You may remember her from TV and film, but Vanessa Williams was first and foremost a singer, so what has happened to her music career?
It’s hard to believe that the 24 year old young lady in the picture above would one day go on to play Wilhelmina Slater in Ugly Betty! Well that is Vanessa Williams in 1988, the year in which she released her debut album “The Right Stuff” and began a hugely successful music career that has seen her sell tens of millions of records the world over. So why do we not readily associate Vanessa with the music industry today and has she stopped recording all together?
Vanessa was born in The Bronx, NY in March 1963 and first embarked upon a career in modelling. She won the title Miss New York in 1983 and the following year, aged 21, was crowned Miss America, the first female of African-American descent to do so. Vanessa had also posed for Penthouse magazine before moving on to be singer, her first and primary love. She won the preliminaries of the 1984 Miss America pageant by singing her version of “Happy Days Are Here Again” and impressed the judges so much they entered her for the final selection.
Wing (Mercury) Records were also impressed with her vocal abilities and signed her up to be a potentially big recording artist. She released her debut single “The Right Stuff” in January 1988 which topped the US dance chart and made it to No.44 on the singles chart. It received a limited release outside America and would eventually edge in at No.71 in the UK. The following month she released her debut album of the same name which reached No.38 on the Billboard 200 and has sold over 500,000 copies.
Three further singles were lifted from the album including “(He’s Got) The Look” and “Darlin’ I” but it was the third single “Dreamin'” that would give Vanessa her first big hit when it reached No.8 in October 1988 as well as topping the R&B chart. It also charted in Australia and most of Europe, but once again performed weakly in the UK where it managed No.74.
Vanessa was back in 1991 with all guns blazing with her second album “The Comfort Zone” and the lead single “Running Back To You” which topped the R&B chart, made No.2 on the dance chart and reached No.18 on the singles chart. “The Comfort Zone” was released in August 1991 and would be a much bigger success than her debut, selling, to date, over 1.7 million copies Stateside and over four million globally.
Four further singles were lifted from the album including the title track (US No.62), “Just For Tonight” (US No.26) and “Work To Do” (US No.52), but it would be her ballad “Save The Best For Last”, the third single to be lifted from the album, that would catapult Vanessa to the top of the US singles chart for five weeks in January 1992, becoming the fourth biggest seller of the year. The song, which remains her signature tune, also topped the singles chart in Canada and Australia and made the top ten across the rest of the globe including a number three placing in the UK and Japan.
Vanessa was now hot property and the following year she teamed up with vocalist and songwriter Brian McKnight for the duet “Love Is…” used in the hit US TV series Beverly Hill 90210. The song peaked at No.3 in the US and topped the adult contemporary chart for three weeks.
Her 1994 album “The Sweetest Days” was more of the same, classy soul ballads and R&B/dance anthems. The title track served as the lead single and was written by the same team as “Save The Best For Last”. “The Sweetest Days” peaked at No.18 and No.3 on the adult contemporary chart, her fifth top five entry there. Despite much promotion in the UK, the single halted just outside the UK top 40 chart at number 41.
“The Sweetest Days” has been certified Platinum for sales of over one million copies and yealded two further hits with “The Way That You Love” and “You Can’t Run”. In 1995 she was commissioned to perform the theme from Disney’s latest film ‘Pocahontas’. The song, “Colors Of The Wind”, was another huge success (hardly surprising!) making No.4 on the US singles chart and No.2 on the adult contemporary chart. It has sold over 700,000 copies Stateside to date. The song gave Vanessa only her second UK chart entry thus far, when it peaked at No.21 there.
Vanessa was now getting into movies, starring alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action thriller ‘Eraser’, for which she provided three songs for the soundtrack album too, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, “Erase” and “If I Had Wings…”. She released her fourth album “Star Bright” in 1996 (US Gold certified – 500,000 copies) and “Next” in 1997. The album included the track “Oh How The Years Go By”, a song originally written and recorded by Simon ‘Climie Fisher’ Climie and later covered by another successful US artist Amy Grant (what has happened to her?!).
Williams gives it her all on her version of “Oh How The Years Go By” and demonstrates both her showmanship and dexterity as a recording artist, taking the track to No.6 on the adult contemporary chart, her tenth top ten entry on that chart. The song was included on her “Greatest Hits – The First Ten Years” album of 1998 (I know, I bought it!).
She released the albums “Silver And Gold” in 2004 and “Everlasting Love” in 2005 prior to her casting as the deliciously evil Wilhelmina Slater the following year, a part which would see her busy for the next four years. Vanessa does, however, remind us of her singing abilities and in one episode is seen at the piano with mortal enemy Victoria Hartley played by Christine Baranski, singing her lungs to the rafters and clearly enjoying the moment. In another hilarious episode, she takes to the microphone in a gay bar and relishes every single note of Hall & Oates “Maneater”, whilst remaining in character and casting her evil eye upon Betty and friends!
No sooner had the series ended, Williams was off to star in Desperate Housewives, which would keep her active for three series. And it seems that a cocktail of TV appearances and the occasional film is all we get to see of Vanessa Williams these days…but…late last year (2018), Vanessa announced she was back in the studio, recording an album that “incorporates her R&B, pop & Broadway influences” – ooh!