It made sense to put Melba Moore, Jennifer Holliday, Regina Belle and Stephanie Mills on the same stage Saturday night at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The blustery-voiced singers have managed to survive in an industry that never really knew what to do with them. But beyond that, the women share the same musical foundation: gospel.
For three hours, the veteran performers melded their secular and spiritual sides during minisets. Two enthrallingly pulled it off while the other two mostly faltered. Collectively billed as the "Ladies of Soul," the artists came together for the second annual gala benefiting the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Attendees were enthusiastically receptive, responding most heartily when the ladies veered toward the gospel side.
Unfortunately, the show got off to a tepid start when Moore took the stage. Backed by tinny, prerecorded tracks, the Tony Award-winning performer opened with an uptempo, formulaic-sounding gospel number before taking the house back to her disco diva days with "This Is It," her 1976 Van McCoy-produced hit.
"Everything old ain't bad," said the svelte 59-year-old singer before launching into the song, whose instrumental track sounded like a cheap, karaoke version. Afterward, Moore shrieked her way through "You Stepped Into My Life," a Bee Gees song she scored a hit with in 1978. Again, the backing track sounded cheesy. And Moore's trills upon trills upon trills swelled the cringe factor of her rote set.
But after torturing the house for about 15 minutes, she closed with a tasteful, reworked version of her lovely 1976 hit, "Lean on Me" (not to be confused with the Bill Withers classic from four years earlier). The singer's refreshed take on the ballad included a title change, reflective of her new career in gospel music: "Lean on Jesus."
Holliday was next, giving a thrilling, ballad-heavy set. The Grammy and Tony-winning soul belter from Texas, perhaps best known for her 1982 career-making performance in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls, opened with her pop hit from that same year, the soaring "I Am Love."
Looking trim in an elegant black beaded dress (she lost 200 pounds more than a decade ago), Holliday was engaging throughout. She also performed to prerecorded tracks, but her accompaniment was much richer than Moore's. The 44-year-old artist, who infuses every line of a song with white-hot emotion, was especially riveting on "Come Sunday," a rare Duke Ellington-penned gospel number for which Holliday won a Grammy in 1985. She received the most rousing ovation of the night when she tore through her signature, the show-stopping "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," from Dreamgirls.
After a 10-minute intermission, Belle and her eight-piece band took the stage and performed the most disjointed set of the night. At 41, Belle looks good - curvy and toned. But her tacky denim outfit wasn't flattering. And she didn't engage the audience much as she sang mostly to the ceiling and to members of her band.
Her new album, Lazy Afternoon, is a jazzy soul gem of covers. But she sang only one cut from the collection, a mediocre version of the Isley Brothers' "For the Love of You." Then she rushed through "Show Me the Way" and "So Many Tears," two of her early hits from the '80s, before delivering a warm take of "If I Could." The ballad, which details a parent's devotion, is a bit maudlin. But Belle's sweeping vocals give it heft.
Belle ended with a forced gospel transformation, turning her 1991 hit "Make It Like It Was," a song about longing for the good old times in a dying romance, into a plea for a return to good old-fashioned spiritual love. Her intentions may have been well-meaning, but ultimately the treatment didn't fly.
The vivacious Mills didn't do the gospel thing explicitly - though she could have, since her last record, 1994's Personal Inspirations, was a gospel album. (Her new CD, Born For This! is a fine return to the secular side.) Instead, the petite 47-year-old suggested her gospel roots through fiery, guttural vocals on her pop-soul classics: "What Cha' Gonna Do With My Lovin'" and "I Feel Good All Over." Backed by a tight and powerful eight-piece band, Mills, in great voice (and body), strutted and jumped her way through the most spirited set of the night.
After Mills left the stage, the Morgan State University Choir, under the direction of Eric Conway, paid a brief but moving musical tribute to Nathan Carter, the beloved former director who died in July. As the choir enraptured the house with R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly," the ladies of soul returned to the stage and, as expected, turned the number into an almighty wail fest.