Berklee Today

Elisabeth Withers-Mendes '94: Dreams in Purple and Blue

With a lead role on Broadway in The Color Purple and a recording contract with Blue Note Records, Elisabeth Withers-Mendes '94 is living her dreams.

  Elisabeth Withers-Mendes
It's a Friday afternoon in March, and vocalist Elisabeth Withers-Mendes '94 steps into her Jersey City condominium looking like any other woman. Gone is the slinky, shiny dress and the over-the-top sass she was wearing the night before in her role as Shug Avery in the critically hailed Broadway production of The Color Purple. Today, she has on blue jeans and a tan baseball cap, and is carrying two dozen jars of baby food encased in shrinkwrap. The errand is the task of the moment for a woman balancing eight shows per week, a husband, a one-year-old daughter, and frequent recording sessions. She hands the baby food to her husband Damon, a fellow musician, who pivots, drops the package on the kitchen counter, and immediately begins opening it. The couple exhibits smooth rhythm even when handling domestic chores. They manage the busyness of their lives with grace.

Minutes later, we're in Elisabeth's car headed into Manhattan for a meeting with her producer, one of a long string of appointments that will keep her on the go right up until the moment she goes to the Broadway Theater for tonight's show. Life moves quickly these days for Withers-Mendes. In a little more than a year, she has started a family, garnered a Tony nomination for her debut Broadway role, netted an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for best featured actress, and landed a record deal with EMI subsidiary Blue Note/Angel Records. Withers-Mendes is no overnight success though. Her arrival in the spotlight comes after a decade in New York spent leading her own group, writing songs, and doing sessions and tours as a background vocalist. She's on the way up now not only because she has a powerful and emotive voice but because she has been adaptable and prepared for every musical challenge she's faced.

Even as a young girl growing up in Joliet, Illinois, Withers-Mendes had a big voice and a boundless determination. She sang her way into a high school-age church choir when she was six years old. After graduating from the Chicago Academy for the Arts, she worked gigs as a backup vocalist and earned a scholarship to attend Berklee.

As the car bounces along FDR Drive toward midtown, Withers-Mendes tells me about her arrival in New York City in the mid-1990s, when she put together a band and played such clubs as Joe's Pub, SOB's, and Wetlands. Contacts she made then led her to gigs on children's television, which led to sessions as a background singer for Stevie Wonder, R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, Luther Vandross, and others.

She also wrote songs. One that she cowrote, "Emotions," a dance tune that she performed under the name Elle Patrice, held the number one spot on Billboard magazine's dance charts for three weeks.

Each time a new door opens, Withers-Mendes sings her way through. It was last June when friends and former employers, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, told Quincy Jones to consider casting Withers-Mendes as Shug Avery in the new musical The Color Purple. A new mother at the time, Withers-Mendes had planned to hit the pause button on her career to take care of her family. But the show's producers wanted her, and after talking it over with her husband, she started rehearsals a few weeks later.

It's easy to see why Withers-Mendes got the part. Her voice is perfect for Shug. In one scene, Withers-Mendes tugs at our hearts with extraordinary control and emotion on the pop ballad "Too Beautiful for Words," and then in the next scene, she's channeling Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner on the show's funkiest tune, "Push da Button." Her performance as a singer, dancer, and actress is one of the most talked about on Broadway this year.

It's quite possible, however, that by year's end, Withers-Mendes's debut album will grab the spotlight. "The voice is close to Tina Turner," says her producer Toby Gad. He is a benevolent taskmaster, and when Withers-Mendes arrives at his West 46th Street studio, he doesn't waste much time before saying, "Let's get to work." He plays a new track he's been working on, a reggae-flavored tune about Withers-Mendes's baby daughter. After a brief debate over the lyrics, they listen to "Simple Things," one of the first songs she and Gad completed for the new record.

Elisabeth Withers-Mendes at home with her husband Damon and their daughter  
Larry Busacca/Wire Image  
The verses start softly and build to a catchy, hard-hitting chorus that fits Withers-Mendes's description of her music as "rock-soul." Her vocal performance induces goose bumps. It's no surprise that she is considering "Simple Things" as the first single and title track of the new album that Blue Note has scheduled for a summer release.

The session ends an hour or so later, and it's time for Withers-Mendes to head to the Broadway Theater for tonight's show. Before she gets into makeup and costume and hits the stage, she finally gets a little downtime, a rare moment to stop, breathe, and be thankful for what she has. Hers is a busy and demanding life, but Withers-Mendes wouldn't have it any other way.

How did you get started in music?
My first memories of this whole incredible journey date from when I was about six years old singing in the Mount Zion Baptist Church choir. I didn't want to be in the kids' choir then; I wanted to sing with the adults. But they wouldn't let me sing with the big choir in that church, so we found another church where I got to sing with the teenagers. After that, I started singing along with Natalie Cole records. Growing up I was exposed to a real variety of music-Frank Sinatra, Millie Jackson, Shirley Caesar, B.B. King. There was no one particular person I was most influenced by. I liked Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, and others.

