From back-up to centre stage

Into the spotlight

BY RICHARD JOHNSON Observer senior reporter

Friday, February 01, 2013

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WHAT do the likes of Rita Marley, Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey, Sheryl Crow, and Tessanne Chin have in common?

At some time in their careers, they provided backing vocals for major artistes.

The backup singer has contributed significantly to the success of many artistes. Jamaica's most famous backup singers are the I-Three.

Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt and Rita Marley put their stamp on this role when they did harmonies for reggae king Bob Marley.

The trio, who were solo acts prior to the I-Three, toured the world with Marley and set the standard for backup singers.

Stepping into the limelight was never difficult for gospel artiste Jeneive Bailey. Being the daughter of legendary reggae singer Toots Hibbert and a member of sibling trio 54-46, Bailey says they got the best training being on the road with their father.

It all started when she and her sisters, Leiba and Melanie, formed the group, named after their father's famous track.

Working with Toots took Bailey and her sisters all over Europe and North America. She says they took their cue from the I-Three, as well as another sibling group, American pop trio The Pointer Sisters.

"We wanted everything to be right, so we were always rehearsing to get to that level. I think of these as the training years which have prepared me for what I do now," Bailey tells Splash.

"The confidence I have on stage as a soloist is definitely from watching Daddy. He is such a master at interacting with his audience and pulling them into his performance."

No longer part of 54-46, Bailey is now a gospel singer with her husband Robert. They are currently working on an album of duets.

Back in 1989, a young girl with her eyes set on becoming a dancer, would, on the encouragement of her sister, audition to do studio harmonies for singer Tinga Stewart.

The youngster was Marie Gittens, better known as Twiggi.

"I had never done anything like this before, and I was so nervous, but managed to pull it off well. This led to me being introduced to the likes of Boris Gardiner and Ruddy Thomas, and I did studio work and live performances for them both."

Once word got out, Twiggi signed on as the third member of Toots Hibbert's 54-46, following the departure of Jeneive.

In 1993, during a performance with Japanese reggae artiste Naki at Japansplash, Penthouse Records Donovan Gemain spotted Twiggi and took her under his wing.

She not only did harmonies for stablemates Buju Banton and Wayne Wonder, but also recorded tracks of her own including I Want Your Love and It's Too Late.

Today, Twiggi calls Florida home and is still recording and performing as a solo artiste, but backing vocals is always on the cards.

"It is a double-edged sword. Some people will always see me as a backup singer, not as a solo artiste. But it pays, so I am always grateful when it comes," she says.

Twiggi's latest release is the song, Superhuman.

Etana is one of the most in-demand acts in reggae. The singer/songwriter, who is currently en route to New Zealand for a performance, also started out as a backing vocalist.

"I accompanied a friend a mine to Fifth Element (record company, studio) to see his friend. Before we left he kinda yelled out, 'this a the girl mi tell yuh can sing, she inna one group over Miami'. Then sure enough they asked me to sing," she recalls.

Her audition comprised a few Whitney Houston songs after which she was asked to do one show with singer Richie Spice in Los Angeles.

This would lead to more work with Richie Spice and Jah Mason before she broke through as a solo singer with Wrong Address and Roots.

She still leans heavily on the lessons learned from her days as a backing vocalist.

"I learned first-hand how to be team player. I learned a lot about the hiccups artistes face on the road and how to soldier through the rough times and smile."




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