Sometimes careers are about being in the right place at the right time. And sometimes, an artist is so talented that she finds her way to success, even when circumstance seem to work against her. That’s in part the story of Siedah Garrett, an immensely talented singer and songwriter who has quietly played a role on some of the most notable music of the past forty decades.
Born Deborah Christine Garrett in the Compton section of Los Angeles, Garrett showed her talent as a singer at an early age. Discovered by Gospel and R&B star D.J. Rogers (Garrett’s mother was an interior designer for Rogers), an impromptu performance for Rogers landed Siedah a spot as a background singer on Rogers’ 1977 disc, Love, Music & Life.
Garrett spent years perfecting her talent as a blending singer, able to sweeten the harmonies of a vocal group, and she used that role as part of the early 80s soul group Plush. But after a single album the group broke up, and Garrett moved on to a period as a sought-after backing vocalist. She was signed by Quincy Jones as both a singer and a songwriter, even though she was known purely as a vocalist at that time. While the songwriting part of that contract may have seemed an afterthought, it would become central to her future contributions to popular music a half decade later.
There was no shortage of backing vocalist work for Garrett, who sang on several Madonna albums and toured with Sergio Mendes. And, in an unexpected turn to the front of the stage, her killer performance on a 1982 demo for the song “Don’t Look Any Further” resulted in her being chosen as the duet partner for Dennis Edwards on the song, which shot to the top of the R&B charts.
During this period, Garrett recorded many solo songs for Quincy Jones’ Qwest label, but due to problems at the label and its partner Warner Brothers, none were released. She focused more on work as a songwriter and in 1987 scored a double success on the Jones-produced album Bad, co-writing Michael Jackson’s seminal hit, “Man In The Mirror,” and dueting with him on the #1 smash “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” She followed with hit compositions “Tomorrow (A Better You, Better Me)” and “The Secret Garden” from Jones’ Grammy winning Back On The Block Album.
Garrett finally received her legitimate shot as a solo artist with Kiss of Life in 1988, but the hard-working artist found herself achieving success mostly in other ways. She became a popular songwriter for such artists as Aretha Franklin to Al Jarreau, Vanessa Williams, Paula Abdul and Amy Grant. Siedah also temporarily replaced N'dea Davenport as the lead singer for the Brand New Heavies and wrote much of their album Shelter. She also earned Oscar and Grammy nominations – and a Grammy win – for her songwriting contribution of "I Love You, I Do" to the movie Dreamgirls (She shared her 2008 Grammy experience with SoulTracks).
Siedah Garrett has continued to write and perform well into the third decade of the 21st century, recently issuing the social justice anthem, “The New Frontier (Say Their Names).”
While she is not the household name that her broad and significant talent warrants, Garrett’s star has continued to rise, decades after she entered the popular music scene. She paved the way for a new generation of female songwriters and performers, and showed a perseverance to find successful lanes for her gift, even when the road was difficult. Her pioneering work will continue to influence younger artists, even as she continues to make engaging new music herself.
By Chris Rizik
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