In the early Nineties, multiracial acid jazz/funk/soul ensemble The Brand New Heavies exploded onto the music scene with a retro image and an infectious danceable sound impossible to deny. Led by multi-talented vocalist N’Dea Davenport, the band signed to Delicious Vinyl Records and consistently released timeless songs like “Dream Come True,” “Never Stop,” “Dream on Dreamer” and “Stay This Way.”
Davenport, who recently performed in Atlanta with The Brand New Heavies at Buckhead Theatre, equates playing the reunion shows with original members, guitarist Simon Bartholomew and keyboardist/bassist Andrew Levy, to being on vacation. She takes a few moments to address the band’s series of lineup rotations and how they’ve manage to overcome conflict. “Families go through different variations of multiple relationships and circumstances,” acknowledges an extremely relaxed Davenport. “We’re no different. The dynamics have been a bit of estrangement and togetherness, but fans have been really waiting for a long, long time.”
The Brand New Heavies originated around 1985 out of the club and acid jazz circuit in London. Simultaneously, Davenport frequented the Los Angeles club circuit, connecting with a series of DJs, creatives and performing background on various projects. When she signed with Delicious Vinyl as a solo act in 1990, the label executives asked for her perspective on the Brand New Heavies’s music. She made the decision to join the band who didn’t have a lead singer, delaying her plans to record her debut effort.
“They were some other younger musicians that wanted to try music,” says Davenport, “and still trying to hold the tradition of soul and funk music. It was very organic how we got together. I didn’t know what they looked like. It didn’t matter. We didn’t even have time to catch our breath (chuckles).”
As The Brand New Heavies were gearing up to release their project, Davenport was just returning from being a part of pop star Madonna’s camp. The ambitious Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) alumnae provided background vocals to the 1990 hit “Vogue” along with several tracks on the Dick Tracy soundtrack I’m Breathless. As tempting as it was for Madonna to extend the offer to Davenport to join the Material Girl on the Blond Ambition World Tour and in the Truth or Dare documentary, Davenport says she couldn’t accept the opportunity.
It was more important for Davenport, she says, to put her own recording career goals first. “I’d made a commitment that I wanted to go on, do my solo record and take my career to a different degree,” she says. “I thought if I was gonna be a background singer, I may have ended up being a background singer for the rest of my life. There wouldn’t have been myself or Brand New Heavies. Sometimes you have to say no a lot to get the right yes.”
Davenport released her self-titled debut LP in 1998. Along the way, she collaborated with a slew of talent like the late Guru of Gang Starr, J.Dilla, Sly and Robbie, Mark Ronson and Malcolm McLaren. She still has flashbacks about recording “Trust Me” with Guru on his Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 compilation.
The two performers originally bypassed one another on the Atlanta University Center campus. Guru attended Morehouse College with Davenport next door at Clark. Their groundbreaking collaboration is a musical moment Davenport takes pride in discussing. “When he put together the Jazzmatazz project, it was definitely one of the first and finest in how it was conceived,” states Davenport.
“It started being the norm to put an emcee with a vocalist. That set up a certain precedence, too, that’s really not recognized. He definitely deserves a lot of props for his contributions.”
Appearing on the predominately female-laden Lilith Fair concert festival alongside Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Meshell Ndegeocello, Bonnie Raitt, Indigo Girls and India.Arie was just as monumental for Davenport. Her cumulative experiences in music, she believes, have allowed her to better understand who she is along with her collaborators.
“Music has allowed me to be accepting of myself,” expresses Davenport while nibbling on brunch. “Therefore, I can be accepting of others and continue to work on that. I can’t be no one else but me.”
The band, on the other hand, has featured singers Jay Ella Ruth, Carleen Anderson, Siedah Garrett, Sy Smith, Nicole Russo and Dawn Joseph over the years. Davenport is still the signature vocalist synonymous with the band’s legacy. It makes her proud to know that The Brand New Heavies can still perform live with great fanfare and anticipation. She describes the synergy between the band, also addressing their stage presence in the process.
“It’s actually a lot that hasn’t changed much,” she says. “We’re a lot more seasoned as musicians. It’s still very electric and energetic. It’s a nice vibe to see people like live music. It’s a perfect situation for the moment.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.