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Original Dreamgirls Broadway Star, Jennifer Holliday, Re-Entering The Music Industry In A Major Way

Updated: Jul 9, 2022

Broadway Icon & 2x Grammy Award Winner! The original Effie in the Broadway hit "Dreamgirls" starring in "Arms Too Short To Box With God." The Powerhouse Vocalist, Jennifer Holliday Is Making Her Comeback With A Brand New Single, "So In Love", And She's Rising Fast! J Hud's predecessor was the original Jennifer Holiday, and she will always remain. Her Grammy Award-winning song, "And I'm Telling You," has been a hit for decades. Not only has she become an icon on Broadway for her role in the Broadway play, "Dream Girls," but she also starred in "Your Arms Too Short to Box with God." In addition to being an actor and a singer, she's releasing new music that's getting everyone's attention. Our interview covers all of these topics and more.

First and foremost, thank you so much for allowing me the pleasure of interviewing you. You’re such an amazing talent and gift to this world! Oh, thank you.

You’re welcome! Jennifer, Let’s go back down memory lane. Where did you grow up? I was born and raised in Houston, TX.

I’ve never been to Texas before. Tell me about growing up in the South? Well, everything has its pluses and minus. The South is the South which is different from California. I don’t know too much about the background of California, but it seems to be a much more open and liberal type environment. Texas is a very conservative state.

Yes, that’s true. California as a whole is a liberal State. Jennifer, at what age did you know that God gave you the talent to sing? I started singing around the age of 12 but I got discovered at age 17 while singing in the church choir.

Wow, that's wonderful! What’s the name of that church? The Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church.

You’re such a powerful singer! Were you formally trained or just a natural God-given gift? I've never taken any voice lessons of any sort; my gift is natural.

Later in your career, you became a Broadway sensation. But let's go back a little bit. Have you ever been to any school place when you were young? I didn't. At one time, I thought about it, but I was torn between wanting to become a lawyer or a politician.

Wow! That’s awesome! I think you would have been excellent at either one of those career paths. Thank you. In Houston, there was this amazing woman named Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and I idolized her. In the back of my head, I thought, I want to sing but I also want to be like this amazing woman who’s helping our community and representing us through congress. I was torn as to the direction that I should take; therefore, I didn’t become involved in outside activities like school plays. On the other hand, I was on the debate team. That was the route I chose.

Eventually, you did choose the arts above politics and law. Tell me about your transition into Broadway? I was discovered at 17 and my first show was called “Your Arms Too Short To Box With God.” That was where it all began for me. While I was in that production, I began working with Dreamgirls. Basically, I was in both productions simultaneously. I'm considered a Broadway baby. I went straight from the church choir to the Broadway stage.

Upon entry into the Broadway world, what did you enjoy the most about it? I wasn't aware that there were black plays and writers. I found that fascinating. It was great to know that I was a part of an all-black cast Broadway play. It was directed by an acclaimed director, an African American woman. The music was also written by two African American women. It was great to experience that. What was even better is that the audience enjoyed the show. That was my first experience on Broadway.

When you first stepped onto the Broadway stage, were you nervous? No, I wasn't nervous because I had prior experience singing in the church choir. The church I grew up singing in was one of the first megachurches. Because I came out of a large black Baptist congregation, I was used to singing in front of people. What I wasn’t used to was the structure. When you're singing in front of a church, you stand where you want. But when you're on Broadway, they tell you where to stand, sing and dance. I wasn't used to that. That's the part that was different. The areas that I was most fearful in were remembering my mark, my queue, the choreography, and my stage entrance. Those things made me more nervous than the actual performance.

Oh yes, the blocking. Yes, the blocking. That’s a good word. Wow, you know?

Yes, in addition to all the other hats I wear, I'm also an indie filmmaker. Well, alright!

In Dreamgirls you played the powerful role of Effie and what an extraordinary job you did. Your voice was insane! The way you sang in that performance was out of this world. I didn't think that it was humanly possible for anybody to sing so well, but you nailed in Jennifer!

Thank you.

You’re welcome. What type of preparation went into preparing for that character? And were there any Character traits of Effie that connected to your own personal life? What helped me with Effie was that I got a chance to be a part of the development of the character. We did a workshop. In fact, they still hold workshops on Broadway, but they’re expensive. It's not the same as it was when I came upon Broadway. Back then, you could work a show, develop it, and do out-of-town tryouts, but they’ve stopped most of that due to cost. Because I was a part of that developmental system, it gave me a great opportunity to thoroughly develop my role.

