Appreciating a Great Soul and R&B Singer-Songwriter

by NEW YORK DIGITAL NEWS


“I was a victim of my foolish thinking/Carelessly, I’ve risked my love and my life/There’s no self-pity; I admit, I obliged/Overpowered by love, I pretended to be blind/Faith has survived all the doubts I’ve summoned/My heart has stood all the failure and loss/Helpless I cannot further be driven/I’ve learned to respect the power of love…”

The lyrics are from Àngela Winbush’s soulful, self-penned testimonial “I Have Learned To Respect (The Power of Love),” which she recorded for her second solo album, 1989’s The Real Thing. Before that, the trio Alton McClain and Destiny had sung it in 1978; R&B evangelist Stephanie Mills had covered it twice. Mills’ first, romantic take on the song spent two weeks at Number One on the R&B chart in 1985, and nine years later, she redid it as “Power Of God.” The ballad taps into the way life can seem like a cycle of feeling lost and found. Winbush wrote it at 18.

“I Have Learned To Respect (The Power of Love)” is a song with both spiritual and secular meaning, a foundational principle of soul music, and one with particular resonance in Winbush’s career. For nearly a half-century — first with the duo René & Angela, then as a solo act — Winbush has crafted songs that detail the rich emotional life of Black people. Her music has been sampled by the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z, Foxy Brown, Pimp C, and Common, among others. She has a jetting four-octave range, powering through lows like Sarah Vaughan and highs like Jean Carne, often punctuating her lines with an empathic, Chaka Khan-esque cackle. She’s a Prince-ly multi-talent as a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer, working with a diverse range of acts, including Janet Jackson, the Isley Brothers, Lenny Williams, and Sheena Easton. Winbush is one of the most accomplished virtuosos whose name you might not even know. She’s only had one pop charter, 1994’s thumpin’ “Treat U Rite.” It peaked at Number 117.

To understand the factors that made Winbush who she is, you have to go back to her earliest days in the longstanding Black community of St. Louis, Missouri, where her grandparents had founded the Temple Church Of Christ in 1918. “I sang in church from the time I could walk,” she told Blues and Soul in 1987. Realizing her prodigious potential, Winbush’s mom enrolled her in voice and piano lessons. This was all part of Winbush’s immersion in a relatively progressive environment dedicated to the emancipation of Black people — the same place where, in 1846, an enslaved couple, Dred and Harriet Scott, successfully won their freedom in court before the decision was infamously overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

For college, Winbush continued her education in another largely Black environment, Howard University, an incubator for such Black musical elite as Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. (Winbush would later produce records for Hathaway’s daughter, Lalah.) Not long after that, she was picked by Stevie Wonder to join his Wonderlove band, requiring a move west to L.A., or as Wonder once called it, the “Land Of La La.” It was during marathon sessions with Wonder, arguably the most ambitious and technically proficient soul act of the Seventies, that Winbush began understanding the intricate, mostly male-dominated realm of the recording studio. As she recounted in TV One’s exemplary Black music history series, Unsung: “I learned to be very sensitive to engineering and how the sound comes together with the instruments and the vocals, and working with the band, and learning what the knobs mean, and what the EQ means — some of the stuff girls don’t normally learn.”

Winbush also did background work for such acts as Dolly Parton and Eddie Money. She then teamed up with Moore, another session musician, to form the Ashford & Simpson doppelganger duo René & Angela — only, unlike Ashford & Simpson, the two weren’t in a romantic relationship. The platonic pair, whom many fans thought were lovers, made three albums with a wide variety of sounds. “Rise” featured the kind of jazz-infused uplift you’d expect from HBCU-trained Winbush, who started marching with the Congress of Racial Equality at age six; their take on the Eagles’ “Hotel California” adds a funky pre-chorus, allowing the voices “callin’ from far away” some time for a quick dance break before issuing their familiar “welcome.” 

One of René & Angela’s biggest hits, the moving R&B Number One, “Your Smile,” began as a tribute to Winbush’s grandmother. She submitted a solo demo to the record company, and they wanted to keep the track as is — sans Moore. This amplified tensions, leading to a number of violent encounters that she described later in Unsung. At one rehearsal, Winbush alleged, Moore asked her to step into a dressing room, where he put her in a chokehold. The musicians, still on stage, could hear her screams. Another time, Winbush told Unsung, he gave her a concussion and bruised ribs. (Speaking in 1988 to the Los Angeles Times, Moore “acknowledged that he and Winbush frequently argued, but denied striking her.”) Finally, she’d had enough, even though the label offered to provide bodyguards if she stayed in the group. 

Moving on proved taxing. The label wasn’t sure it wanted a Winbush solo album, because Moore had convinced executives that he did all the behind-the-scenes stuff, even though these same people had watched her at work. “My feelings were hurt,” she told Unsung, “because I was like, ‘Well, you were in the studio with me when I was playing the piano on all those records, and suddenly, you believe that one person did it, and you take his side without even asking me.’” On top of this, Moore sued her over songwriting, wanting credit for songs such as “I Have Learned To Respect (The Power of Love),” which she insisted she had composed long before she ever teamed with Moore. “Rene Moore was claiming to have written all the songs himself,” Winbush told Unsung, “and that’s not what happened.” After a seven-year legal battle, Winbush retained 50 percent of the songs that were credited to “René and Angela,” and 100 percent of her songs going forward. This is another example of how the male-dominated music industry works against women like Winbush. She teamed with Moore so that her work would be taken seriously by record executives, only to see this strategy used against her later.

