Though she now calls LA home, on the eve of the release of her new album, “Listen”, Terry Dexter reveals why her hometown of Detroit is never far from her thoughts...
If stardom was predicated on talent alone then Terry Dexter would be a household name. Alas, as we all know that’s not the case. Lady Luck plays more than a helping hand and the vagaries of the music business often play more than their fair share in derailing a career that otherwise could have achieved greatness. Terry Dexter, who I first interviewed almost a decade ago when she was signed to Warner Brothers, is one of those vocalists who is known in the industry as really being able to sing. The fact that she was fixture in the Detroit session scene and the ripe of age of 12(!) and recorded her first album for Elektra at 13 hints at her ability. However, following her self titled Warner Brothers debut which (was through a production deal with University Music in 1998), Dexter admits she felt burned out and mourned an lost adolescence. Despite signing another deal with A&M Records, her heart wasn’t in it. She wanted the freedom to record the music she wanted without the corporate pressure that demands hits songs at all costs.
Thus, after a period of re-evaluation and the loss of one of her best friends and musical mentors, musician/writer Sami McKinney, she has re-emerged with a new album, “Listen” on Penny’s Gang Records through Fontana/Universal. It’s a collection that displays her maturity as a writer an artist. Hardly an R&B/pop collection to compete with the likes of Ciara but rather a melodic adult contemporary outing highlighting Dexter’s considerable vocal skills leaning heavily towards cross-over ballads and mid-tempos. As I discovered from our chat, though she now calls LA home her Detroit/Motown roots are close to her heart.
Jeff Lorez: Congratulations on the album. I was pleasantly surprised to see you covered Perri’s “No Place To Go” which has been one of my favorite songs for the last 20 years. I thought I was the only one who cherished that. It was from their “In Flight” album.
Terry Dexter: Oh that song was big in Detroit when I was growing up. Radio stations played in a lot there so I though it would be great to re-do it. Actually, I’ve gotten to know Lori Perri from the group pretty well. too.
JL: Yeah and of course Anita Baker who they sang backgrounds for is from your hometown too.
TD: Yes. Actually a very dear friend of mine, Sami McKinney who recently passed, wrote her songs “Just Because” and “It’s Been You All The Time”.
JL: Didn’t he do a lot of stuff with Patti Labelle, too?
TD: He was my mentor and has known me since I was 13. He raised me in this business. He’s written and produced on many, many of Patti Labelle’s records and other including Lisa Fisher, Phyllis Hyman as well as the ones I mentioned for Anita Baker and lots more.
JL: I know amongst singers and musicians you’re pretty well known. How did you first get started?
TD: I signed my first deal at 13. I was just a little kid. I signed to Elektra. My whole life has been in this business. I started professionally even younger. I started doing backgrounds at 11, 12 in Detroit for artists that came through like Simply Red.
JL: That’s incredible to be doing sessions that young
TD: I had a mature voice for my age. I ended doing backgrounds for a lot of British rock groups. My mom would come in and sit with me. I’d do my homework. I was very professional at such a young age. The other singers would look at me and say, “Who’s this kid?”.
JL: But how did you get such a strong sense of harmony so young to be a session singer?
TD: I started singing at church at 6, so I was in the choir and learned about harmonies. I played piano and violin. I was a pro by 12! I did this everyday. I was in a group at 9 and notched up a lot of studio practice. After the Elektra deal I decided I wanted to be a kid and have fun for a while. When I decided to get back into the business I got signed to Warner Brothers very quickly when I was 18 in 1998. The album came out in 1999. I was signed to a production deal with Dru Hill & Mya (University Music). It was a period when they down sized a lot.
JL: I remember interviewing you for that album and you lived in Jersey at the time. I always wondered what happened to you because you were young, had a great voice and looked good. I thought we’d be hearing a lot more from you.
TD: After Warners I was still very young and had had a crazy tornado of a career. I also had a dance record out. I just got burned out and decided to drop out for a while. I hung out in New York for a while, didn’t tell anybody where I was, laid low.
JL: How did you support yourself?
TD: I saved. It’s one thing my dad taught me how to do. I got an apartment and was living very meagerly. I decided to get back in business. I made 1 phone call & got signed to A&M.
JL: What were you doing while you were in New York?
TD:I was young & hangin’ out. I never had a chance to party and hang out with people my age. I mean it wasn’t like I was drinking or doing drugs or anything like that. I was finding myself in New York, learning about who I was. It was a very sensitive time period in my early 20’s. I really needed to know who I was and what I wanted to do. Would I do another career, go back to school, go overseas? I missed a lot of my high school days because of my career. I just missed being regular and having fun. I loved being around friends with dreams. It was nice not to be around music industry people. Then I got my first boyfriend. It was my first significant relationship. He wasn’t in the business at all which was great. I was with him for five years both in New York and LA.
JL: Was signing to A&M the reason you moved to LA?
TD: I was signed to A&M before I moved so I got back into the studio recording. I still felt very unattached to the whole experience because I still wasn’t ready. I went through kind of a depression. I wasn’t ready to take on this kind of a life again. Recording studios, parties, meetings. I wish I would have taken a little bit longer. Even though I started working with great producers like Raphael Saadiq and Mike City but my heart just wasn’t in to it so at one point I took off and went back to New York for 5 months without telling anyone. I needed to get myself together and decide what I wanted to do. I was around my artists friends who were struggling and hustling and dreamin’ and then I came back to LA with a new spirit and haven’t looked back from that day.
That’s when I got back with Sami (McKinney). The deal with A&M didn’t work out which I was fine with because it allowed me to make music the way I wanted to make music and who I wanted to make it with.