A lot of people don't know this, but Nell Carter was originally cast in the role of Effie, but when she landed a role in the hit TV series, “Give Me A Break” she was unable to fulfill that role. Now that the role became open, they had to find someone to fulfill the role of Effie. They saw me performing in the play, Arms Too Short To Box With God and asked me would Ibe interested in working with them.

So I worked with Dream Girls from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM and Arms Too Short To Box With God from 8:00 PM to 11:00 PM. Originally, Effie was not supposed to be in the second act, so I was able to carry her over into the second act by developing more of her story and songs.

That’s what made the process different than just someone stepping into a part that's been finalized. When I came aboard, Effie's role had not been completely written, nor her songs. It was an honor to be a vital part of the developmental process of that character. It was exciting and interesting!

As far as connecting to Effie's role. the one thing that we had in common was our struggle with weight. Because I battled with the fluctuation of my weight, I was able to identify with Effie in that sense. Other than that, our stories are different. Unlike Effie, I wasn't trying to break into the show business, and I didn’t have a love relationship like Effie had at that age. To get into that aspect of her life, I had to draw inspiration from other sources.

What type of disciplines did you have to commit to as a Broadway actor? Thank you for asking that question because a lot of people ask me how is it that I still have my voice after 43 years of singing. As far as discipline, in Broadway, they teach you the discipline of theater and how to do 8 shows a week. Everyone doesn't follow those guidelines, but I did closely. One of the courses they taught was about the importance of staying away from drugs and alcohol. They taught you how to preserve your voice by reframing from excessive speaking outside of show hours. I never did vocal warmups before a show. I just went for it. But they teach you how to Pace yourself and how to hold back your energy for the part of your show where you really need to bring it in your moment.

In 43 years of singing, I never changed my habit. Therefore, I still have a strong voice today. Although I only do a few shows a week now, I have the discipline to do eight. All these years, I've stayed consistent. No smoking, no drinking, no recreational drugs and I’m still pacing myself.

Are there any Broadway plays that you're currently interested in auditioning for? Not presently. Although I would be open to exploring a Broadway play that would be a first-time situation with an all-black cast or something of the sort. It's ok to step into a Broadway role after it’s open but it's not the same as being a part of something brand new.

I did play the role of “Shug Avery” in “The Color Purple on Broadway” in 2016 with Cynthia Erivo. There were two others that proceeded me in that role before I arrived, but it was still exciting.

Did you enjoy it? Yes, I had a great experience, but I would have preferred being a part of an original cast or developing a new show with a new character in mind for me.

Do you write? Maybe you can come up with a new Broadway show.

Oh, I don't know about that. (Laughs)

Come on Jennifer, you can do it! You’ll be great at that! (laughs) Nope, nope, nope! I want someone to write a role for me. That would be great. (laughs)

Have you ever played a role in a film? Yes, in fact, I just did my first independent film, which I'm hoping is going to come out later this year. It’s called, “The Road to Kalina”. Not only is it my first independent film, but it's my first non-singing type of role. It’s a small part, but I really enjoyed it. It would be great to do more independent films. Presently, I don't have an agent so I will have to secure one so that I can get some auditions.

Awesome, that is amazing! How did you get that role? The producer of that film was a fan of mine, so he contacted me directly.

I would like to pivot over to your recording career. What’s the story behind “I'm Telling You I'm Not Going”? I was signed to the people who did the play, the cast album. David Geffen and Geffen Records. He was also one of the producers of Dreamgirls on Broadway. So, when I signed to do the cast album for Dreamgirls, the solo album was included in that deal. It was an all-in-one package deal.

Originally, they were going to release Dreamgirls as a cast album. typically, they don't release singles from a Broadway show. It just happened that people started hearing the song and fell in love with it. Most people didn’t realize that that song was taken from a Broadway play. So, because the song became so popular, and people were asking for the song to be played on the radio, the record company decided to release it as a single. That's how that happened.

You won two Grammys. What an accomplishment! What does that feel like? My first one was an amazing experience because I was in the same category as Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and Donna Summers. I couldn't believe it! Because it was such a heavy diva night, I didn't think they would give it to me as a first time out. the other reason why I didn't think they would give it to me is that it was only a single, not an album. the other artists had albums. So yes, I was happy and honored to be acknowledged in such a prestigious way.

