Let’s get one thing straight: Alicia Keys did not discover Vanessa Ferguson.
Don’t get me wrong — there’s something magical about watching Keys, one of four recording artists who serve as coaches on NBC’s “The Voice” for Ferguson’s March 14 blind audition for the show. During the first chorus of Ferguson’s rendition of the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” Keys looked transported. Then she grimaced, as if suddenly realizing, Oh my God, this singer is good, and pounded a button with both hands that swiveled her chair so that she faced Ferguson. There would be other moments when the mentor’s emotional connection synced with her protégé, as on April 10 when Ferguson took Gladys Knight’s “If I Were Your Woman” to sublime heights of emotional fragility and Keys punctuated the command performance with a triumphal, “Yea-ah-ah!”
Ten years ago, in Greensboro, a vocal instructor at NC A&T University named William Trice decided to put together a neo-soul super group. A former “American Idol” contestant, Trice knew he had ability as a vocalist and songwriter, but the experience also taught him that he had a knack for spotting talent, arranging music and convening artists. He figured that with four artists sharing a platform as equals they could support one another and each would stand a better chance of breaking out. One of the first singers Trice selected to join the group that would be called Solcetfre Project was Vanessa Ferguson, a former student with a striking sense of self-possession and slightly sarcastic manner.
The group lasted for less than a year, but it served its purpose. Each member carved out a distinct persona — Trice as the gruff teddy bear, Jeremy Johnson as the effervescent dynamo and Leticia “Boogie B” Bowler as sweet and wise diva. Ferguson was the quietest, but Trice was quick to say that her song, “With You,” was the single for the group’s album, Fel Fre.
Strip away stage presence, instrumental gloss and performance vamp from Solcetfre’s album release party at Greene Street Club in Greensboro in October 2007, and one of the lasting impressions was Trice quieting the band as Ferguson strapped on an acoustic guitar to deliver the smoldering ballad. The lyrics of “With You” — “The kiss from your lips made me wish you’d stayed” — enunciated in delicate jazz phrasing, made the song sound timeless.
There isn’t much doubt that Ferguson was meant to sing. Unique among her peers in the Greensboro music scene, her biography reveals few detours from a musical vocation.
Ferguson was raised by her grandmother, Doris McCrae, in Brooklyn, NY. McCrae, known as Mommy Doris — who was born in North Carolina and ran away from home to be a singer in New York at the age of 13 — paid for her granddaughter’s piano lessons. Ferguson had sung in church before, but her first R&B performance was a rendition of Lauryn Hill’s version of “Killing Me Softly” during a school talent show when Ferguson was in fifth grade.
“That’s the first show where everybody went crazy,” Ferguson recalled. “That was the start of me singing and taking it serious.”
In 1997, Ferguson moved to North Carolina with her grandmother. She started performing professionally with a band in Winston-Salem called — if her memory is correct — Intrigue. By the time Ferguson was 18, she’d played a number of solo gigs accompanying herself on the keyboard and joined Untitled, a Greensboro band led by Gavin “Gav Beats” Williams.
During her first year at A&T, Ferguson developed endometriosis, a painful chronic condition, and was hospitalized for much of the academic year. Because she’d missed so much class time, she said, she didn’t see the point of going back to school. When Ferguson left A&T, Trice told her about his vision for Solcetfre.
Ferguson met her future fiancé Kenneth Fuller — aka Mr. Rozzi — in 2007, when Fuller attended a Solcetfre Project show with an interest in managing Jeremy Johnson as a solo artist. Johnson, an irrepressible dude with a sexually ambiguous persona, introduced Ferguson to Fuller by saying in jest: “This is my beautiful wife.”
Since the breakup of Solcetfre Project, Ferguson has worked continuously as a performer and recording artist, both solo and in tandem with Fuller. As a working musician, she’s sang contemporary covers for a wide array of audiences in Greensboro, from the upscale drinking crowd at Churchill’s on Elm to old-school R&B listeners at Boston’s House of Jazz and several iterations of A&T students at Aggie Fest.
A multifaceted artist who plays guitar and keyboards, Ferguson’s YouTube presence is testament to her determination to push her creative development forward.
The official video for “I Got What the Game Needs,” released in 2013, reveals an artist chafing at narrow genre constraints, with a shredding electric guitar solo setting the tone at the beginning. Mixing vocals and rap, the song represents a manifesto from a talent unwilling to be pigeonholed as an R&B torch singer as well as a plaintive appeal to a music industry that tends to compartmentalize musicians rather than allow them to realize their full artistry.
“What’s up, NY, What’s up NC? Y’all stuck with me,” Ferguson declares. “Why has the game gone this way?/ Don’t worry no more/ I’ve got something in store/ One more thing to say: The industry should get used to me/ ’Cause I’m never going away.”
In 2011, Ferguson worked for several months in China, including a booking for six nights a week at the Lan Club in Beijing, a facility the size of a football field. Fuller joined her for part of the time. The relatively high pay and low cost of the city gave Ferguson and her fiancé access to a standard of living that many working musicians in the United States could scarcely imagine.
“Easy job,” Ferguson said in a 2016 interview. “I love the location. It’s like New York, but twice as big. We could eat cheap. We were like rich.”
Ferguson leveraged her experience in China into a gig with the BB King All Stars on an international tour with stops in Europe, the Caribbean and South America.
By the time Ferguson auditioned for “The Voice” and floored audiences across the United States with her electrifying performance of the “Don’t Let Me Down” in March 2017, she was a seasoned performer. The star-making mythology of shows like “The Voice” can promote the illusion that the contestants come out of nowhere.
“It’s how the game goes, I guess,” Ferguson said with typical humility in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. “There are plenty of talented people in America that don’t get the proper recognition and don’t get the opportunity to be on a big platform.
“It’s more difficult in America,” she continued. “You reach a certain level of success and notoriety. Before doing this show, I’ve been able to reach that overseas, but there was no notoriety in my own country other than on the East Coast. It was definitely a problem. Someone needs to make some changes, for sure. Hopefully, this show will be a part of that and will cause people to look at their local artists that are great if they ever get an opportunity to be on a grand stage. There’s no lack of talent, that’s for sure.”
CLICK ON THE TAB BELOW TO READ MORE >>>