by Michael P. Coleman
“You may think I am much too young to understand / Don’t be fooled / Like a child, I look into your eyes and know someday / I’ll make you mine.”
That’s one of the most poignant lyrics to R & B’s Stacy Lattisaw’s breakthrough hit, “Let Me Be Your Angel”. It becomes more powerful when you realize that she was only 13 years old when it was released – and there’s some irony in that song being her breakthrough, given her current occupation, or “calling” as she puts it.
First with Atlantic Records before moving on to Motown in the 1980s, Lattisaw racked up other hits like “Love On A Two Way Street”, “Don’t Throw It All Away”, and “Where Do We Go From Here”, one of her smash duets with childhood friend and sweetheart Johnny Gill. In doing so, she was positioned for pop crossover stardom by the time she was barely old enough to vote.
At the very height of her fame, Lattisaw walked away from the recording industry and started on a path that led her to more life-affirming roles as wife, mother of two, and ultimately minister of the gospel. As it turns out, while she always loved to sing privately, she never wanted a singing career, having been persuaded by her parents to pursue the success on the pop charts that had eluded her mother. For years, Lattisaw struggled with depression and low self-esteem. While she searched for herself, she found her Savior.
Lattisaw’s now come full circle, preparing for her first album in over 20 years, a praise and worship project. She’s also written a book, RENEWED: I’M NOT THE SAME GIRL, which details her journey from a shy young girl in the spotlight to a self-assured woman of God. She spoke candidly with me about the challenges of having a music industry career, especially for someone so young, her unwillingness to use sex to sell records during her career, her relationship with Johnny Gill, meeting Michael Jackson, and her current work and walk with Christ. Listen in on our conversation — you’ll walk away as enamored with Lattisaw as I was the first time I heard “Let Me Be Your Angel” on the radio.
You came to the public eye so very young. What do you recall of your childhood?
It was definitely not normal. I just wanted to be like my friends, stay at home, play ball and those types of things. Because of the success of “Let Me Be Your Angel”, there were a lot of kids who were starting to pick on me, and I even had issues with some of the teachers, singling me out for a variety of reasons and making things hard for me. Jealous is a thing, and kids can be cruel, and going through that was not an easy time for me. By the time I was 12, things got to a point where I had to be homeschooled. After a while, I could no longer go places by myself and had to hire a bodyguard. It was not what I’d asked for – honestly speaking, my mom was a singer, having sung with Marvin Gaye in DC when she was younger.
You met Michael Jackson very early on.
When I was 14, Michael’s management company asked me to be the opening act for The Jacksons. They wanted me for 14 weeks, and I turned them down because I didn’t want to be away from my friends for that long. My parents talked me into it, and as I look back now, it was an awesome experience to meet Michael, to watch him perform from backstage. He was the greatest entertainer of our time. There will never be another Michael Jackson.
In addition to MJ, what other artists do you like, and who influenced your own music?
I love old school music, artists like Minnie Ripperton and Gladys Knight. Music back in the 70s and 80s was about love. There was always a message in the songs. There was very little — if any — profanity in the music. I don’t listen to a lot of the music on the radio today. Thank God for CDs, CD players, iTunes…you get to choose what you want to listen to. One of the songs on my playlist is Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life”. It’s always been one my favorite songs.
Singers twice your age weren‘t as effective as you were with ballads like “Love On A Two -Way Street” and “Miracles”. How did you, at such a young age, learn to perform such heartfelt ballads?
I have never been able to answer that question. I just sang from my heart. I didn’t really know anything about love at 14 years old. There has always been something about ballads that I love, more so than uptempo songs. With ballads, it just seemed to come from my soul. Narada Michael Walden, who was my songwriter and producer at the time, would come to my home and sit at the piano, teach me the songs and we’d go into the studio, I’d close my eyes, and I’d imagine myself in the song. There was one song that I recorded with Narada, “I’ve Loved You Somewhere Before”, that we hoped would have been a single, but the record company never released it. Atlantic made some bad decisions with regard to the singles they decided to promote. I was so young, and the record company didn’t think that I had the ear to pick a great song. There were so many songs that were wasted, several beautiful ballads that Narada wrote.
You and Narada were a great artist / producer team. You two went on to record a duet album with a young Johnny Gill. How‘d that project come about?
Actually, Boogie [Gill’s childhood nickname] and I went to school together in DC. We even dated for a few years. I didn’t know at the time that he could sing. We’d have talent shows in our basement, and one day, Johnny got up and sang and just BLEW US AWAY! He was 14 at the time! After my mother heard him, we got him an audition at Atlantic Records, and the rest is history. The duet album was the label’s idea. It was well received, but it wasn’t as successful as my solo songs had been.