Well, Jennifer, I have to say, in my opinion, you stand up there with the greats. So, I see no reason why you were not on an equal playing field because you were. You're just as great as all the other artists that you mentioned. Congratulations again! Thank you.

In your opinion, what is the difference between having someone else manage your career as opposed to you handling your own? What has that transition been like for you? On one hand, it's liberating, and on the other, it's frightening because you're solely responsible for maintaining your own career. You need the proper number of resources in order to market and promote your own project. And a lot of times when you come being signed to a major label, you're using their resources but as an independent artist, you’re using your own and sometimes your own is not enough to take you where you want to go. That's when it becomes a challenge.

The great thing about this generation of social media and Internet streaming is that you can go a lot further as an independent artist because there are so many ways to get your music out there. More ways than ever before. Whether you’re a household brand or not, you can develop your own following and go from there. So, I would say the biggest challenge is financing for marketing and promotion.

I absolutely agree with you. Currently, do you have any new projects coming out? My latest single produced by Terrell Sass and David Farmer is called, “So In Love.” Terrell Sass and David Farmer both wrote the chords, and I wrote the lyrics and the melody line for the entire song. I also sang my own background.

I met Terrell back in 2010 while working on a hip-hop project. At the time, I wanted to work with younger musicians and a drummer who knew about rhythms. This is How I Met Terrell. He also played with me on a few shows. So, not too long ago, he approached me and said that he had some music for me to listen to and possibly write to if I chose to do so. He came up with the title of the song, and I put the melody line, the verses, and the hooks on top of his chords.

At first, I was reluctant to release it because I thought that we needed to have a full EP that contained 4 songs. But, although we hadn't gotten that far, I really had a strong desire to release something for Valentine's Day. The good thing is that we got everything recorded, mixed, and mastered just in time for Valentine's Day. I was so happy that we hit that goal! I don’t know how we did it but, in the end, it all worked out.

I'm so happy for you! That’s a wonderful accomplishment! Do you write and produce your own music? I don't produce, but I do write.

That's awesome! Tell me, do you have any shows or tours scheduled? I hadn't scheduled anything because I wasn't sure what turn the pandemic would take. Now that everything is getting better, I hope to put together some dates together for the spring and summer. Just when I'm ready to get out again, another variant comes up. So, I'm just trying to see what happens with that.

I truly understand, as a singer, that you must be extremely careful being that your instrument is internal. Definitely. Even though I'm fully vaccinated, and boosted, I never wanted to get sick. Now that things are better, I want to make plans to go out on the road again.

What’s your dream, Jennifer? My dream is to begin recording again. The current independent music scene is open to every. There's also a strong market for classic soul music. When Bruno Mars released, “Soulsonic”, everyone just gravitated toward it. Many people miss and want to hear that good R&B soul sound. That's a sound that, even young people can really relate to. That was the direction I aimed for with my last release. I just wanted to do a song with a good R&B feel. So, I'm hoping to do more. That would be a great dream of mine.

Wonderful. What advice would you like to give to up-and-coming artists? To new artists coming up from what you've learned if you can just share something briefly with you know our readers that are aspiring, and they're not where they have not made it to the level where you've made it. I would speak to that new artist and tell them that, you must develop a resilient spirit because you're going to experience lots of rejection for no reason at all. I was reading this piece where India Arie talked about how much rejection she still gets even at her level. So, understand, that the no’s that you're getting are not a personal attack on you or a judge of your talent.

The wise thing to do when you experience the no’s is to take them into account and move forward. You have to believe in your ability to do what you do. If you're a gifted songwriter, then keep writing songs. If you're a singer or musician who wants to get your music out there, but you have a low budget, you can still release a product. Spend the money you do have for marketing and promotion smartly. Get it placed somewhere where people can hear your music and access it.

This is the best time for new artists, even older artists to make an entrance or re-entrance, like me into the music world. There are numerous platforms to be heard. The playing field is now leveled. You can get noticed and recognized, but you have to be resilient and persistent. Know and believe that you have something special to offer this world. If you run into roadblocks, detours, and setbacks, just choose another route until to reach your desired destination. Never forget, you can always get back on the road to following your dream.

That's beautiful and well said. Thank you again for this honor. What a lovely person you are. I love your heart and I’m a fan of your talent. My prayer is that God bless and keep you. May He bless the work of your hands be it done according to His will for your life.

Thank you. I appreciate that.

Photo Credit: Antwon Maxwell Photography

JENNIFER HOLLIDAY Original Dreamgirl (@LadyJHOLLIDAY) / Twitter

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