The Divine Miss Ann

Cover story, Fayette Woman, May 2008

To many fans of gospel, soul and R&B music, Fayetteville resident Ann Nesby is one of the greatest singers of our time, spoken of in the same breath as Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. As the former lead soloist with the Grammy-winning gospel group Sounds of Blackness, Ann has embarked on a hugely successful solo career, recording highly acclaimed albums such as I’m Here for You, Put it on Paper, and the recent This Is Love.

In person, Ann is soft-spoken and almost shy, frequently punctuating her conversation with a warm smile. Her down-to-earth manner and humble personality make it easy to forget that Ann is considered by many to be a living legend. (She also looks not a day over 35, making it hard to believe that she is the grandmother of Paris Bennett, who acquired celebrity status when she became a finalist on the television show American Idol.) And although Ann’s music is not instantly recognizable to a mainstream audience—not yet, anyway—anyone who has heard her powerful singing voice and stirring music will find her difficult to forget.

But Ann’s story is not only that of a talented singer’s rise from obscurity to greatness. The matriarch of a family that includes three children, seven step-children and nine (soon to be ten) grandchildren, Ann has always put her family first. “What makes her a wonderful mother is her encouragement, wisdom, support, willingness to serve and love unconditionally,” her son Eddie remarks. This Mother’s Day, Fayette Woman is proud to honor a woman whose greatness come from both her love and sacrifice for her family and from her talent and persistence in achieving her dreams of singing professionally.

Ann was born and raised in Joliet, Illinois, a town in the outskirts of Chicago. Her father was the pastor of a Baptist church, while her mother worked for the government as a paralegal. Both of her parents were very musical; her father sang in his own quartet, while her mother, a longtime fan of Mahalia Jackson, sang in a gospel group. Both of her parents’ groups practiced in their home, and Ann’s mother taught her at a very early age to develop her voice. By the time she was four years old, she was singing duets with her father in church.

Being raised in her father’s church gave Ann exposure to some of the great gospel singers of the time at a very young age. “The church I grew up in had a lot of gospel singers. Being so close to Chicago, a lot of the national artists would come to our church because the music was so phenomenal. .. I remember being five or six years old, waiting in the basement of the church to see who was going to come through the door.” Being a part of such a vibrant community of singers encouraged her progress as a singer. She subsequently began singing solo parts with the choir. Even her time spent with her friends was musical; at the age of eight or nine she’d formed a musical trio, The Sensations. The girls would sing R&B music, with Ann modeling her singing in the style of Aretha Franklin.

Ann’s growing interest in the more secular genre of R&B was met with disapproval by her parents. However, even after she and her family moved to the more distant suburb of Rockville, she made return trips to Joliet to sing with The Sensations. At the age of fourteen, she heard about an upcoming talent competition; the grand prize of it was a record contract. Ann begged her parents to enter, but they refused to allow her as they did not approve of the R&B music she sang, and also felt that she was too young. But, true to her rambunctious and headstrong personality, Ann went against her parents’ wishes and secretly entered the competition. She won. Ann dreaded telling her parents, but finally confessed to her mother. While her parents were happy that her singing abilities were recognized, they did not let her claim the coveted prize of the record contract. They told her that when she was older, she could do whatever she wanted, but not now. Ann took that message to heart and became determined to realize her dream of singing professionally.

Ann’s dream was temporarily put in hold with the birth of her daughter, Jamecia, and her marriage to a preacher.  Ann enjoyed mothering little Jamecia, though, and like her own mother, encouraged her little girl to begin singing at an early age. “I would work with her at least an hour a day, every day. She was a tremendous talent.” Like her mother, little Jamecia loved to sing in church and showed her talent early in life, singing an impromptu solo in church at the age of two. Not surprisingly, Jamecia would go on to have her own successful career in music.

Over the course of the next decade Ann’s life was busy as she kept up with the demands of her role as a mother and as a preacher’s wife. Still, she continued to develop as a musician, singing in church and refusing to forget her dream of being a professional singer. In the meantime, she enjoyed conducting the children’s choir of her church (which she’d affectionately nicknamed “the Midget Choir”) and giving music lessons to the local children. After some years had passed, she and her husband began to have marital difficulties and separated. With her children older and more independent, Ann began to seriously consider returning to her pursuit of a singing career. This time, her parents strongly encouraged her; they felt that it would be a good distraction from difficulties of the separation. Jamecia admires her tremendously for this strength and courage, commenting that Ann’s greatest influence upon her own life was “not allowing [the divorce] to take over her spirit and her life, but [instead] standing up and saying…I’m gonna get through this thing and succeed.” With the encouragement of some friends, Ann went to a workshop where professional and established musicians interact with new upcoming talent. The workshop’s producers loved her voice and decided to record one of her songs.

To strengthen her foothold in the business, Ann accepted a role in an off-Broadway gospel musical, Sing Hallelujah!, touring with the company in Cincinnati and New York City. The musical was “one of the hardest-working times I’ve ever had in show business,” Ann says. The cast logged long hours, singing gospel music and performing choreographed dances for nearly all of the show’s duration. Ann continued to work to break into the music business, cutting a demo record and sending resumes to scores of record labels.

