Vanessa Bell Armstrong | The Experience

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Vanessa Bell Armstrong – The Experience


Celebrating forty years as a professional singer, Vanessa Bell Armstrong’s vocal talents have not diminished one bit.  Granted forty years can be a wear and tear on the voice if one does not take regular care of their vocal chords or if other dramatic circumstances might impede their vocal endurance.  Fortunately, Armstrong’s voice has stood the test of time despite suffering a stroke a few years ago and taking a self-imposed hiatus to deal with family issues.  Mentored by one of gospel music’s greatest instructors, Mattie Moss Clark, and inspired by The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, Armstrong’s passionate soprano reels in the listener from the get-go.  Throughout her distinguished career since touring with The Clark Sisters and other notables, she has always made a musical and spiritual impact whether live on stage or in the studio.  Armstrong also made an impact in other areas of media including beating out two legendary voices Patti (LaBelle) and Aretha for the honor of singing the theme for the eighties popular TV comedy – Amen.  Besides singing the Amen theme – “Shine On Me,” Armstrong appeared on Broadway in Don’t Get God Started (1991), and performed at the first Soul Train Awards ceremony (1987).


A late bloomer to the recording industry in her early thirties, Armstrong immediately impressed the gospel community on her debut produced by Thomas Whitfield.  The Detroit native knocked out several signature pieces such as “Peace Be Still”and “Nobody But Jesus” even before she signed on a major label dotted line.  After releasing her self-titled disc with Jive Records in 1987, Armstrong met some resistance from the conservative gospel audiences who were fans of her earlier work because of the occasional crossover into the R&B and hip-hop idioms.  A homecoming of sorts – her first live recording, Desire of My Heart backed by Pastor Marvin Winans and the Perfecting Church Choir from Detroit – was a reaffirmation that she always respected gospel roots and refused to be marketed as a secular artist.  The Secret Is Out revisited Armstrong’s gospel classics under the production of another gospel legend, John P. Kee, and was the first disc at her new label home Verity.   Through it all, the controversies have not seriously tripped up her career.   Armstrong’s versatile voice fully graced gospel radio until her last release in 2001 – A Brand New Day, produced by Deitrick & Gerald Haddon – before Armstrong took her recording break.


Six years later, Armstrong returned with Walking Miracle, in which the title track was dedicated to one of her sons who suffered multiple sclerosis (MS).  Her latest – The Experience – is a rare opportunity to hear Armstrong in a live environment where her vocals thrive to the maximum.


Armstrong’s gifts for interpreting traditional works from Whitfield is one of her biggest assets as proven on “What He’s Done For Me” & “Any Way You Bless Me.”  “Hand of the Lord,” written by Donald Lawrence, might as well apply to her testimony in how God has covered her through the highs and lows.  Armstrong tackles a rare gospel song from the Aretha songbook – “Good News” from 2003 -while putting her emphatic vocal stamp on the hook “prayer still works”so she can drive home a ministry moment to the congregation.  Duet casting central must have been responsible for Rance Allen as a duet partner for “You Bring Out The Best In Me,” first heard on Armstrong’s1987 Jive Records self-titled disc.  Just like Armstrong, Allen loves to squeeze every note possible as if they were his last.


“I’m hoping you get something from it”.  That is the brief intro for the ultimate highlight of The Experience, “I Will Praise You,” which takes the quieter route.  The more I hear Armstrong, I’m reminded of another remarkable voice in gospel today – Kim Burrell – who must have been inspired by Armstrong’s impeccable attention to vocal detail.


The Experience is an improvement from Armstrong’s previous two discs which leaned more on the edgier R&B beats which sometimes weighed down her jazzy vocal approach.   As a
n arranger, Lawrence who featured Armstrong on his Tri-City Singers Finale project knows exactly what her charismatic vocal personality needs – tight and soulful arrangements.   Unfortunately, Lawrence’s production is not his strongest forte on The Experience.  For example, there is too much overdubbing on the background voices of Co. and the occasional bombastic orchestrations overwhelm Armstrong at times.   That said, Armstrong remains one of the premier female gospel vocalists who hopefully won’t be taking any more extensive breaks in the near future.


Peggy Oliver

The Urban Music Scene

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