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'Dreamgirl' Jennifer Holliday Shares Wisdom On Getting Through Tough Times


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. For this Fourth of July we've been bringing you conversations about freedom. In this country that can mean redefining who you are, maybe more than once. So we thought we'd wrap up this holiday broadcast with a treat suitable for any occasion, whether you are cooking out or dining in because it is an encore conversation with a singer whose voice has soared across gospel nightclubs, the R&B charts and Broadway. Jennifer Holliday starred as the original Effie in the musical "Dreamgirls." Her version of "And I'm Telling You I Am Not Going" is the standard against which all other versions are judged. After her stint on Broadway she went on to a recording career. But she was also battling a number of personal challenges. After more than two decades out of the recording studio though she returned with a project called "The Song Is You."


JENNIFER HOLLIDAY: (Singing) Why can't I let you know the song my heart would sing - a beautiful rhapsody of loving you and spring. The music is sweet. The words are true. The song is you. Yeah.

MARTIN: That's the title track from Jennifer Holliday's album "The Song Is You." When we sat down to speak I told her it was hard to believe that such a big voice came from such a tiny body.


HOLLIDAY: You know, I used to be a big girl. I used weigh almost 400 pounds. A lot of people try to act like they don't remember, but they're not old enough to remember.

MARTIN: It's just hard to imagine.

HOLLIDAY: Well, "Dreamgirls" was 33 years ago. So it is - if you weren't there, then I guess a lot of people only remember me now since my Ally McBeal years.


HOLLIDAY: So that's what most people know me from now.

MARTIN: What was it like being back in the recording studio after such a long hiatus?

HOLLIDAY: It was very difficult. First of all, because when I went in, they record now to a little box. And so when I first went in and my producer - he's a young man, about 20-something years younger than me - and he said, Jennifer, what's wrong? I said, they're disrespecting me. And he said, what do you mean? I said, they don't have the tape up. They don't have anything ready. He said, Jennifer, everything goes into this Pro Tools now. I said, I don't need my voice fixed. What do you mean Pro Tools? I don't need to be tuned or anything. They said, no, no, calm down. So it took me a long - that everything. So now my whole future is in a little box in a safe. I mean, I'm just like, what happened to all of the tape?

MARTIN: You know, normally, when people do a new album, their publicists - no disrespect to your publicist - but they normally produce background materials, which are normally just, you know, blah, blah, blah. I mean, yours is like a real conversation. It's like real information about how you really felt and how you really came to it. Just to give people a sample of it, you said - you're quoted as saying, for many years, I thought I just seemed to miss when it came to my recording career.

I've made some records that were popular in clubs. I've had some near misses with a few R&B records. Then at a time when I really needed work, I was fortunate that Marvin Hamlisch invited me to sing with different symphony orchestras. And he cared so much about me that allowed me to reinvent myself artistically. It goes on, you know, from there. So people can kind of hear that big band sound in the first piece we played. First of all, I was fascinated by why you just put it all out there. You're just like, this is how I feel. This is what happened.

HOLLIDAY: Isn't life like that, though? Haven't a lot of us just missed at a lot of things and thought that we wouldn't have another chance at it? So we give up early. So in the process of recording this album, which took me a long time, again, I'm met with setbacks in trying to get it out. And I had many missed release dates because of so many things in the way. I have health challenges. I have life challenges, just like everyone else. So I think I wanted to just mainly - just say to people that this album is a return for me. But it's more so of how we want to win at life. So yes, you have near misses in love, but does that mean you give up on love entirely? Does that mean you give up on life entirely? So yes, I put quite a bit more that you didn't read out there.

MARTIN: Let's play one of the first songs from the album. I want to play "Love Dance." Shall we start there?

HOLLIDAY: Yes, let's start there.

MARTIN: Yeah, let's hear that. OK, here it is.


HOLLIDAY: (Singing) We loved, we slept, we kept the lights on. The night's gone and morning finds us caught in life's most sensible trance. Turn up the quiet, love wants to dance.

MARTIN: People hear that famous Jennifer Holliday power...


MARTIN: ...About to spring, but you also hear a lot of range, a lot of nuance, kind of the quiet moments. Yeah, talk about that. Was that part of the fun for you?

