The Very Best of Miki Howard
US release date: 3 July 2001
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Both Miki Howard and Howard Hewitt began their solo careers at a time when R&B music was in transition. Howard’s debut Come Share My Love (1986) and Hewitt’s I Commit To Love (1986) were released the same year that Luther Vandross and Anita Baker and their “retro-nouveau” soul (as defined by Nelson George) found their way to “crossover” audiences, a year after Whitney Houston’s breakout debut (which sold 10 million copies) and the same year that Run-DMC’s collaboration with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way” would forever change the (video) landscape of popular music. A year later, Eric B and Rakim, Boogie Down Productions with KRS-One, and Public Enemy would release groundbreaking full length and 12-inch recordings. By the time PE’s It Takes A Nation of Millions became the most talked about political pop since Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? and Rakim was guesting on Jody Watley’s track “Friends” (the first successful R&B/hip-hop hybrid recording, the music of Full Force not withstanding), it was clear that R&B’s fortunes were intimately tied to the urban “noise” that it had tried to distance itself from since “Rapper’s Delight” hit the airwaves in the fall of 1979.
It was Teddy Riley who first successfully married hip-hop’s swagger with R&B’s harmonies, creating the rich textured sound that would be named “New Jack Swing”, leading the way for the Puffys, JDs, and R. Kelly’s of the world. By 1992 a host of “mature” R&B vocalists including the late Phyllis Hyman, Will Downing, Rachelle Ferrell, Stephanie Mills and Regina Bell were being put out to (adult contemporary and smooth jazz) pasture to make way for the likes of SWV, Shai, Jade, Jodeci and later Joe, Mary J Blige, Aaliyah, and Usher—all fine artists, but artists who clearly were given to providing for the “urban” and hip-hop faithful. Capturing their output from their 1986 debuts to their last “commercial” releases in 1992 The Very Best of Howard Hewitt and The Very Best of Miki Howard compiles the artistry of two of the “transitional” R&B performers who managed to survive and momentarily ward off the coming “old-school” purge.
Hewitt was signed to the group Shalamar in 1979 after the departure of one of its original members, rounding out a trio that included Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel. Recording for Dick Griffey’s SOLAR (Sound of Los Angeles Records) label, which also housed groups like Lakeside, Dynasty and The Whispers, Shalamar had a string of successful recordings such Big Fun, which featured their classic “Second Time Around”, and Three for Love which was released in late 1980. Two of Hewitt’s best lead performances for the group, “This is for the Lover in You” and the yearning “Somewhere There’s a Love”, both from Three for Love are collected on TVBO Howard Hewitt. Though Jody Watley would go on to greater solo acclaim with a derivative sound that producer Andre Cymone culled from Janet Jackson’s Control, Hewitt’s solo debut I Commit To Love, released by Elektra in September of 1986, would met greeted with some interests.
The first single from that project “I’m for Real” would be one the highest charting singles of Hewitt’s career, hitting #2 on the R&B charts. Though it did not cross-over to pop charts (it barely cracked the pop 100), “I’m for Real” was a pleasing slice of smooth jazz (more smooth than jazz of course) with support by George Duke, Stanley Clarke, guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr. and Crusader saxophonist Wilten Felder. The song was the perfect vehicle for Hewitt’s pleading falsetto and subtle growl and given his “good looks” (classic sepia pretty boy), seemed to portend a career of some distinction. Subsequent releases from I Commit To Love like “Stay” and the title track managed to crack the Top 20 on the R&B charts, but were a far cry from the lead single as much of the recording was dragged down by the synthesized dribble that afflicted R&B and smooth jazz at the time (think Jeff Lorber for a reference). Ironically the one track on the recording that would become synonymous with Hewitt was an obscure gospel track that was written by Hewitt with friend Monty Seward. Though the song understandably only charted at #54, it helped usher in the era when R&B performers would close their recording with gospel tracks. The song is easily the most requested of Hewitt’s songs and laid the groundwork for his most recent collection of inspirational music The Journey.
“One, Twice, Three Times” was the lead single of his second full-length releaseForever and Ever. Produced by Hewitt and co-written with Kenny Aubrey, who was a baggage handler at LAX when he slipped Hewitt a tape of his music, the tracked peaked at 15. Forever and Ever was met with lukewarm reception for a number of reasons. Released in April of 1988, Hewitt was in no position to compete with Teddy Riley and Guy’s debut, the revamped New Edition with Johnny Gill or Bobby Brown’s breakout Don’t Be Cruel. In a world being populated by male R&B vocalists like Al B. Sure and the “new jack-old school” of Gerald Levert and Levert, Hewitt was largely irrelevant to the younger audience. Despite his video-friendly looks, ultimately Al B. Sure and Christopher Williams were prettier pretty (B-) boys. This is not to say that either artist possessed Hewitt’s talent, but it highlighted the failure of Hewitt and his producers to find music that parlayed the best of his talents. Like his debut, much of Forever and Everwas simply overproduced.
