: It’s like, come on, now, give us a break. Or some frustrated female who’s trying to make her way up and trying to show she’s good and smart as an executive, and she didn’t like the fact that you had a red dress on, and she’s trying to get laid too. So it’s just a whole bunch of things that they go do—

DN: I love it! (Laughs)

JH: They’re all uptight. But here’s what you gotta do in trying to believe in yourself that you have something, and trying to believe also that something you’ve created also is something. When we first did “And I Am Telling You,” [producer] David Foster—we’re friends now—can testify to this: when I first put “And I’m Telling You” out, they came to me and they said, “Jennifer, you have to change the way you sing this song. We’re going with a different kind of thing for a cast album. We’re gonna try to go for a more commercial song and unfortunately, ‘And I Am Telling You’ is not going to work: it’s too intense, there’s too much emotion. Radio will never play it.” This is what they told me. David Foster had them tell me, he was adamant about it. [Record company owner] David Geffen called my management at the time and threatened my management—my management called me and threatened me saying, “Look, David Geffen said change this. If you’re not, we’re not going to be your managers, because he’s going to go get Gladys Knight to sing ‘And I Am Telling You’.”

DN: Oh, no!

JH: Oh, yes—“’cause they want a more commercial sound. They want you to tone it down and they also want you to take those breaks out of the song. No radio station is going to play this, so you have to change this. We’re looking at a more commercial thing.” And I said, “Well, I’m not going to change it, because this is what people get when they come to see the show. I do this eight times a week; I’d like them to experience on record what they experience when they come to see the show.” So Michael Bennett backed me and said, “You know what? I’m with her. We don’t know anything about the music business or records, but I’m with her. Why shouldn’t the people get what they get when they come to the show? This is what she does in the show, so if radio doesn’t play it, why does that have to be important to us?” And they’re like, “Because we’re selling records and that’s what we do,” blah-blah-blah. I was like, okay. Thing was, go get somebody else to sing it. They never did do that, but it began to be… a great strain continued between David Geffen and myself, between my managers and myself, because I refused to go back and do this. So it really put a strain there. And then all of sudden, one DJ in New York decided to play it on the radio station—back then DJs had more power, in the sense where if they wanted to break a record they could do it on their own. They could break it on their own, and that’s what happened. Frankie Crocker—

DN: Oh, my God, Frankie Crocker.

JH: —broke the record and other people followed suit. Other DJs began to play it on their own and people began to call in for it. So then Geffen gave in and they said, “Well, we’re gonna do it but it’s a little too long.” So they released the single. The first time they released the single, they released it and they faded the end and did a loop at the end that would go [sings]: Hey, hey, you’re gonna love me/Hey, hey, you’re gonna love me/Hey, hey… like that.

Radio [stations] rejected that and still went on and played the whole, long, full version with the breaks and everything. So I think what I’m just trying to say is that I know that people are saying, “Okay, there must be some kind of formula for radio and to get played on the TV.” and stuff: I’m saying take advantage of this Internet. Take advantage of this new tool. I just got a Facebook page, I just got a cell phone. I don’t even have a laptop or a computer—somebody just bought me an iPad. But what I’m trying to say is that if you have something that you believe in that you can offer, go on and put yourself out towards the public. Let the public decide.

DN: I love it, I love it.

JH: And this is the best opportunity that you have. And… you can come to someone’s attention who can invest in you. If you have something that you believe in that’s different, that’s unique… even if you think your look is awkward; and that was my problem too. Of course, I’ve been the way I look now for so long that it’s still hard for people to imagine my voice coming out of such a small body. But at the same time though, whatever that awkwardness was that I was, whatever the reason why you can’t find any videos on me from Geffen Records back in the day was because they said, “You’re not attractive enough, we’re not going to make any videos.” And they didn’t. They didn’t, and they meant it, because I wasn’t attractive enough to them, or whatever. But I say that today, go ahead and use this Internet. If you can get yourself out there, if you can get yourself heard, go ahead and make your music. Go ahead; love yourself, as unique as you are. They told me ‘no’ to “And I Am TellingYou”, and look what “And I Am Telling You” did: not only did it garner me a Grammy Award and got someone else an Oscar, and also a chance to do some other things as well; it can do the same for you.

You have a higher platform, you can reach more people now and you can take your case to the public, so love yourself and believe in yourself. So ‘no’ does not mean ‘no,’ that you’re not it, or that you’re not good… ‘No’ just means that those people there didn’t see it or believe in it, not that you can’t convince others to do it. So let’s not take ‘no’ or rejection or anything like that as a formula… . Just take ’em to boost whatever, and go to the next one. It only takes one person to say ‘yes’ and Frankie Crocker—he’s no longer with us, but he was the one who said, “I’m playin’ this.”

DN: I love it.

JH: And people started calling in… and it only took one. And that’s the thing: it only takes one person to tell you ‘yes’ but you have to tell you ‘yes’ all the time—all the time, you have to say ‘yes’ to you. It only takes one person outside of the situation to change your life. And so you just keep going, past all of the ‘no’s,’ past all of the whatever. If you believe that you really have something to offer to the world and to whatever medium you’re trying to get in, not only just music, not only just whatever—if you want to be a lawyer—whatever you want to be—

DN: Be it.

JH: —you’ve gotta believe first in you. You have to believe first. So that’s it—that’s it.

DN: Well, I really want to thank you for one of the most inspirational interviews I’ve ever done, and I’ve done some really good ones—

JH: Oh, I know, you’ve interviewed everybody! Oh, my God.

DN: Yeah, but I have to tell you, this is one of the most inspirational and powerful conversations I’ve had. And I really appreciate it because as you point out, through the medium of technology, this means that unlike before, where we would have done an interview and I would simply have taken whatever you said and written about it and used your quotes; rather, this interview as it is is going to be heard by people online, and they’re going to get a chance to hear your words as you spoke them. And I’m sure that somebody somewhere is going to be touched by what you just said—

JH: I hope so.

DN: —and that’s going to make a difference in their lives, and they’ll be reminded to keep their own dream alive and to, as you said, not take ‘no’ but simply keep believing in what they’re doing and step forward and keep doing it. So thank you for just providing that inspiration, just now.

JH: Well, thank you, David, and thank you for remembering me.

DN: Absolutely, absolutely.

JH: And I hope to talk to you again very soon.

DN: Well, thank you, Jennifer. On behalf of everyone I want to thank you again for taking time today and for really providing something really special to all our listeners at Soul and to all those who are going to read the interview. Thank you so much.

JH: Thank you, and cheers, as they say over there.

DN: Okay, take care now.

JH: Jolly good [laughs].

DN: Take care, bye.

JH: All right, bye.

Transcription by Penelope Keith - You can e-mail Penelope here for transcription service info

About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create Records as a leading reissue label.
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