Heather Headley

By Mark Guarino

In 2003, Heather Headley became an R&B singer. It was not the result of a television karaoke show or a lifetime of grooming since the single digits.

Instead, 29-year-old became a singer at the exact moment in her life she didn’t need to. Starting in 1997, she made a name for herself as the primary diva for Disney’s Broadway. Cast in lead roles in “The Lion King” and “Aida,” Headley became a Broadway star, earning a Tony award and with it, household name status in the musical theatre world. But for all the success, Headley, who lives in Lombard, considered herself first and foremost a Whitney Houston fan. After awhile, she asked herself “why not jump into that fire?”

She survived the leap. “This Is Who I Am” (RCA), her debut album, is already a gold record and has earned Headley two Grammy nominations — the first for best female R&B vocal performance (she is up against heavy hitters Beyonce, Erykah Badu, Ashanti and Mary J. Blige) and the second for best new artist, pitting her against 50 Cent, Sean Paul, Fountains of Wayne and Evanescence. She also ended up working with, among others, Houston’s former producing team, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Their collaboration earned them a Grammy for producer of the year.

What’s so refreshing about Headley’s debut is how it doesn’t make the usual calculations of most contemporary R&B. Headley’s sumptuous soprano is its standout and her rich phrasing gives the lyrics — empowerment and romance are the twin keys — true resonance. Headley refuses to position herself as a sex kitten, material girl or retro soul goddess, roles that have almost become stock among her peers. Instead, all attention is directed to her assured voice that carries through on songs ranging from simmering ballads (“If It Wasn’t For Your Love”), cheerful, guitar-laced pop (“Sunday”) and funky flirtations (“Like Ya Use To”).

Before recording, the album title came to her. She made sure her it was honored.

“One of the things was there could not be anything sexual on the album because, I thought, ‘that’s not me’,” she said. “I wouldn’t speak sexually to anybody therefore it’s not going to be in the music. There were a lot of times that people would bring songs to us and I would say, ‘well, your songs are great but you have to change verse two and that line in the chorus’ and they wouldn’t understand. And it would be like, ‘well, that’s why who I am’.”

Headley was born in Trinidad and lived a childhood flooded with a variety of music, most prominently reggae, dub, Caribbean and the occasional Broadway show tune. Her father was a local pastor. When she turned 15, he accepted a job at a parish in Fort Wayne, Ind., forcing his family to experience the Midwest in mid-October. “It was a climate shock,” she said. “It was 40 degrees but I thought it was zero because I thought ‘it could never get colder than this’.’”

She ended up attending Northwestern (“there should be a song, ‘I Love Evanston in the Springtime’ — it’s gorgeous”) with plans to enter either law school or advertising. But by her junior year, after acting in plays in and around Chicago, she was offered an understudy role in the pre-Broadway run of “Ragtime.” Initially refusing because she wanted to finish school, Headley was convinced to accept, having been told she could return to her classes if it didn’t work out. “I cried a lot and my mom and I just prayed,” she said. “Needless to say it was the best decision I ever made.”

After her considerable Broadway success, her steps into R&B were likewise a learning process. Because of her musical theatre training that emphasized singing while projecting far distances, Headley said she had to learn how to pull her voice back so it didn’t overpower the song while at the same time making sure it retained its strength. Songs were chosen that she felt comfortable singing in her range and that she connected with and didn’t require her to, as she said, just sing “ooh, baby” and move on.

“I couldn’t do it any other way because that’s the only way I was taught. That was the beauty of my job on Broadway,” she said. “Every song I ever loved spoke to me on that level. So when I got the songs, I’d go through every lyric to make sure I understood it and could sing it properly.” She is already at work on her second album with plans to release it by year’s end.

Headley is married to former New York Jet Brian Musso. The pair decided to remain in the Chicago area because her family was close by but also because of one more burning ambition: “I want to be mayor of Chicago,” she said. “I love it that much. I think there is nothing better than driving down Lake Shore Drive when the Lake is the color of the sky. What else is there in life?”

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