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DIONNE WARWICK, who ranks among the legendary superdivas, got her big break in the same fashion as Ingram.
She, too, was a regularly used background session singer. Burt Bacharach was working on a Drifters song titled “Mexican Divorce” (the flip side of the group’s 1962 release, “When My Little Girl is Smiling,” as musicologists know).
Bacharach was intrigued by a voice that stood out from the other backup singers. He and his songwriting partner, lyricist Hal David, formed a partnership with Warwick that is now legendary, as are the megahits, including “Walk on By,” “Alfie,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “(Theme From) Valley of the Dolls,” “You’ll Never Get to Heaven (If You Break My Heart” and “Do You Know the Way to San José?”
EVELYN “CHAMPAGNE” KING has a very different story to tell. She was discovered while working in housekeeping. She was a cleaning woman at Philadelphia International Records — one who sang while she worked.
A record producer named Theodore “T” Life was impressed, one thing led to another, and King found herself recording for RCA. She didn’t have to wait long for success because her first single, the exciting, fast-paced “Shame,” soared into the national R&B Top 10 and the Pop Top 10 as well.
That was just the beginning. King built a loyal following thanks to a barrage of subsequent hits, including “I Don’t Know If It’s Right,” “I’m in Love,” “Betcha She Don’t Love You” and “Love Come Down.”
RONNIE McNEIR has been a latter-day member of the Four Tops since early in the decade. Before that he was working as the group’s valet. When a vacancy became available, McNeir, an experienced singer, told the Tops that there was no reason to audition anyone because he could handle the job vocally and knew the show well. Plus they already knew him personally.
When Lawrence Payton died in 1997, he was replaced by Theo Peoples, formerly of the Temptations. When illness forced the late, great Levi Stubbs out of the group (physically but never spiritually), Peoples became the new lead singer. McNeir was his replacement.
VANESSA WILLIAMS, singer-actress-dancer, never imagined that in 1983 she would make history as the first African-American Miss America. She went to the national pageant after being crowned Miss New York.
Of course, it all came crashing down the following year when a lowlife photographer sold salacious pictures taken when Williams was a teenager to an equally lowlife magazine publisher.
Williams stepped down, but was determined to rebound. However, she needed a break, someone with courage who would be undeterred by the “scandal.”
Motown hired Williams in 1985 to portray Josephine Baker in the TV special “Motown Returns to the Apollo.” The public was fascinated, and Williams’ fans cheered her on, whether in that audience or watching at home.
Then Ed Eckstine, an executive at Mercury Records, stepped in. Eckstine, son of legendary crooner Billy Eckstine, began recording Williams and the result was hits (1988-1992) such as “The Right Stuff,” “Dreamin’” and “Save the Best For Last.”
Vanessa Williams, now a well-established superstar, made history, suffered a huge setback, but today is the most famous and successful former Miss America of all time.
Events can indeed alter careers.
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