HOLLIDAY: That was part of the fun to let people - you know, I've had pretty much of a reclusive life in the fact that a lot of people don't know a lot about where I've been or where what I've done. A lot of people think that I just stopped singing. But I didn't stop singing. Just the audience it has changed, and it took me away from the public eye where I just started doing a lot of private engagements. During the course of the time, though, I got to learn a lot more about new music. So Marvin Hamlisch - the late Marvin Hamlisch from Broadway and movies and etc. - he said, you know what? You would sound good singing with an orchestra. He said, but you have to sing different music, and you'd have to get charts. So fortunately, orchestras book six months or a year ahead, so it gave me a time to learn. So I went back to school. Bought lots of albums and studied Ella Fitzgerald and even Lena Horne and Billie Holiday, and all of these people who I'd never really paid that much attention to because, see, I came from Texas and sang in the Baptist Church choir. So all I knew was Aretha Franklin. So if Aretha didn't sing it, I didn't sing it, OK? I didn't know it.

MARTIN: That's really brave. That's very brave to go and reinvent yourself at a point in which you're already successful. But that's not the only area in which you've shown, I think, a lot of courage. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with the award-winning singer and, now on this album, songwriter Jennifer Holliday. We're talking about her forthcoming album "The Song Is You" and whatever else is on your mind. You - I just have to say that you've been very brave in talking about a lot of things that artists commonly talk about now but were not talked about when you were first dealing with them. Things like your struggles with depression...


MARTIN: ...Multiple sclerosis...


MARTIN: ...And even the whole vagaries of weight...


MARTIN: ...And how that played into your career. Is it still a struggle? Do you feel like it's something that you have to - what? I don't know. What's the word I'm looking for?

HOLLIDAY: You have to hide.



MARTIN: A little bit.

HOLLIDAY: I think it is because otherwise, I don't think that these young people would be taking such great lengths to be someone other than who they are and live such destructive lives. I'm 53 years old. I never thought that I would be sitting here talking to you. I used to think - I said to myself, I probably would've had a much better career if I could invent myself something to go into rehab because if you're an alcoholic or a drug addict, it's just a sexier thing. And it's just a more acceptable thing. But mental health problems still gets the door shut.

MARTIN: What's made the difference for you, though, in your being willing and able to battle this? And I know it's a lifelong battle.

HOLLIDAY: You know, not only did I try to take my own life, but those of us who are in the spiritual world, others have tried to take my life as well. But God made the difference for me in the sense that he held onto me to love me so much to keep leaving me here. But I still had to choose life, though. I had to fight for it.

I continually still fight every day for my life, not only still battling mental health problems but battling multiple sclerosis, which also has depression as one of its side effects. So every day when I wake up, I don't know what the day is going to be. I have been blind. I have been paralyzed. But each day, if I wake up, then I know he's left me here for a reason, and I have to say, yes. And I have to get up, and I have to make the best of that day.

MARTIN: And the weight loss, how did that figure into that? And has that been its own journey for you? Or is it...

HOLLIDAY: That has been a separate journey in and of itself. After my suicide attempt - and I'm in a sanatorium. And when they come around and they start talking to you, first of all, they want to know why did you try to take your life, what do you think is the problem? So one of the problems that I felt that I had just really been dropped by Geffen Records and didn't know what I was going to do with my career. And I just kept gaining more and more weight. I had ballooned up to 345 pounds. It was the age of videos. You know, we had just started. So they said, well, Jennifer, you can sing, but you're unattractive. So if we make a video of you, we'd have to stretch you or put you in a shadow box and put people around you. And it was the '80s, so dance music was coming up and all of this kind of stuff. You know, so they were like, you know, we can't make videos with you. So you got a great voice, but no use for you. So they kicked me to the curb, you know. And so I said, so that would help. I said, probably I could have a boyfriend if I lost weight. I could have a relationship. It would just be all right. So they said, well, there's this new surgery. It has not been approved yet. And that was the gastric bypass. I was one of the first to have that. So I did that. I lost weight really quickly. Lost all the weight, found out I still had the same issues. Still had the same problems. 200 pounds smaller, same issues, OK? Baggage still there. Back to counseling.

MARTIN: Good message there. At least you settled the question for those...

HOLLIDAY: Back to counseling.

MARTIN: ...Who want to know. Well, congratulations on all of that, though.

HOLLIDAY: Thank you.

MARTIN: And again, what else do you want to hear from the album? Was there something on the album that means - that's particularly meaningful for you that you want to hear?

HOLLIDAY: Well, the album deals with love and relationships. So it starts off with "Love Dance" and things like that of the romance of it where you're flirting, and love is wonderful. You fall in love. Then it goes from that point to where you have to really fall in love with people as they are. And you have complications, and you work things out. And then, some things don't work out and you break up. So one song that I wrote is called "The One You Used To Be." And I wrote this song because about a little over two years ago, I was in a relationship and had a very bad breakup. As with a lot of people, once you get married, the person who you didn't know or you thought you knew becomes totally different. And that could be with me, too. He probably could've said the same thing about me, but he didn't, OK? But anyway - OK, he didn't say that. All right.