Later, I went to high school at the Chicago Academy for the Arts. I mainly studied classical and jazz and learned gospel and other styles outside of school. I met a lot of really talented friends there. Lalah Hathaway '90 had graduated from the school, and I was there with her sister Kenya. I heard that Lalah had gone to Berklee, and I really wanted to go there too.

Were there any aspects of your Berklee experience that really stand out in your mind?
You know, I didn't really appreciate Berklee until after I graduated. That's when I realized the true significance of the school and the impact it had on my life as a musician, singer, and performer. Before I came to Berklee, I had a lot of performing experience, but technique, the discipline for "shedding," and really learning to read music I took for granted until after I got out. That's when you start saying, "This is what they were talking about," and things sort of come together. I had some great teachers there and being in the gospel choir was awesome. The Singers' Showcase concerts were the largest audiences I'd performed in front of to that point. I've always been a performer at heart, so the more people I see, the more charged I am to perform. Most people get nervous over those things, but I really don't. That helps me with my performances now.

What came next after you graduated from Berklee?
I took a year and a half off from school, and then enrolled in a masters program at New York University.

How did you get your career moving?
I started doing the children's television shows Between the Lions and Sesame Street while I was at NYU. There were two singers I had befriended in New York, Paulette McWilliams and Cindy Mizelle, who were singing with the late Luther Vandross. When I first moved to New York they took me under their wings and start turning me on to auditions and sessions. One particular opportunity came along when Mary J. Blige was looking for a singer, and I got the job. Next thing I knew, I was doing her albums. After that, it was Céline Dion and Stevie Wonder. I was on a roll.

The first major tour I got was with Erykah Badu. They called me on a Wednesday and wanted me to come in on Saturday knowing all the parts. I came prepared to sing the soprano, alto, and tenor parts because I didn't know which one they wanted me to sing. I did the audition on Saturday, and they called me Sunday to come in and meet all the other singers to see that our voices blended. In the middle of that tour, I got a call from Babyface's people asking me about a couple of spot dates. I went and did those.

Fast-forward a bit, and I started playing at Ashford & Simpson's Sugar Bar up on 72nd Street. They had called me for a Broadway show they were working on called Pipes. At the time, I was pregnant with my daughter, but I didn't know it yet. After I found out I was pregnant, I thought I'd lose my job, but they wanted me to stay on with them until I had my baby.

I think my daughter was two or three months old when I got a call from Valerie saying, "Elisabeth, we just got a call from Quincy Jones and Scott Sanders-Scott's the producer of The Color Purple - they're looking for someone to play Shug Avery. We recommended you and they're going to call you for the audition."

When I went for the audition, I saw Robin Givens. All these people that I really respect-Jada Pinkett Smith and Dianne Reeves-had auditioned for the part. They called me in. I read through my sides, and they asked me to come back again. I never thought I would get the part. My mind was on my husband, Damon, and my daughter, because I had decided to take a year off.

They asked me to come back a second time. At the second audition, the director came out and said, "Elisabeth I want to congratulate you. You've got this part, but there are two very important things we need you to do. There's a scene where you kiss a woman, and there's a nude scene." I said, "I just had a baby." And they said, "We saw your body, and we want you to do this." I asked them to put some clauses in my contract that would protect me. They were for it and I was for it, and the rest is history.

Did you feel prepared to go from the musical life you'd known to doing eight shows per week on Broadway?
I didn't have time to think about whether I was prepared or not. I got called one day, the next day I had the script, and by the next week or so we were going into the workshop. It happened that fast. There I was with an infant and a husband that I hadn't been married to for all that long, and then this part came along. There wasn't a lot of time. I think God just sort of shielded my mind from the magnitude of it all. I found myself thinking, "Oh my God, Oprah Winfrey just left my dressing room. I have to do a show tonight as Shug and then breastfeed later on!"

How did you feel on opening night?
Child, opening night was like getting presents on Christmas Day and finding every gift you could ever imagine. That's how I felt when I stood as one of the principals on the set of The Color Purple and looked out and saw Tina Turner, Sidney Poitier, Anita Baker, Donald Trump, and Ruby Dee in the audience. I could see them from the stage. It didn't make me nervous, but it was humbling.

The Color Purple has had such a huge impact on people's lives; and your character is so important to the plot. What has it been like to be a part of a production about the empowerment of women and life for African-American women in the South?

It's a huge deal as well as a huge opportunity and responsibility. It's like God has placed a gift in my lap and it's going to help other people. There are so many hurting people in the world. There are so many people that have experienced all the things that [the show's main protagonist] Celie went through. A lot of people think, "Oh, I wish I was Shug, because she just loves love." It's a big responsibility when you're telling a story every night. You have to move yourself out of the way and be submissive to the story you're telling.