Fortunately, she had at least one pleasant distraction through this time. Ronald Isley, of the Isley Brothers, was a fan and tapped her to co-produce the group’s 1987 Smooth Sailin’ album. The collaboration led to love, and the couple eventually wed, a surprise for Winbush. “I never thought I would ever get married, because of the way the career is with women,” she said in Unsung

Personal happiness led to a career boost. Winbush’s label moved forward with her solo deal after the success of the Isleys’ project. Her first album, Sharp, dropped in 1987, boasting the credits: “All songs are written, produced, and arranged, and played by Angela L. Winbush… All lead and background vocals performed by Angela L. Winbush.” 

In 1989, she released The Real Thing, featuring now-Oscar-nominated Don Cheadle bustin’ some turn-of-decade moves in the title track video, and in 1994, she put out her most recent solo album, a self-titled effort that includes a bass-boomin’ cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and the febrile, seductive “Keep Turnin’ Me On,” which she performed live on BET. Every note, facial expression, and hand gesture in that performance is purposeful; it’s a portrait of the artist in total command of her craft.

Her body of work testifies to deeply held values among African Americans, who revere so many sentimental little things that were denied Black people during the era of enslavement: the ability to freely give your heart to another, keep kinfolk safe and close, and fully embrace the human experience. Winbush’s often smooth grooves fulfill the desires of many Black listeners for a musical soft place to land when Black life becomes hard. Though Winbush’s “Quiet Storm” ballads are dismissed by some as middlebrow paeans to bourgie conformity, complacency, and complicity, they’re more like battle hymns, odes to past, present, and future resistance. René and Angela’s 1986 slow-jam smash “You Don’t Have To Cry” contains a repeated passage that could serve as a “good trouble” chant: “Dry your eyes/Please don’t cry/You can be strong/If you just hold on…”

As a producer, Winbush has a Black grandmama’s knack for cutting right to the core of a person, seeing who they really are and who — with work and prayer — they could possibly be. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis get much-deserved credit for rocketing Janet Jackson into the pop multiverse. But it was Winbush who initially drew out Jackson’s potential as an affecting recording artist, making her the embodiment of confident “Black girl joy” on 1982’s Top 10 R&B smash “Young Love.” 

“It was my first time really being in the studio working with a producer, and Àngela made me comfortable,” Jackson told journalist Michael Gonzales. “I had a very soft voice, but she’d get me to try different things with it. She made me surprise myself.” (René and Angela’s string-washed 1983 song “My First Love,” also a 2000 R&B hit for Avant and Keke Wyatt, was intended for Janet, but her camp passed.)

When Winbush collaborated with Scottish pop queen Sheena Easton, it wasn’t about stylistic affectation, or what some call “cultural appropriation.” On the rousing “Fire and Rain,” Winbush fully immerses Easton into the world of soul, but Easton retains her own specific cultural identity. This is how contemporary pop might sound if soul music hadn’t been effectively banished from Top 40 airwaves as the Eighties went on.

With so many accomplishments, you might expect Winbush to be more widely acknowledged and celebrated. But in many ways, she was a casualty of the “crossover” era. There’s a prevalent racial-reconciliation myth that says superstars like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston opened doors for other Black artists in the pop world. But the truth is that the number of  R&B hits that “crossed over” to the pop chart decreased in the Eighties. As Nelson George writes in his essential The Death Of Rhythm & Blues: “…what developed was a deadly feast-or-famine syndrome. If you won, you won big. And if you failed, no one noticed and you could easily disappear.”

Time brought other challenges to Winbush’s door. Her marriage to Ron Isley dissolved in 2002, seemingly a victim of the game. “In the business, a lot of times, it takes you into a lot of avenues,” Isley explained to Jet. “You are working around people, you are working around other women. And sometimes, you can get messed up, and you don’t spend the time that you need to spend in a marriage. Because you’ve been chasing the music. And that’s what I’ve been doing. Chasing the music.”

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Winbush’s health took a hit when she was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer, around Christmas, the same year her marriage ended. This required immediate surgery and months of radical chemotherapy, which meant seven bags of toxins were forced into her body for seven hours a day. Her hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and nails fell out, and she needed a wheelchair because it hurt when her feet touched the ground. Physicians told her to find a new career, that her voice would never again rise to those signature heights and plunge so deep. But she survived and fully recovered due to unwavering faith in her primary care provider. Performing with gospel legend — and her Howard homeboy — Rev. Richard Smallwood, Winbush said: “God is the last doctor.” 


As recently as Juneteenth of this year, she was onstage in Atlanta at an NAACP event, hitting high notes, kicking like a Rockette, and droppin’ it low, proving that at 68, she still got them “Megan knees.” As joyful as that performance was, it was also a reflection of a very serious idea that has run through all of Winbush’s work: Black lives matter, and so does Black music.  “Understand what it is for us to stand here and be free,” she told the visibly all-Black crowd assembled that day, which commemorates the date when the last enslaved Black people in Texas learned of their emancipation: “We might not have everything we want, but we’re free.”



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