BY GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR
THEIR story reads like the legendary rags-to-riches tale: Three young girls from the ghetto walk their way to the top, in spite of themselves.
By the time they were entering their 20s, they were on everybody’s lips. They garnered enormous attention with their debut. In fact, they received nominations for Grammy, American Music and The Source awards in 1993. And got the nod at Children's Choice and BET’s Best of Video Soul awards.
The ladies went on to wow American audiences in their national tour with Bobby Brown. They were ‘poster girls’ for Cross Colours, and appeared on The Tonight Show, Arsenio Hall, New York Undercover, hosted Showtime At The Apollo, and were chronicled in several notable publications such as People, Us, Ebony, Essence, USA Today and Vibe.
Welcome to the world of Bronx, New York-bred Cheryl (Coco) Clemons, who currently resides in Virginia Beach; Leanne (Lelee) Lyons, who now lives in Atlanta and Tamara (Taj) Johnson-George, a resident of Nashville— Sisters With Voice (SWV).
Bond by a passion and united by a dream to do well, fate led them to producer, Donald ‘Dee’ Bowden, who took them into the studio to record demos, and to Maureen Singleton, who landed them a contract with RCA Records.
As they say, the rest is history; long history for the ladies, who made their first visit to Africa recently, when they performed during the MTN Platinum Plus launch held at Oceanview Gardens on Adetokunbo Ademola, Victoria Island.
Though they came out of the hip-hop generation, they were influenced by gospel and classic rhythm and blues.
Sisters With Voices? You wonder.
“It was the creation of our manager then, Singleton. We had been considering many unsuitable names and then she said our blend was so close and that we sounded like sisters. So, she came up with Sisters With Voices,” Taj remarks.
So you are not real sisters?
“We are not biological sisters,” they laugh. They stopped short of asking questions. Their eyes rolled good-naturedly. With very appealing personality, they could catch anybody. “We are sisters in Christ. And we grew up together.”
Another moment to ponder. Soul sisters stepping into the continent almost 40 years after birth and two decades on the scene as headline acts?
With loads of down-to-earth appeal and youthful vocal licks, Lelee breathes, “erhhh!... let’s just say God says this is the right time for us to be in Africa, and the beautiful country of Nigeria.”
There is silence for a few seconds, then they retort modestly, “Oh, wonderful!”
Coco giggles, “the people are really warm, and the audience out there are superb. We are really very happy to be here. And we were particularly touched to discover we have such a huge fan base here in Nigeria.”
Lelee says excitedly, “we took time out to be at The Experience. Wow! It was a great experience. You know, back in America, we used to think we love God. But right there in the hall, we saw different kind of worship. Your people can really worship God. Oh, my God, it was awesome!”
The ladies begin, one after-the other, to unlock the doors to their hearts. “And then, your drivers! Wow… I mean, the cars drive pretty close and you think they are really going to bump into each other. It was an experience too,” Taj squeals.
You think the Sisters will be in Nigeria again?
No need to entertain such fears. Taj confesses, almost conspiratorially, as if whispering her answer. “Oh, definitely. It will be our pleasure to be back here again soon.”
WITH sassy struts and a state-of-the-street blend of soul-rooted melodies, coasting above an assortment of streetwise beats, the group hit headlines in 1992.
Their singles such as I'm So Into You, Right Here, Weak and Anything, all top 10 smashes, and created ambience for the debut album, It's About Time, which hit multi-platinum status.
Following the success of their first album, SWV appeared on the soundtrack for the 1994 film, Above the Rim.
In 1995, SWV recorded their album, New Beginning, which was released in 1996. Also, in 1995, the group appeared on the Waiting to Exhale: Original Soundtrack Album, recording the track, All Night Long.
1997 saw the release of their third album, Release Some Tension, as well as A Special Christmas four months later in 1997, the group's last studio album.
Perhaps, everything worked too well for them. They got very big and made too much money for their age. With the youngest, Lelee, just 24, their newfound ‘ego’ sunk SWV project shortly after the release of A Special Christmas. They parted ways to pursue various solo projects. In 2005, SWV reunited and announced plans to record a new album the following year.
WHY do groups fail?