JL: So how did the new deal come about?
TD:Chris Bolden (from Penny’s Gang Records) came to me a little before Sami passed. I loved their experience and saw something different and saw the fact that I could sit with who I wanted to as producers and not have people pick everything apart. I can be involved in a positive experience. It’s a different situation. It’s not obviously a major but it feels like a small family without all the overheads of a major. There’s no 3 million dollar budget to pay back! We signed the deal in February.
JL: Who worked on the album with you?
TD: I did a lot of it with Jammie Jaz and Mason Stewart, Rahsaan Patterson and Sami.
JL: What have been the most memorable moments of your career thus far?
TD: When I first signed with A&M I got to do the City Of Hope, which supports Cancer Research. We had to sing Motown songs. I was in a depressed place because of my deals - my first deal and then how things were at A&M but then when I got on stage in LA and Smokey Robinson was there, Sheryl Crow, India Arie, I sang an Ashford and Simpson song and they were sitting right in front of me. The entire music industry was there. It was a day of triumph for me because I’d been through so much. People were questioning me and I sang with the Motown great, Smokey and I sang “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and I was proud to be representing my hometown.
Another scene was when I sang at the R&B Foundation with Stevie Wonder. This was another Diana Ross (and The Supremes) song I had to sing, “Love Child”. I didn’t have a lot of time to learn the song and there are so many words in there. I got on stage and totally messed up! I forgot the lyrics and mumbled all the song. Afterwards, people said I did a good job but what really made it great was at the end, Stevie’s assistant came up to me and said Stevie wants to talk to me. Stevie leaned over and said, “Are you from Detroit?” I said, “Yeah”. He said, “I knew. Only Detroit singers have that sound”. That was the greatest compliment of my entire life.
Another memorable experience was when I did an impromptu performance at a big show in Florida, when I was just really an audience member and they passed me the mic. I sang an Aretha song that the band was playing. Kool & The Gang were in the house and afterwards they came up to me and said I sounded like Etta James which was really nice.
JL: It seems some of your fondest memories have to do with Motown and Detroit artists.
TD: Yeah, I guess that must be true because the one person I’d really love to have been able to meet would have been Marvin Gaye. I would ask him about what it was like getting his career started, his inspiration for “What’s Going On”. My dad and my uncle knew him. He was from Detroit.
JL: Any non music industry moments that stand out?
TD: I was with Patti (Labelle) & Sami and we went to a movie premier and from then we went to Ashford & Simpson’s restaurant. Maya Angelou was with us. Patti said, “Maya, you have to hear Terry sing?” I sang her the black national anthem, “Life Every Voice & Sing” . After that she said, “now I have to give you a gift” and she stood up and recited to me her poem, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”. It was one of the most moving moments of my life.
JL: Which artists do you really admire in terms of the way they have structured their careers?
TD: Bette Midler. She’s a great stage performer, a stand up comedienne, great actress and a dancer. I admire the fact that she’s had such a long career and she’s still relevant. I would love to have a career like her. I like the fact that she’s successful on her own terms. She lives the way she wants to and doesn’t conform. I’d love to ask her how she did it. What was it like for her back in the old days.
I think artists these days have it too easy. Back in the days you could support yourself by doing shows. Nowadays very few artists go on tour. The ones that do, can really perform. When I saw Anita Baker recently she sold out. We just don’t have that any more. She hasn’t had a record out in years. But tickets were $200 and she still sold out in this economy. That’s how hungry people are. When I was coming up there was Whitney, Mariah. Everyone could blow. There are only a few around today that fit that category - Alicia Keys, Jazmine Sullivan, Jennifer Hudson.
JL: Any aspirations outside of singing?
TD: Yes, acting. I was in a David E. Talbert play with Maurice Chestnut.We did a 6 month tour, 2007 all the major cities. We played the Beacon in New York. He (David Talbert) told me I would not only be in the play but be the lead. So now I’m totally immersed in it.
JL: What movies that have already been released, could you see yourself being in?
TD: The Color Purple, Shug’s character. I would also love Sigourney Weaver’s role in “Alien” or Demi Moore in “GI Jane”.
JL: Those are quite physical roles. Is fitness and working out something you’re in to?
TD: For years I was dedicated into weight training. Now I hike and do Yoga.
JL: How about books? What would I find on your bookshelf?
TD: I wanted to be in the FBI if I wasn’t in the music business. Helping victims. I was obsessed with that for a while so I would read a lot of books about that. Criminal profiling. People are surprised when they see my book collection. Things on capturing serial killers, child predators. Not necessarily fiction. Autobiographies, law books, things about criminal justice. Fiction wise, the last thing I read was “The Kite Runner” which I really enjoyed. It was really inspiring.
JL: Yeah, I read that, too. It really was a great book. A real page turner but it really showed just how horrific the Taliban are, too.
TD: My sister is in Iraq right now. She got deployed 5 weeks ago. She was a drill sergeant before that. She’s high ranked. My family is extremely worried. We’re trying to relax but it’s not easy.
JL: I can only imagine. Does she have children?
JL: Is a husband and kids on the horizon for you? Anyone special?
TD: Never! No, kidding! My parents are still married after 37 years so it’s definitely something I would want one day.
About the Writer
Jeff Lorez has enjoyed a long and varied career in the music business. As a journalist he has written for a slew of publications and web sites including, Blues & Soul, Billboard, Yahoo.com and the Daily Telegraph and as a music publisher he has been involved in recent chart topping hits by Alexis Jordan and Cher Lloyd.