You and Johnny reunited a few years later with the #1 “Where Do We Go From Here?” Is there a hope of the two of you ever recording together again?
Not at all, not a chance. We’re two different people now.
You followed that duet album with one that didn‘t seem to be a good direction for you. What was recording the I‘m Not The Same Girl album with Michael Masser like?
It was different. I’d worked with lots of producers by that time. There were a few over the years that were…different. There was one producer – and I won’t mention his name – but he said something to me that I’ll never forget: “Why don’t you sing this song like Janet Jackson would.” I said “Excuse me? I’m not Janet Jackson!” I love Janet, and love her style, but I have always been a balladeer. That’s what I do best. He basically wanted me to sing a different way, and I refused. I had to be who I was.
You recorded a few albums for Motown, and then decided to walk away from the music industry. At the time, other singers like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey were succeeding with ballad-based catalogs, and you just walked away. Why?
I’m not bragging or boasting, but I was one of the first child stars who reached a level of success, and I opened doors for other artists who came after me. I was before Alicia Keys, before Whitney Houston…and quite honestly, my record label and management company weren’t promoting me. Neither was the industry – I was never acknowledged by the Grammy’s or the American Music Awards. I began to feel as though my talent was being overlooked. There was a time when I would watch the AMAs and the Grammy’s and I would cry because I was never acknowledged. I felt as though I was not getting the attention that some of my label mates were getting. I loved to sing, but I felt as though my gift wasn’t being respected. The record company and my management company were also beating me out of lots of money. But I bless God because through all of that, I never became bitter. I made a conscious decision to walk away with a #1 hit, “Where Do We Go From Here?”. I felt that God had more for me than the R & B music industry. The industry was asking for more than I could give.
What was the industry asking you for?
They wanted me to dress more provocatively, for example. That wasn’t how I was raised, and I said “If this is what it takes, forget it.” I was not the sex object that some of the people managing me were looking for. It was no longer about singing, but about how sexy you could dress, how much skin you were willing to show. It was no longer about talent. So I decided to walk away.
Where did that walk take you?
That’s when I gave my life to the Lord, started to go to church and study the word of God. I prayed for God to show me His will for my life. The more time I sought God, and spent time in the word, I realized my true calling was to be a minister of the gospel. Today, I’m an evangelist. I LOVE speaking at women’s conferences, and also going to schools and talking to kids about the importance of integrity, of being a leader, of abstinence, of staying in school. We have got to address the drop-out rate for our kids and encourage them to stay in school and get an education. I also talk about the pitfalls of the music industry. A lot of the kids I talk to sing, dance, rap – but I teach them that before all of that, education has to be first. Even if you want to go into the entertainment industry, you need an education in order to interpret those contracts, for example. To this day, I receive no royalties from any of my hit songs and albums. God has taken care of me for 23 years, blessing me with a wonderful husband. We own two companies here in Maryland, and I’ve not lacked for anything…
[Lattisaw paused, then thanked God before continuing]
…and I truly believe it’s because I said “Yes” to God’s will. I believe that all of us have gifts and talents. For some, it’s preaching, for others working in a grocery store. But in my opinion, if you’re not walking in your God-given purpose, you’ll never be happy. You can have the biggest house on the hill, and have a lot of money in the bank, but you can still be empty inside. You can still be depressed and unhappy. There’s nothing like the peace you experience when you’re doing what God has planned for you to do. I experience a peace I can’t explain when I tell my story and share with women – you can’t put a price on that.
When you walked away from the recording industry, groups like BeBe & CeCe Winans were crossing over from gospel to R & B, and secular singers like Deniece Williams and Howard Hewitt were finding success recording religious music. For 20 years, there has been a persistent rumor that you were recording a gospel album. Where is it???
We went in the studio and I wrote and recorded about 20 gospel songs, but we decided to wait primarily because my kids were so young. Both of my kids sing, and my son plays keyboards, and we’re now considering doing something in the studio with me and my daughter. She actually sounds better than I did when I was her age. She writes her own songs, plays the piano – she’s so gifted. I often think “Why didn’t God gift me like THAT?” [Laughs] She can hear a song, and within a few minutes play it on the piano. We are definitely working on some material, listening to songs and writing songs. Hopefully very soon I will have my praise and worship CD out. That’s where my heart is.
Michael P. Coleman is a Sacramento-based freelance writer, who has forgiven Johnny Gill – seriously, he has! – for stealing Stacy away from him. He is available at michaelpcoleman.com, via email at email@example.com, or on Twitter: @ColemanMichaelP