Monday, August 21, 2000

Lucy Pearl provides life after En Vogue

By Roger Catlin
The Hartford Courant

        When Dawn Robinson was squeezed out of En Vogue three years ago, she wasn't sure what she'd do.

        “I knew what I didn't want to do,” Ms. Robinson says. “I wanted to make sure I had freedom and was able to create in a way I wanted to create and not be stifled in any way.”

        The New London, Conn., native had already completed one solo album and was preparing a second when she got a call from an old musical friend, Raphael Saadiq.

        The producer, singer, bassist and songwriter from another hit-making group, Tony Toni Tone, had been working on a project with Ali Shaheed Mohammad, formerly of A Tribe Called Quest.

        “They needed a third member and were going for D'Angelo, but he was busy doing his Voodoo album,” Ms. Robinson says.

        So Ms. Robinson, 31, became the third element in the group Lucy Pearl, (who performs tonight at Bogart's) whose soulful work almost immediately started to kick up dust.

        The first video, Dance Tonight, became a Top 10 buzz-worthy video on music-starved MTV. As the single rose on the charts, Lucy Pearl did appearances on Jay Leno and David Letterman's shows. And the reviews started coming in.

        Time magazine called it “soul that strives to be smart but never forgets to be sweet.” The New York Times called it “as super as supergroups get.”

        The hip-hop sensibilities of Mr. Mohammad, blended with the familiar R&B voices of Mr. Saadiq and Ms. Robinson, sounded like something completely new. But also unplanned, Ms. Robinson says.

        “We weren't going for any particular sound,” she says over the cell phone while shopping for clothes in Los Angeles. “We didn't know what the sound would be, but we knew we wanted to do great music.”

        “You do an album you love, and hope others feel the same way,” she says.

        Ms. Robinson's departure from En Vogue in 1997 was not planned, she says. After doing one solo album and with an obligation to do another, the group pulled a power play and demanded she commit two years to the group.

        Ms. Robinson says she could have easily recorded and toured during the group's down time, but they wouldn't allow it. “They weren't compromising with me,” she says. “So I was kicked out.”

        All Ms. Robinson has wanted to do since she was a little girl in New London was to sing.

        “My mother says when I was a little girl, the Tom Jones show on TV was my favorite. I was singing when I was 4 or 5 years old. I started realizing I had talent around 13.”

        Minnie Ripperton was an influence, and Ms. Robinson strove to hit those high notes as a child.

        But she shared a lot of influences, thanks to her parents. “My mother was more the Motown side, and my father was more the Led Zeppelin, Three Dog Night side.”

        She'd listen to everyone from Karen Carpenter to Chaka Khan. But she recalled going to a local concert for Stephanie Mills. “It was a big coliseum show; I remember being knocked out and overwhelmed. It was my first concert. Then I got backstage and got an autograph. I remember that.”

        She and her family moved to Oakland, Calif., when she was 13, and she began working in San Francisco clubs, where she first crossed paths with Mr. Saadiq.

        “I was playing a club with a band regularly at about 17, and Rafael might have played there with me. His brother Dwayne played with me,” Ms. Robinson says of Dwayne Wiggins, who was also a member of Tony Tone Toni.

        “I was honing my talent. I didn't know anything about the business,” she says. “I had a lot of growing and learning to do.”

        As it happened, she was 22 when En Vogue began setting the stage for a whole decade of soulful girl groups in 1990 with a string of hits like “Hold On,” “My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It),” “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” “Whatta Man” and “Free Your Mind.” The quartet, which also included Cindy Herron, Terry Ellis and Maxine Jones, formed by the production team of Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, set a standard for contemporary female soul-singing groups that continues today with acts ranging from TLC to Destiny's Child.

        Ms. Robinson says she never expected to get in a competition with her former group, but when the Lucy Pearl album came out, it was on the same day, oddly, as the new En Vogue release, Masterpiece Theatre.

        “It's kind of ironic,” says Ms. Robinson.

        But when each album made its debut on the charts two weeks later, Lucy Pearl landed at an impressive No. 26 — strong for a new act, while the established En Vogue could only manage No. 67.

        “You know,” says Ms. Robinson, “sometimes I consider that karma .”


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