Although Vesta Williams has enjoyed a career in the music industry that spans over two decades, I’d be willing to bet that you don’t know who she is. Although she had a moment in the spotlight with 1989’s hit ballad “Congratulations”, Vesta has largely been under the radar, although she’s always had the vocal skills to pay the bills. A battle of the bulge (that has long since ended) has been listed as the primary reason that her record sales have not matched up with her talent (a tale as old as time that can be echoed by fellow R&B divas Cheryl Lynn and Jennifer Holliday), but Vesta has made do, whether by singing jingles or working as a background vocalist (most memorably matching lungs with Sting on 1987’s “We’ll Be Together”).
Covers albums are just not my cup of tea. No matter how many bells and whistles you might add to a song, it’s always gonna end up being stacked up unfavorably to the original version. While an artist hits on a perfect cover every once in a while, the act of a whole album of remakes just invites comparisons, which the new versions generally wilt under.
So here’s our issue. Great vocalist. Covers album. What are you gonna do? I read an article in Vibe a couple of months ago that mentioned the fact that the older generation of R&B singers can’t find songs that are age-appropriate, so they turn to cover versions to keep their careers alive. While I say a better solution to that quandary is to pick up a damn pen and write songs yourself, I don’t know that my solution is the preferred option.
Distant Lover, Vesta’s first album for the indie label Shanachie (which has recently released similar sets from fellow R&B vets Miki Howard & Silk), isn’t a bad album. Vesta certainly does a better job than Miki did on her effort, which was average at best. She’s certainly in good voice—she soars high over every song included here, but, as with most covers albums, there are issues with the songs. Either they’re too closely identified with another artist, or they’ve been redone to death. The anonymous, unspectacular backing band is also an issue—at times, it sounds like Vesta is one of the world’s best karaoke vocalists.
Vesta, much like her idol Chaka Khan (with whom she shares an uncanny vocal resemblance), fares best when she smolders. Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover” is hard to top, but Vesta’s unbelievable vocal swoops come dangerously close to stealing thunder from the original. Her voice is elastic, able to express jubilation and sensuality in one breath. She performs similar feats on Sade’s seductive “No Ordinary Love” and Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh Baby Baby”. To take a song like Smokey’s, one of the most covered songs I can think of, and breathe new life into it—that’s damn near miraculous. Too bad she can’t do the same for a song like Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet”, which is pleasant enough, but so was Luther’s version. And Donell Jones’s version. And Tevin Campbell’s version. And… well, you get the picture.
Despite the predominantly flavor-free arrangements, this album winds up being worthy of a listen strictly on the merits of the vocalist. Vesta can still sing rings around most of today’s R&B vocalists, as evidenced by a funky, playful version of Sly & the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay”, and a vocal on a version of the Billy Preston & Syreeta duet “With You I’m Born Again” that single-handedly erased all of the bad memories I’d had of hearing this song ad nauseum on adult contemporary radio when I was a kid.
So, yeah. Distant Lover isn’t bad in execution, but I’m more disappointed in the premise than anything else. The idea of every R&B artist above a certain age range resorting to singing other people’s popular songs just strikes me as unnecessary and sort of lazy, on behalf of both the singer and the record company (who likely have the mindset that familiar tunes will ultimately reach a wider audience). Vesta’s got the skills for sure, but next time I’d love to hear those skills put to use on original material.