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.”
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Here the story gets personal. Everyone familiar with my journalistic MO knows I hate to break the spell by interjecting myself into the story. But there’s no way around this.
I got to know Vanessa Ferguson more through collateral associations than direct contact. As a music writer in the Triad, I reached out to Jeremy Johnson, a former public school teacher turned singer, after hearing an interview with him on 103.1 FM WUAG, the campus station at UNCG. I wrote a story about Johnson as a solo artist in 2006, and then in 2007, likely at Johnson’s instigation, William Trice approached me about doing a story on Solcetfre Project, which first exposed me to Ferguson’s music. Roughly a year later, when Johnson put together an extravaganza at Greene Street Club to celebrate the release of a new solo album, Ferguson performed a warm-up set, and I remember encountering her mother wearing a summer dress and beaming with pride at the favorable response the crowd lavished on her daughter’s performance.
I bumped into Ferguson occasionally after that — a friendly hello after a performance at the Fun Fourth Festival in downtown Greensboro, a chance encounter during a late-night set when she wowed my work buddies with a rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” — but for the most part I lost track of her. Part of that has to do with taking a hiatus from music writing from 2009 through 2014.
In 2010, Johnson, who had relocated to Atlanta to pursue music, contacted me. I can’t remember the format, but while we were catching up, I happened to mention that I was planning to get married. A couple weeks later he contacted me again, and told me he was going to perform at my wedding. I gently tried to discourage the idea, informing him that my fiancé and I didn’t have a budget to pay for a band. But he wouldn’t be dissuaded, insisting it had nothing to do with money and he wouldn’t take any payment.
I think he mentioned that he was going to see if he could find any other musicians in Greensboro to join him for the performance. Beyond possibly putting Johnson in touch with the DJ we hired for the wedding so he could arrange to borrow her PA, I don’t think we discussed it any further.
When the big day came, Jeremy Johnson showed up with Vanessa Ferguson to sing at my wedding. I’m afraid that the performance is a pleasant blur to me, but my uncle, Larry, has pictures to prove that it happened. I’m slightly mortified that I don’t retain distinct memories of the event. From the best of my recollection, when I realized they were singing I went to look for my newlywed to alert her, and ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in years and got caught up in a conversation. Yet the gesture of making music to celebrate Cheryl’s and my wedding by two talented artists is a gift I will forever cherish.
Ferguson never reminded me of the performance or used it to try to call in a favor. I asked her recently to tell me the motivation behind what strikes me as a singularly generous and unselfish act.
“I do some things because it’s the human that I am,” she told me. “I believe we’re all here to help each other. We have different gifts for the betterment of everyone. I help people. Some of the things are public, and some of the things are private that nobody even knows about.”
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The interaction between Ferguson and the four celebrity coaches following her blind audition for “The Voice” reveals both her ecumenical attitude towards music and a soul sisterhood with fellow New Yorker Alicia Keys.
Her rapport with Blake Shelton, an affable country singer who exemplifies the Nashville dichotomy of un-ironic romanticism and banal beer-and-pickup-trucks swagger, was warm from the outset.
When Ferguson informed him that she was from Greensboro, Shelton rejoined, “It’s the home of Wrangler. Didja know that?”
He continued: “I am probably not the guy that you were thinking, ‘Man, Blake would be a great coach for me,’ but —”
“That’s not true,” Ferguson interrupted.
The country singer got up and ran a victory lap around his chair.
In hindsight, Shelton didn’t have a chance.
“Vanessa, it’s so great to hear you sing and to vibe with you,” said Keys, an R&B singer from Manhattan who scored her first hit in 2001. “I love your song choice. I love the way you put your spin on it.”
“I’m from New York, originally,” Ferguson, said with mock exasperation, almost as if it should be obvious why Keys was vibing.
“I can imagine what I’m going to discover about you in regards to the other talents that you have, your story, and what you’re going to bring to the world, you know? ’Cause that’s what it’s about,” Keys added.
As a longtime fan who has interpreted the older singer’s pieces, the working relationship only confirmed what Ferguson already felt about her connection with Keys.
“She’s a lot like me — very strong willed yet very loving and open-minded,” Ferguson said. “Knows what she wants, doesn’t take no for an answer. We really are ‘kindred spirits.’ Those are her words. But I’ve always felt that. She reiterated a lot of things with me, things like being yourself is important, which is something I’ve always believed and lived according to that.”
The lessons in the working relationship went beyond music, and Keys imparted some of her holistic philosophy about life to Ferguson.
“I’m learning to be and not do all the time,” Ferguson said. “I believe in that a lot. I have a career. I love what I do. I also love what I am. I am a stepmom. I’m a fiancé. I’m a granddaughter. Those things are all important to me.”
Every contest is an artificial construct in a sense because life — and, in Ferguson’s case, a music career — continues regardless of whether triumph or defeat ensues. Ferguson wound up being eliminated from the show on May 16 after failing to garner enough votes to make the final four. (The ultimate winner, a singer from Knoxville, Tenn. named Chris Blue, was also a member of Team Alicia.)
Ferguson said her next move will probably be to record an album or an EP.
“I’m also working on doing a huge production with lighting, costumes, dancing and the whole thing,” she said. “I’ll get whoever of my friends are able to do it. It’s primarily going to be me because it’s my show, but it will have a lot of different things going on. It’s not just going to be a regular show with a band; it will be a full-on production.”
In the meantime, with hometown pride and love welling up for Ferguson, the city of Greensboro is hosting a block party at Center City Park at midday on Saturday, and that evening she’ll perform a free concert at Barber Park as a kind of thank-you gift to her local fans.
Jesse Larson, the soulful, bearded Minnesotan who made it to the finals of the 2017 season, reflected on Ferguson in a comment on the show: “There’s so much more to Vanessa that America has not seen yet.”
As the name implies, “The Voice” necessarily reduces music artists to one facet of their overall artistry.
Dressed in a red gown as she delivered an authoritative rendition of Luther Vandross’ “Superstar,” Ferguson proved during the May 15 semifinals that she meets the requirements of a classic soul diva, but she also stretched the show’s boundaries by mixing rap and vocals in her cover of the Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” the previous week.
“Me coming out and rapping was such a big deal because it had never been done before,” Ferguson said. “There was a lot more to me as an artist than I was able to show. There were some things I didn’t get to reveal such as playing the guitar. I wanted to pick up a bass on one song. There might be a little too much to me to show that’s hard to fit into nine or 10 performances.”
As testament that “The Voice” is neither the beginning nor the end of a music career as layered and established as Ferguson’s, she popped up on April 1 in the midst of taping for the show for a surprise guest appearance with blues guitarist Eric Gales at the Blue Note Grill in Durham. Dressed in plain black turtleneck, Ferguson gave a tender and affecting rendition of her song “With U” with Gales accompanying her on guitar on an arrangement they’d worked out earlier in the day in the break room at the Guitar Center in Greensboro.
Even though her run on “The Voice” wasn’t complete, she’d already triumphed.
“Vanessa, as you see, I was going crazy losing my mind jumping up and down like a lunatic,” Keys told her after her semi-final performance of “Superstar.” “But because I know what you went through to find this beautiful place and for you to just uncover yourself in this way and really, really see you completely, and I feel like you are blooming and blossoming and opening, becoming just unafraid of your greatness and the phenomenal woman that you are.”
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