There is silence. Lelee breaks the ice with a two-word sentence. “Tough one.” She looks at the others, as if waiting for cue, and then adds, “some groups don’t have longevity. Why is that? I honestly don’t know. I just know that SWV is around and doing great after so many years. Having been around for so long, I just know we must be doing some things right. But I tell you something, we always try to be open and transparent.”
Coco says, her voice smooth as silk, “we took time off to raise families and pursued individual projects. We came back together, and today, we are still talking of SWV.”
What could have brought them back when many groups have found it difficult to do and what has kept SWV together?
“Hmmm!” Coco breathes heavily. Suddenly, she wears a big smile on her face. “Let’s just say we belong together. Just with any other groups, there have been challenges. But we’ve weathered them together.”
And the new album promised six years ago?
Taj says, “Oh, we are working on an album at the moment. It will be out soon.”
The group did pull through a successful coup when on December 15, via iTunes, came out with a single from their yet untitled album to be released in early 2012. Titled, Co-Sign, it is a track that makes it sound like these ladies have never left. Lelee, Coko and Taj croon over their mutual love for their men, they’d co-sign for their men’s affection.
EVEN without an album in the last 15 years, the group has had regular gigs. In fact, in 2007, they performed dates with After 7, Bobby Brown, New Edition and Blackstreet.
On June 24, 2008, SWV made a special appearance at the BET Awards of 2008, performing, Weak, with Alicia Keys. They also sang the chorus to TLC's Waterfalls.
SWV appeared on The Mo'Nique Show on February 2, 2010, performing Patti LaBelle's If Only You Knew. Lelee and Coko provided the lead vocals.
On June 10, last year, SWV was featured on the official remix of Chris Brown's remake of their Right Here/Human Nature song, She Ain't You.
On the current music scene, Lelee says, “no doubt, it has been vibrant. But there are a whole lot of songs that cannot last through the years. That is not to say they are not good to listen to. There is just a question of longevity and ability to remain relevant long after now.”
Are they going to be influenced by the type of music that is enjoying wide acceptance currently?
Coco is emphatic. “Hell no! SWV has its unique sound. Our fans love us. Why would we want to sound like somebody else? Our fans are waiting for us and it’s SWV they are going to get.”
You wonder whether they are hoping to catch the young generation?
Coco gives a direct challenging stare before the group echo: “They’ll catch up with us.”
AND their private lives?
Born June 13, 1970, Coco, the oldest of the trio, is married, and has two sons. She says, “I released one R&B album entitled, Hot Coko. I have also released two gospel projects, the Grammy nominated Grateful and The Winner in Me, which debuted at number four on the gospel billboard charts. I am also advocate for our youth, especially young boys.”
The group’s second album is the bomb for her, as she says, “we had a chance to write our own songs. We had a chance to express ourselves a little more.” Her favourite song is Always on my mind.
BORN April 29, 1971, Taj is also married and has two sons. “I was blessed to star in my own reality show, Married to a Baller, with my husband. I’m also an author of two books called Player Hate Her, How to Avoid The Beat Down and Live In a Drama Free World.”
Taj has appeared in the TV One reality series, I Married a Baller — Coko and Lelee appeared in a couple of the show's episodes, a confirmation of Coco’s statement that that they belong together.
The show documented her life with husband Eddie George, former NFL player and present Nashville entrepreneur.
Taj was also contestant on Survivor: Tocantins, in which she came in fourth place. She was blindsided by her former alliance of James "J.T." Thomas, Jr. and Stephen Fishbach. She became the sixth Jury Member.
She participated in a 2009 national tour of the Vagina Monologues with an all-black cast, most of whom are also former reality show contestants.
She says her favourite song is I’m so into you.
FOR Lelee, born July 17, 1973, she has two children, a girl and a boy. “I started my own production company and I am currently working with several artistes. I am also into motivational speaking, and I’m an advocate for teen pregnancy prevention. I speak all over the world.”
Lelee goes for the first. “We had fun. We were clowning. We were rapping. We were doing all sorts.” And song? “I’m so into you.”
WHAT are they taking back home?
Taj confesses, “the love. It’s unbelievable. It was wonderful, right from the airport. We will cherish the memory.”