Around this time a mutual friend introduced her to Timothy Lee, a saxophonist and singer. It turned out that their friend, who thought they’d be great for each other, was right. Ann and Tim hit it off immediately, and eventually their friendship turned into love. They decided to merge their families (Tim has seven children from his previous marriage, six girls and one boy). Ann’s love for her expanded family came naturally; “when she fell in love with my father, she also fell in love with his children,” her step-daughter Nikkia remarks, whose favorite memory of Ann—from the day that she and Tim were married—speaks to Ann’s wonderful relationship with her family and her great capacity for love. “This was her day, and she took the time to pull me aside and explain that she is in love with my father, and would never try and take the place of my mother. She told me that she would like to be my friend. She explained that I would always be able to come to her and talk about anything. She has kept this promise, and provided me with spiritual guidance and sound advice. I count her as my best friend and confidante.”

In 1988 Ann was recruited by Gary Hines, a family friend and musical director of the Sounds of Blackness, a 40-member ensemble that, as Hines once explained in an interview, “sings the full range of African-American music: gospel, jazz, blues, rock and roll, ragtime, work songs.” Ann’s sister was a member of the group, and during a visit with her Ann inadvertently auditioned for a role on the Christmas production. She stayed on with the group after the show ended, becoming lead vocalist. After Sounds of Blackness signed with legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the gospel group’s 1991 debut album, The Evolution of Gospel, became a major success. Several of its tracks became major hits on the Billboard R&B and Dance charts and, with Ann’s powerful voice leading the way, The Evolution of Gospel received a Grammy Award for Best Gospel Album by Choir or Chorus in 1991. They would win another Grammy in 1992 for their contributions to Handel’s Messiah: Soulful Celebration and sing backup for Luther Vandross.

Ann left Sounds of Blackness to begin her career as a soloist in 1996, continuing to work with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Ann’s first album, I’m Here For You, was well-received by both critics and fans and secured her reputation as “the queen of inspirational soul.” She also contributed to several soundtracks, including Demolition Man and Batman. In 1997, Ann and Tim moved their families to Fayetteville. They had come to do a Christmas show in Atlanta, and while here stayed with Ann’s sister and brother-in-law, who already lived in the area. “When we came to do the Christmas show we stayed over to the New Year. And we were out on the deck, grilling barbecued prawn, and it was so exceptionally warm that year that we had on our shorts and short sleeves. And I was like, I am so here. Coming from Minneapolis it was undeniably the place that I wanted to live; the music scene was happening, it was progressive here, it was just the place to be. It was becoming a mecca for songwriters and artists… so that August we started looking for a place.”

Ann continued to record successful genre-crossing albums, bringing soul, gospel, R&B into dialogue with dance beats and urban styles. From The Dance Essentials (2001) emerged two dance singles, “Lovin’ Is Really My Game” and “Love IS What We Need,” that scored at #1 and #2 on Billboard’s Dance Charts. In 2002, Put It On Paper featured Ann’s duet with legendary soul singer Al Green on the album’s title track, which was nominated for a Grammy award. The album merged gospel, soul and dance music, and her 2004 album Make Me Better continued in this vein.

In 2003, Ann expanded her show business repertoire to include film. She won the role of Aunt Sally in The Fighting Temptations, a comedy starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Beyonce Knowles that was filmed in nearby Senoia. Ann really enjoyed working on the film and getting to know its stars. She recalls Cuba Gooding Jr and Beyonce Knowles as “warm and friendly people” and laughs as she remembers how, when she would arrive at the set in the morning, Beyonce would sometimes run up to her and call “Aunt Sally!” Ann also contributed to the soundtrack, working with iconic gospel singer and pastor Shirley Caesar on “The Stone,” which garnered her yet another Grammy nomination. She also began work on In the Spirit, released in 2006, which marked a return to her gospel roots.

Naturally, Ann is proud of both her daughter Jamecia, who has enjoyed a successful career in music, and of her granddaughter Paris, whose career was launched in 2005 after impressing the American Idol judges with her vocal range and ability. Ann worked with Paris to prepare for the show’s auditions, helping her develop the range and strength of her voice. She encouraged Paris to choose songs that showcased her wide-ranging abilities, from the Dixie Chicks to Billie Holiday. Ann also went with Paris to the auditions in North Carolina, where they stayed at a friend’s house for the week of the tryouts. (The friend happened to be the assistant of Maya Angelou, so Ann and Paris had the good fortune to visit the renowned poet in her home.)

For Paris, however, Ann’s influence upon her life goes well beyond learning to deal with the music industry. “She has taught me all the ways to deal with the music industry’s ups and downs. She also taught how to be my own star. And when I have kids and they have kids I wouldn’t want to be like a anyone else’s grandmother but my own. She gives you love from where no one else gives love. My grandmother loves her family more than words.”

Today, Ann is on the verge of releasing a gospel album. She attended the Grammy Awards this past February, having been nominated for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for the song “I Apologize” from her 2007 album, This Is Love. She continues to enjoy her home life, planning family gatherings and cooking elaborate meals for her loved ones. She is also tremendously enthusiastic about her involvement in her family’s not-for-profit organization, Community Fitness Today, Inc., whose mission is to improve the health status of minorities through education.

So where does Ann see herself ten years from now? “I’m going to sing until I can’t,” she laughs. “Because I love it. I’m going to sing because that is my most favorite thing in the world to do.”