One of the biggest black pop culture shocks of2011 was the sudden passing of Vesta Williams in September at age 53. Her unexpected and untimely death was just one in a long string of mysteries surrounding her life. What happened? Where had she been? Why hadn't she hit it bigger?
Tonight's season premiere of TV One's "Unsung" will answer all those questions and more. Vesta Williams showed early promise with a hit record, "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" on her debut album. With a lyric like, "Your name is Dracula/You suck the life right out of me," she couldn't lose. But it wasn't until her next album that she became a folk heroine for black women everywhere with the single, "Congratulations." Sistas still remember where they were when they heard that song for the first time--or when they first dusted it off and played it on repeat, after experiencing the gut-wrenching heartache of a love, not just lost to them, but married to someone else.
It seems inconceivable that someone who could convey betrayal and loss so beautifully would lose the opportunity to claim the fame and fortune she seemed destined to achieve. Vesta had just as strong a voice as our reigning queens of soul and R&B. She was also funny, playful, and dynamic, and often upstaged the headliners for whom she opened, early in her career. (Her musical C.V. boasts gigs with the likes of George Benson, Chaka Khan, Sting, and Jermaine Jackson.)
Vesta died just weeks after wrapping her interviews for "Unsung," giving all of her commentary and that of her friends an eerie prescience. She was reportedly thrilled to be included in the series--and rightfully so. Finally, we--her public--would get to see what life was like for her in her prime. We'd also find out where her career took its balance-tipping turns.
The episode paints the picture of a powerhouse. Vesta Williams was a self-proclaimed diva with a four-octave range who routinely took risks for her career. Some--like telling her label she'd "have laryngitis" until the patriarchal bigwigs allowed her female producer, Tina Clark, to work on her second album--paid off. Others did not. Protracted issues with her weight, with drugs, and with her label, A&M Records, took their toll. But Vesta worked at her craft until the end, performing her last concert just days before her passing.
As a viewer, this "Unsung" experience is at once uplifting and impossibly sad. Despite Vesta's frequent laughter and self-deprecation in her interview clips, it's hard not to wonder if the depression and substance dependency Vesta spoke about in the past tense were still very much in the forefront of her experience in the last days of her life.