More Than A Woman: The Ascension Of Aaliyah

Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born in Brooklyn on 16th January 1979. Of both Hebrew and Arabic origin, her name literally translated as ‘highest, most exalted one,’ or ‘to ascend’ and its meaning was a source of motivation and inspiration for Aaliyah throughout her life. With a mother who had forfeited her dreams of becoming a singer for her family, and as the niece by marriage, of soul legend Gladys Knight, Aaliyah had a natural proclivity for music as well as important industry connections. Encouraged by her parents, Aaliyah was given singing lessons from an early age, even before the Haughtons moved from Brooklyn to Detroit when she was 5.

Still only 9 years old, Aaliyah and her extraordinary voice were unleashed upon the American public with her appearance on Star Search, where she gave her own unique rendition of the 1937 Rodgers and Hart standard, My Funny Valentine. She failed to win on the show, but it granted Aaliyah national exposure, and further cemented her determination to become an entertainer. Gladys Knight’s then husband, Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson, agreed to manage her and in 1991, she performed a week long stint with her famous aunt in Las Vegas, closing with a duet of Believe in Yourself, originally sung by Diana Ross in the 1978 film The Wiz.

Above: Aaliyah on Star Search (1989)

Hankerson founded Blackground Records in 1993, with Aaliyah as the label’s principal artist. At the same time, Hankerson started managing R. Kelly, a singer and songwriter from Chicago who had won the television talent contest Big Break in 1989. R. Kelly had put out his first album, Born Into The 90s (as R. Kelly & Public Announcement) in 1992, and several hits ensued, including She’s Got That Vibe, Honey Love and Dedicated. Continue reading

Careful Now: The Passion Of Dermot Morgan

As the awkward yet strangely endearing Father Ted Crilly in the popular Channel 4 series Father Ted, Dermot Morgan’s perfect comic timing and nuanced performances made him a household name. Today, twenty years after the programme was first broadcast in April 1995, it has become essential viewing for comedy aficionados in Morgan’s native Ireland, Britain and many other parts of the world.

Born into a devout Catholic family in Dublin on 31st March 1952, Morgan went into teaching after graduating from University College, Dublin, in 1974.  However, he soon abandoned his career in education to pursue his love of writing and performing his own comic routines, a passion that had first been ignited whilst he was at university.

In 1979, Morgan was offered a regular slot on The Live Mike, an Irish comedy and chat show presented by the radio and television veteran Mike Murphy. Morgan’s sketches proved to be a hit, and, in a move that presaged the character that would make him internationally famous, his most amusing creation for the show was Father Trendy, a young priest whose attempts to appear ‘trendy’ repeatedly fell flat. A book lampooning the Catholic Church, entitled Trendy Sermons, was published in 1982; Morgan’s burgeoning comedic career was negatively affected by the publication, and as a result, he found himself briefly boycotted by almost every television and radio station in Ireland.

Above: Dermot Morgan as Father Trendy from The Live Mike (1980)

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Silver Blaze: The Illustrious Jeremy Brett

‘It’s very rare I’ve been able to get into the twentieth century. When I turn from 1899 to 1900 I jump for joy. I did in Rebecca, I got into the 30s then. I have done some modern stuff but I’m so thrilled I over-act like crazy. I’ve got pockets! I’m so used to wearing tights all the time that when I put my hands in my pockets I nearly fall over. I’m so unused to playing a modern guy.’ Born Peter William Jeremy Huggins in the Warwickshire village of Berkswell on 3rd November 1933, Jeremy Brett as he would be known professionally (he changed his name upon his father’s request, choosing ‘Brett’ from a label in one of his suits) spent the majority of his career performing in period pieces, a path he naturally found himself following, owing to his quintessentially English good looks and upper-class demeanour.

The youngest of four brothers, Brett was the son of Lieutenant Colonel Henry William Huggins and his wife, Elizabeth Edith Cadbury (a member of the famous family of chocolate-makers). After an idyllic childhood, in which he developed a lifelong love of horse-riding and archery, Brett was sent to Eton, where he was a self-confessed ‘academic disaster’ and struggled with a speech impediment which affected how he pronounced the letters ‘R’ and ‘S.’ A surgical procedure, which he underwent in his late teens, coupled with daily vocal exercises, gave Brett the resplendent voice for which he would become renowned.

Interested in acting from an early age, after leaving Eton, Brett studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama, making his stage debut at the Library Theatre in Manchester in 1954. Brett remembered how his father had initially been disparaging about his chosen career, as he had believed that ‘any respectable middle-class boy shouldn’t do a thing like that. He thought it was all drinking champagne out of slippers.’ Continue reading

Sophisticated Lady: The Essence Of Phyllis Hyman

On 30th June 1995, Phyllis Hyman was found unconscious in her New York apartment. After Hyman failed to arrive for her show at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, Lennice Malina, her concerned personal assistant, went to the singer’s home to check on her. Surrounded by bottles of pills, Hyman had taken an overdose of barbiturates and was taken to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, where she died hours later. It would seem that Hyman had finally succeed in ending her own life on her third attempt; beside her, a note was found, explaining how she was too ‘tired’ to go on living and though it was cold comfort, she reassured her family and friends, ‘Those that I love know who you are. May God bless you.’

Growing up in Pittsburgh, where she was born on 6th July 1949, Hyman, the eldest of seven siblings, had worshipped singers like Nina Simone and James Brown from an early age. Discovering that she had a powerful and stirring voice of her own, Hyman attended a musical school, however, as she later stated, ‘I always knew I could sing but I didn’t always want to do it professionally.’ In 1971, went on tour with the group New Direction, before joining the Pittsburgh-based bands, All the People and The Hondo Beat. By 1975, Hyman had come to the attention of trumpeter Sid Maurer, who had set up his own label, Roadshow Records. Impressed by her immense talent, Maurer immediately signed Hyman and she moved to New York.

Following a stint performing in some of the city’s hottest nightclubs, Hyman met the jazz drummer and arranger Norman Connors who was looking for a female vocalist for several tracks on his forthcoming album, You Are My Starship, scheduled for release by New York label, Buddah Records. You Are My Starship went to number 5 in the US R&B charts and the single Betcha By Golly Wow, a cover of the 1972 hit by The Stylistics, for which Hyman provided the vocals, received considerable airplay from R&B radio stations nationwide. As a result, Hyman was signed to Buddah Records herself, and released her first album Phyllis Hyman in 1977, followed by Sing a Song in 1978. Continue reading