With the success of Whitney Houston and Anita Baker, a female balladeer was the thing to be in the late ‘80s. Record labels scrambled to sign sound-alikes, and in addition to the resurgence of singers like Natalie Cole and Phyllis Hyman, we were graced with new talents like Regina Belle and Miki Howard. Beautiful and talented, Howard had chops that were capable of handling jazz and blues, but she was equally at home with more contemporary sounding music, as evidenced by hits like “Come Share My Love”, “Ain’t Nobody like You”, and “Love Under New Management”, which became a fed-up sista-girl anthem at the turn of the ‘90s. Certainly, a crowning point of her career was being asked to portray a young Billie Holiday in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.
Shortly after that plum role, however, the hits dried up, and by the middle of the decade Howard was without a major label record contract. After going the indie route for a short time, Howard seemingly disappeared. After a few years of being just a touring artist, she re-emerged at record shops with Pillow Talk, using an age-old tack: the covers album.
The ten songs included here are mostly soul chestnuts from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Each song has a charming—if not definitive—original version, which ends up being this album’s downfall. It’s only on rare occasions that Howard’s revisions live up to the standard of the older versions. Let’s face it: a lot of covers albums fail because the songs they try to tackle are already tied in the public mind to another artist. Take a song like “Lowdown”, which was a huge hit for Boz Scaggs back in the mid-‘70s. To all the folks that own a copy of Scaggs’ Silk Degrees album, no one can touch this song, no matter how good you sing it. Ultimately, Howard’s version just winds up sounding like karaoke.
She fares better with a dusky version of “Go Away Little Boy”. Her jazz background really comes to the forefront on this track, where she does wonders with a song best known for its Donny Osmond version, but we’ll assume she was more influenced by ‘70s soul/blues diva Marlena Shaw’s interpretation. Her smoothed-out, seductive version of Sylvia’s “Pillow Talk” is another winner, although the track is almost ruined by some seriously cheesy smooth jazz-style production.
The antiseptic production (helmed by smooth jazz star and labelmate Kim Waters) returns for a decidedly average version of the soul classic “I Can’t Stand the Rain”. As different as the versions by Ann Peebles and Tina Turner were, they were both laments—Peebles’ was warm and bluesy, Turner’s was cool and electronic. Howard seems like she’s stuck somewhere in between the two versions, not sure which way to go. On other tracks, it’s very easy to picture Howard as the lounge singer in a smoky bar. She definitely goes the jazz chanteuse route for Dorothy Moore’s “Misty Blue” and sucks out all of the soul in the process. Elsewhere, her version of Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade” is tolerable until some Kenny G.-esque saxophone work comes in and ruins the song. And then there’s her cover of The Captain & Tennille’s adult contemporary standard “Do That to Me One More Time” (which, strangely, hit the R&B charts back in the day). On this song, you still get the smoky bar singer effect, but only after the bar singer has had five scotch and sodas.
Pillow Talk is meant to… well, I’m not exactly sure what its purpose is. Howard can still sing, and with a better choice of material (and much better production) this probably could have been a solid album. However, merely average versions of songs that the music-listening public so readily identifies with other artists probably aren’t the best way to reintroduce her to the public.