MARTIN: He didn't say that.

HOLLIDAY: No, he didn't.

MARTIN: I'll take your word for it.



HOLLIDAY: He'll tell you that he messed up, but anyway. So I wrote this song just about how sometimes people change and it just destroys everything. And you wish you could get it back, but you aren't able to get it back.


HOLLIDAY: (Singing) Can you see how you hurt me? Stop this pain, baby. I'm in misery. You changed on me. I don't even know who you are anymore. What happened to the one you used to be? What happened to the love you promised me? I'm still holding on to your love. Don't take away my memories just let me hold on, baby, to the one you used to be. Yeah.

HOLLIDAY: The other thing, too, where I was saying with the lyrics are, don't take away my memories. Just let me hold on to the one you used to be. And the reason why I ended it like that because sometimes the breakups are worse because we try to not only just break up - it's one thing to break up and leave. It's all right if you want to go. But why do we have to try to say that they didn't have anything because what does that mean? If they didn't have anything, you wouldn't have been drawn to that. You know what I'm saying?


HOLLIDAY: So there must have been something, a value that a person has that they could take to the next relationship and say, OK, you're terrible at this, but let me tell you what you're good at. And maybe the next one, you could develop whatever. You know what I'm saying?

MARTIN: Exactly.

HOLLIDAY: You know, why do we have to destroy a person, in a sense?

MARTIN: I don't know. You're right. There's some people like that. They can't just say, well, it's not working out.


MARTIN: It's got to be, you're a horrible.

HOLLIDAY: Well, then go. Just go. Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah, right.

HOLLIDAY: You know, oh, the problem with you is. Well, no. That's not the problem with me. That's not my problem. No, it's not.

MARTIN: Let's just say it's just not working out.

HOLLIDAY: It's not working out.

MARTIN: Just leave it at that.

HOLLIDAY: Just go ahead on.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for coming over to see us. We sure do appreciate it. You know, I wanted to ask you - you've already been dropping some knowledge throughout our conversation - but I did want to ask, as a person who's had such an interesting journey, if you had some wisdom that you wanted to pass on?

HOLLIDAY: A lot of times we base everything just on our immediate circumstance. We don't see a big picture for our lives. We don't love ourselves. We don't have a way of kind of gauging the future. So we count it lost, which is what I think is with the young people because they get so much so quick now that they go, OK, well, it can't get no better than this. Let's just chuck away life. Let's just kill ourselves. Let's destroy because it can't get any better than this. I've already had sex. I've already had drugs. I've already lost a job. I've already seen my parents get divorced. I've already dah-dah. What else is there left? But there is life left, something that we don't even know ahead of us. And at 53 years old, just when I thought that every dream, every hope, even new love - I haven't had time to talk to you about that, but I have love again, you know.

MARTIN: All right. Glad to hear that.

HOLLIDAY: Yeah, so glad myself to hear that. But what I'm saying is that don't try to figure out the ending of the movie, stay to see it. Don't try to figure out how the book ends because it takes different twists and turns. And how do we adapt to each twist and turn? Just because I'm a singer doesn't mean I'm better than someone else. You know, I'd be so wealthy now just if I could sell singing, but I can't. If you can't sing, you can't sing.

I'm not going to do it for you, you know. But that doesn't mean I'm better than you. That doesn't mean that the gift that I have is better than your gift. Let's find out what your gift is. And I tell people - my favorite thing is - it'll get greater later, but you got to stick around to see your life turn around. If you don't stick around, then you'll never know.

MARTIN: I'm not going to answer all that hate mail if I don't play a little bit from "And I'm Telling You."

HOLLIDAY: You got to do it.

MARTIN: I'm not going...

HOLLIDAY: I have to - listen, I don't mind. And I sing it at every concert. I don't make people beg for it or plead...


HOLLIDAY: ...Or roll on the floor or pay extra money because it has allowed me - it's a great love song, but it's also a song of survival. And I'm telling you, I'm not going nowhere.

MARTIN: I've been visiting with the Tony and Grammy award-winning artist Jennifer Holliday. Her upcoming album is called "The Song Is You." But we're going to hear from that song. Jennifer Holliday, thank you so much for speaking with us...

HOLLIDAY: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...And visiting with us today.

HOLLIDAY: Thank you so much.


HOLLIDAY: (Singing) And I am telling you I'm not going. You're the best man I'll ever know. There's no way I can ever go. No, no, there's no way. No, no, no, no way I'm living without you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Happy Fourth. Let's talk more Monday.


HOLLIDAY: (Singing) You're going to love me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.