How do you sing the same songs every night and speak the same lines and breathe new life into them for every performance?
The day before opening night, I said to Gary Griffin, the director, "Gary, you know it just dawned on me that night after night, things won't change. We'll make the same entrances, the same exits, sing the same songs the same way, and say the same lines. I'm thinking, I can't do this!"

He took me aside and said, "Elisabeth, stand up and hold your palms out." I stood up and held my palms out. He said, "Every night when you walk out on stage, I want you to hold your palms out, and I want you to listen. If you can just do those two things, you'll keep it fresh every night."

I started thinking, what does "hold your palms out" really mean? When we sit and have an interview, sing a song, or whatever, we tend to close our legs, close our arms, everything's closed off. We're protecting ourselves, and generally we don't listen. But if you walk out on stage and you have your hands out, you're submitting yourself, keeping yourself open to the person talking to you. If Celie comes out on stage and says, "Shug, I love you." Generally, I'm going to respond, "Celie, I love you too." But if she goes, "SHUG, I LOVE YOU!" [in a loud voice], I'll say, "Well, Celie, I LOVE YOU TOO!" Things can be different every night. Gary's advice has helped me to keep things fresh. Listening is the key.

How did your the Blue Note recording contract come about?
That happened just before I signed the contract for The Color Purple. This is another amazing, God-given thing. While we were in the middle of the workshop for The Color Purple, I got a call from Scott Sanders. He wanted me and LaChanze, who plays Celie in the show, to do all the musical promotions for the show. We went into the studio and recorded "Push da Button," "What About Love?" and the show's theme song. Scott took it to Blue Note and said, "We want to do a cast album for The Color Purple."

He called me from London to say that Bruce Lundvall [CEO of Blue Note] had listened to the recording and wanted to sign me as a solo artist, sight unseen. So a couple of weeks after I signed with the show, I signed with EMI. Now, isn't that a blessing? Bruce and the label have been very supportive and given us artistic control.

I am very excited about the recording, it's like a summation of my life and everything I've been going through: the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, the brilliance, everything. What I love about working with Toby, one of the record's coproducers, is coming in with a song idea-chord ideas or melody ideas-and then expounding on them. Toby says that if we love the music and we feel it, then other people are going to love it and feel it. I don't get tired of working on this because I'm writing songs I really believe in that I know are going to touch people.

Will there be a tour to support the record?
As a matter of fact, we just got a call from my management about that. They're working out the details of what day we're leaving and how it's going to correlate with the show.

With a tour starting while you're still doing The Color Purple, you'll be even busier than ever.

But you know what? I don't complain at all. These are the days we pray for. You pray for love in your household and peace. You pray for a little money in your pocket and a great gig and people appreciating what you do. I may be a little tired sometimes, but you'll never hear me complain because I'm grateful for what God has given me.

With a show, a family, and a record deal, what is your average day like?
Generally we record during the day. I write one or two songs a week with Toby. I get to the theater two hours early for some downtime. I take care of family business, pay bills, and think about everything that has to get done for the next day. Then I go and do the show. When I get home, I see my husband and my daughter. Other things are going on too. I'm also working on a lingerie line and a children's book.

How do you fit it all together and maintain artistic consistency?
Prioritizing. Everybody has different priorities. Some people say, "Okay my record deal is the most important thing, and then my touring is the next, and then my family." For my life, I find that when I keep God first and I have my quiet time and really give Him His time, it makes my relationship with my husband stronger, more fun, more exciting. That in turn, makes for a happy baby, which in turn makes the employers I work for happy, because I'm coming to work happy. If I keep my priorities straight, I don't get out of whack or sidetracked with unnecessary things.

What comes next for you after the show, the record, and the tour?
I'm looking beyond to the children's books and the clothing line until I eventually come up with some type of fund. I'm looking to be able to sponsor underprivileged kids who need opportunities. There are a lot of talented kids out there who don't have the finances to do what they want in art, writing, or whatever. I hope to one day be in a position to help and reach out to the community.

I got opportunities from Nick and Val Simpson and from Berklee. I didn't know my family was struggling at the time. But Berklee saw me as a promising teenager wanting to come to school and gave me a scholarship. I'd love to create opportunities for another kid.

What advice would you give musicians who hope to have the same kind of success you've had?
Stay true to yourself, because there will be some people who love what you do and others who can't stand what you do and don't understand it. There will be some who just have got to be next you and get a piece of you. Knowing who you are attracts the right people who can help you get to the next level.

Some people say, "Oh, Elisabeth, I notice that you don't do weddings or sessions anymore." I would if I wanted to or if I had the time, because they're all a part of music. The things that are happening for me now were once just dreams: Broadway, the recording, the Tony buzz. First time out of the coop, and my name is being mentioned in the runners for the Tonys. These things are blessings to me, prayers answered. They all stem from being true to who you are.