Audience of One
By Debra Akins for GospelMusicChannel.com
Heather Headley might be one of the most acclaimed singers you've never heard of. That is, unless you're a Broadway music fan. In that case, you probably know her well, thanks to Sir Elton John. Her amazing vocal talent won her the role of Nala in the original 1997 Broadway cast of Disney's Elton John-Tim Rice musical The Lion King, in which she performed the show-stopping track "Shadowland." And in 2000, John placed her in the title role of his next Broadway musical Aida, which won Headley the prestigious Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
Her Broadway accolades led to two solo albums over the next few years (2002's This Is Who I Am and 2006's In My Mind), along with GRAMMY Award nominations for Best New Artist and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, and Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards for R&B Album of the Year and Best R&B/Soul or Rap New Artist. But although her credentials are impressive, she never quite took off in the world of pop music - at least not in the same way as some of her contemporaries like Beyoncé or Mary J. Blige.
This powerhouse singer may have found just the right niche, though, with her latest album Audience of One - a contemporary gospel project that seems to be a natural fit for this preacher's daughter who first started singing and playing piano at the age of four. Headley's previous efforts have always included elements of inspirational music, and her big, soaring voice wears it well.
"I grew up in the church," Headley explains, "and this album not only grants me a way to sing music I've always wanted to, but it also gives me a chance to give God some overdue praise for everything he has done and continues to do for me...I can't help but be grateful; so, we'll take the voice he gave and thank him with it."
Produced by Keith Thomas (Whitney Houston, Yolanda Adams), Audience of One tends to lean more pop in its style than gospel, even though there are some serious gospel-infused tracks, like the pleasantly revised "Here I Am To Worship" and choir-backed "I Know The Lord Will Make A Way." And a definite don't-miss moment on the album is the impressive cover of the Lionel Richie-penned "Jesus Is Love" (first recorded by The Commodores). This gem features the silky-smooth vocals of Headley and Smokie Norful in one of the best vocal match-ups you'll hear on any album (probably why it's also the album's first single).
But some of album's most shining moments come when Headley sticks to what she does best and lets her rich, pure voice wrap its way around emotional, tender ballads like the beautiful "Running Back to You," "Hymn Medley" or "I Wish." And she simply sings one of the most stunning renditions I've heard of the Keith Getty-Stuart Townend worship anthem "The Power of the Cross."
It's no wonder Headley has been tapped to perform at an inaugural celebration for President-elect Obama next week. Let's hope Audience of One won't be the last album of inspirational music we hear from this talented vocalist. It's a great offering from a truly great artist.
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