Hewitt would finally find the right track with the lead single from his third release, Howard Hewitt. Written and produced by Terry Coffey and Jon Nettlesby, who were responsible for Miki Howard’s only #1 single a year earlier, the track perfectly captured the richness of Hewitt’s voice and his interpretive prowess. Released at the height of his very public marriage and romance with Nia Peebles (Fame the television series among other things), Howard Hewitt was his highest charting full-length recording. Howard Hewitt also included Hewitt’s sparkling duet with Anita Baker on “When Will it Be” which was also included on her Compositions recording. The recording would mark the height of Hewitt’s popularity. By the time the underwhelming Allegiance was released in 1992, Hewitt was in the throes of a creative dispute with his label. The recording would be his last recording for a “major” label until his gospel recording was released for Sony’s gospel imprint earlier this year. Hewitt would join a generation of quality R&B vocalists such as James Ingram, Peabo Bryson and Jeffrey Osborne who at various points in the 1990s found themselves without recording deals despite possessing talents well beyond those of a veritable army of platinum selling R&B drones. One of the great gems of TVBO Howard Hewitt is his rendition of the Eagles’ classic “I Can’t Tell You Why” which was collected on Rubaiyat-Elektra’s 40th Anniversary recording. It is a small reminder of Hewitt’s untapped potential as a dominant vocalist.
Unlike Hewitt, Miki Howard can claim a couple of #1 R&B singles. Possessing a vocal talent that drew on the legacy of a range of vocalists including Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin, and Jimmy Scott, Howard debuted in 1986 with Come Share My Love. With Whitney Houston in mind, Lemel Humes initially wrote the lead single and title track. Despite the fact that Howard initially balked at recording the tune, it would be a success and begin and on-going professional relationship with Humes. The second single from the recording was the Burke and Van Husen standard “Imagination”. Howard was introduced to (Little) Jimmy Scott’s version of the song as a child and lobbied record exec Sylvia Rhone for the opportunity to record it. With “Imagination’s” success, Howard was positioned, with Regina Belle, to represent the next generation of “serious” R&B songstresses. Less pop than Whitney, but more R&B than Anita.
Howard followed up Come Share My Love a year later with Love Confessions and its dramatic lead single “Baby Be Mine”, which like “Come Share My Love”, peaked at #5 on the R&B charts. Love Confessions also included a duet with Atlantic label-mate Gerald Levert, who with Marc Gordon produced a significant portion of the project. The project began a three-year romance between Levert and Howard that would last until 1990. Despite the success of the singles, the recording failed to achieve Gold status and Howard was shortly back to work on Miki Howard which was released in the fall of 1989. Though Howard was by all standards an “attractive” woman, with full-bodied lips that recall the “classic” look of Billie Holiday, she did not fit into the standard “lite, bright and tight” criteria that the recording industry expected of its most commercially successful sirens (see the aforementioned Houston and Watley as references). Despite a voice that possessed greater range and depth than Anita Baker’s, Atlantic could not or would not promote Howard in the way that her talents deserved. Thus the label incredibly chose not to shoot a video for the bouncy “Ain’t Nuthin’ in the World”, which despite the lack of promotional support managed to become a #1 single. A video was shot for the follow-up single, “Love Under New Management” which remains one of Howard’s singular performances. Written by Gabriel and Annette Hardeman, who also wrote Stephanie Mill’s “I Feel Good”, the song should have crossed Howard over to larger audiences, but it peaked at #2 on the R&B charts. Howard also had success with project’s third single, a “new-jacked” version of Stevie Wonder’s “Until You Come Back to Me”. Howard’s version marked the third time the song would be a hit as Aretha Frankiln’s 1973 version of the song was a major pop hit for her.
By 1990, Howard had married an abusive man, who also took control of her professional career, creating a wedge between Howard and her mentor Sylvia Rhone, who at the time was one of the few prominent black woman in the recording industry. It was her husband who orchestrated Howard’s break with Atlantic as she signed with the fledgling (and fleeting) Giant records in 1991. Her first release for the label Femme Fatele was easily her most mature and polished recording. The project’s lead single “Ain’t Nobody Like You”, which reunited her with Lemel Humes, became her second R&B chart-topper. The real gems of Femme Fatale were the tracks that took her back to her vocal foremothers. With her version of Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” (not included on TVBO Miki Howard) and Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache”, Howard recorded music that spoke to the depths of her talent and the evolving drama in her life. By the time Howard’s Miki Sings Billie—A Tribute to Billie Holiday was released in 1993 (she portrayed Holiday in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X), Howard was divorcing both from her abusive husband and the recording industry. Howard’s mournful reading of Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” closes out TVBO Miki Howard.
Both Miki Howard and Howard Hewitt would return in the mid-1990s with quality indie recordings that were obscured in the ever changing world of black pop. Hewitt’s It’s Time (1995) is likely his finest recording and Howard’s Can’t Count Me Out (1997) included a stunning version of Wonder’s “I Love Everything About You” with cameos by Chaka Khan and Terence Trent D’Arby. Both would return to the fold in 2001 with Hewitt’s foray into gospel and Howard’s Three Wishes. Though neither artists is likely to be of the most remembered or appreciated of their generation of R&B performers, TVBO Howard Hewitt and TVBO Miki Howard are significant attempts to preserve their legacies.