When I first saw a Facebook posting that said, “Vesta, RIP” last Friday (September 23, 2011), I did a double take. Maybe I was mis-reading, maybe someone was playing a sick joke. Within a very short time, I discovered to my absolute shock that the posting was in fact valid, that my former L.A. neighbour , my friend, the super-soulful singer Vesta Williams was gone. My reaction was unquestionably impacted by the fact that I had spoken with her less than two weeks ago, the first time we had in fact been in contact since I left Los Angeles in 2008. My good friend and next door neighbour in L.A., Forrest had run into Vesta in a supermarket near LAX and mentioned that he and I were still in touch, prompting Vesta to give him her number and ask me to call. I did on Tuesday, September 6 and our twenty-minute conversation was upbeat.
In the candid manner which I always associated with her, Vesta shared openly about the challenges she’d faced with her home in our old neighbourhood going into foreclosure, forcing her to move to temporary accommodation while she figured out her next move, about dealing with the financial issues she’d faced. At the same time, she was optimistic: she was happy that TV One had done an ‘Unsung’ episode on her that would air soon and although concerned that some of the people they wanted to include were not on her own list of contributors, she saw the positive aspects of the show being seen and how it could potentially result in more work for her.
We talked about her last recording “Dedicated” and that a whole album was close to completion and she shared about a friend who was arranging for her to come to the UK to do some background sessions and Vesta asked if I could look into possible gigs for her to do while here. Remembering what a dynamic performer she was, I thought there was a good chance I could help out and I asked that she let me know as soon as she knew when she would be heading to London. But it wasn’t to be. I’m still reeling from the suddenness of her passing at just 53 years of age and with so much ‘good news’ in the offing, I can’t reconcile what has happened. While there are reports that empty bottles of prescription pills were found in her L.A. hotel room, I am having a hard time – based on our phone conversation – believing that this was anything other than an accident. While it is true none of us knows what goes on in the minds of others, Vesta seemed positive and looking forward to new possibilities...
Indeed, when I look back at the times we shared, all I can do is smile at my memories of this talented lady who never quite got the ‘break’ that would ensure greater success and career stability. Like many others soulful singers who came to prominence in the ‘80s, Vesta had to contend with the drastic changes in the music industry and in particular in the world of R&B that would result in less performance opportunities and thus less income. Yes, Vesta had six albums to her credit (the most recent being the 2007 Shanachie set, “Distant Lover” for which I wrote a bio resulting in my last full interview with her) and six Top 10 R&B hits, the most memorable of which was her theme tune, “Congratulations.” But without solid album sales and more than a few chart toppers, as many of her peers have found, Vesta discoverd that sustaining a solid income-producing career could be challenging.
That, of course, had nothing to do with her talent, more to do with the pervasive ‘throwaway’ mentality of the music biz. I didn’t see Vesta perform too many times but when I did, I was always blown away by her energy, vocal power and the instant connection she made with her audiences through humour. Much like Patti Austin, Vesta could easily have had a career as a stand-up comic if she’d chosen to do so. It was natural for her to bring humour to conversations on and offstage and I can’t recall a single time we spoke when we didn’t end up smiling and laughing.
My first recollection of meeting her was at a recording studio in Burbank when we were introduced by producer Tena Clark who was responsible for that big hit, “Congratulations” in 1989. I’m not certain we’d done any formal interviews before that but certainly we did a few after. On one very memorable occasion, we met at the A&M lot of La Brea Avenue mid-afternoon and I couldn’t figure out why Vesta conducted the interview Johnny Gill-style, wearing sunglasses within the office! Years later, when we became friends and aware that we were neighbours, I asked her about it and in true honest manner, she replied, ‘Hey, those were my drug days! I was probably high as a kite!’ We discovered that we lived close to one another somewhere in the ‘90s and if I recall correctly, she honked her horn at me when I was waiting to cross a traffic light on busy Wilshire Boulevard! From then on, it wasn’t unusual for us to run into each other at the local Ralph’s supermarket or in the street. We always had a good laugh about something or other and as our friendship developed, Vesta invited me to her nearby home one Saturday evening for a little get together she was having. She was forever laughing and joking and yet, I could detect that like many who use humour as a shield, Vesta had – like all of us - other challenges she was facing.
In a particularly honest exchange, we talked about relationships and our mutual struggle with finding a good partner, someone who had the qualities of integrity, honesty and communication AND was easy on the eye! It seemed, we agreed, that you could find a good guy with the qualities but not the looks or the looks and not the qualities! I invited Vesta to check out the Landmark Forum, a transformational program that I had found particularly beneficial in dealing with life’s ups and downs and Vesta participated in it. I recall going to her Sunday night graduation and how much she thanked me for introducing her to it. She was tickled that someone in the course had walked up to her and asked if she was THE Vesta Williams! In spite of the success she had experienced, Vesta seemed to have a hard time believing that she was really known and recognized for her work...
That was surprising in one sense for whenever she performed, Vesta brought it home. I still remember her rehearsals and then appearance on “Coming Home For Friends,” a benefit for the Minority AIDS Project. I don’t recall which gospel song she sang but Vesta had us all falling out at the rehearsals before she got a standing ovation in the L.A. church where the choir was gathered to work with the many artists who had donated their time and energy to supporting the cause: the audience at The Shrine Auditorium were equally blown away by her presence and the four-octave vocal range that Vesta used to touch and inspire with her soulful delivery.
Probably my funniest experience with her came after she first lost over 100 pounds. We were both at B.B. King’s club in Universal City to see some performer or other and this petite woman walked up to me and said. ‘hey, how are you?’ In much the same way this would happen years later with Patti Austin, I had absolutely no idea who I was talking to! “You don’t know who this is, do you?” she laughed. “It’s me...Vesta!” I fell out. I hadn’t seen her in quite a while and didn’t realize that, after losing an abortive, short-lived record deal with MCA (which never issued any of the material she recorded for them), Vesta had begun working with a personal trainer, sensing that her weight was the real barrier to having a more successful career. In subsequent conversations, she confessed to having fallen in love with the personal trainer but as she would relate, the relationship did not sustain.
My final memory of seeing Vesta perform was at the ‘opening’ of a club in the ‘hood! I can’t remember where it was exactly but it was quite a journey on the bus from Wilshire and La Brea. Vesta had invited me since the club was being opened by a friend of hers and she wanted to help kick it off. When I went back to say hello, she was less than thrilled about the lack of dressing room space! In fact, if I remember correctly, the dressing room was the ladies’ toilet! ‘Chile, this is truly ghett-O!” Vesta roared, apologizing for the state of the place – which I believe didn’t stay open for long!
When I look back, I think of Vesta as real, open, funny, a woman with a big heart, a big voice and a kind spirit. I don’t know what happened on September 22, 2011: I just know that her passing leaves an empty place. Through the years, I’ve interviewed and met many many artists: few have become real friends and while time and distance meant we weren’t in touch as often as when I had lived in Los Angeles, I consider her to have been one of that small group. I can still hear her voice on that phone call just a few weeks ago and knowing how much she had ahead of her that would bring Vesta back to the attention of music lovers who may have wondered what she’d been up to in recent years. My prayers and blessings go to her family and her other friends: she was – using the title for one of her A&M albums – special. Rest in peace, my friend, rest in peace.
Our special video playlist includes an amazing reading by Vesta of The Crusaders' "One Day I'll Fly Away"...
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com 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 SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.