Vesta Williams was a central Ohio native. She was born Mary Vesta Williams on Dec. 1, 1957, in the small town of Coshocton, about an hour southeast of Columbus. She was discovered dead in a Los Angeles hotel on Sept. 22 at the age of 53. I always felt a connection to Vesta, not only because of her Ohio roots, but because she was one of those entertainers who had the ability to make fans feel like you knew her.
By CHRIS BOURNEA
Like thousands of music fans around the world, I was shocked and saddened to hear that R&B star Vesta Williams was discovered dead in a Los Angeles hotel on Sept. 22 at the age of 53. The suspected cause of death is a drug overdose, but toxicology reports may take up to six weeks.
Vesta was a central Ohio native. She was born Mary Vesta Williams on Dec. 1, 1957, in the small town of Coshocton, about an hour southeast of Columbus.
I always felt a connection to Vesta, not only because of her Ohio roots, but because she was one of those entertainers who had the ability to make fans feel like you knew her. She was down to earth and could have been a sister, a neighbor, a friend.
My introduction to Vesta came with her first single, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” from her self-titled 1986 debut album. Watching the video on BET’s “Video Soul” as a teenager, Vesta immediately struck me as an original. Not only was her voice deeper and huskier than most female singers, she had a unique haircut at the time that was shaved on one side and long on the other, sort of like a cross between Patti LaBelle and Grace Jones.
In addition to “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” another hit single from Vesta’s debut album was the danceable “Don’t Blow a Good Thing.” But I was always partial to her lesser-known single, “Something About You,” a funky tune that sounded like it could have been produced by Prince or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Vesta’s rich, soulful voice also graced the silver screen. She sang the ballad “Suddenly It’s Magic” that was featured in the 1986 comedy “Soul Man.” In the movie, C. Thomas Howell plays a white college student who impersonates an African American to take advantage of affirmative action. In the process, he falls in love with a Black classmate played by Rae Dawn Chong. Vesta’s song played over a montage depicting the budding romance between Chong and Howell, who later became a real-life couple and eventually tied the knot (they divorced in 1990).
Vesta racked up a series of hit songs in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including “Sweet, Sweet Love,” “4 U” and “Special.” She was also an in-demand session singer, singing backup for artists like George Duke, Phil Perry and fellow Ohioan Howard Hewett, an Akron native. Her voice also appeared in commercial jingles for McDonald’s, Nike, Revlon, Baskin Robbins and Exxon.
Not only did she have a powerhouse voice, but a bold sense of humor, abundant sex appeal and ample curves. These attributes landed her the part of a saloon singer in the 1993 movie “Posse” and as Jackee Harry’s best friend in the 1994-95 season of the sitcom “Sister Sister.” (I also mistakenly assumed that it was Vesta’s distinctive voice featured on the theme song to the long-running sitcom “Girlfriends,” but have since discovered that was another formidable R&B diva, Angie Stone.)
Unfortunately, I never got to see Vesta perform live. In 1993, she returned to central Ohio to perform a concert at Mayme Moore Park next to the King Arts Complex. I didn’t make it out to see the show and now regret missing her.
I did, however, get to meet Vesta. In March 2002, I happened to run into her at an event at the Conga Room nightclub in Los Angeles. Vesta came across as friendly, accessible and down-to-earth when I approached her and complimented her on her svelte physique, the result of losing more than 100 pounds and becoming an outspoken health advocate over the years. When I told her I was from Columbus, she gave me a high five and said she was excited to meet another Buckeye.
It’s a shame that someone with such a big voice and an equally big personality didn’t experience greater success. She had loyal fans throughout her career, but she could have done so much more. She could have appeared Broadway and would have been ideal to play Mama Morton in “Chicago,” the role popularized by Queen Latifah in the Oscar-winning movie version.
Vesta would also have been a perfect fit for a package tour with other jazz and R&B artists such as the Dave Koz and Friends Christmas Tour that plays Columbus and Cleveland every year. It also would have been a treat to see her return to Ohio and perform at the state fair one summer. Fans will hopefully get to learn more about her in the upcoming episode of “Unsung” that is scheduled to air on TVOne this season.It’s ironic that Vesta’s signature song was 1989’s “Congratulations,” which laments a relationship that ended prematurely. This is certainly the case with Vesta’s life and career.