Her new album Free is self-financed and a collection of intimate R‘n’B tunes that partly pays homage to her mentors
R'n'B singer Beth Griffith on learning from legends
After a career in the background, Beth Griffith is now shining in her own light. The American soul singer headlines the latest instalment of Dubai’s free live music series, Jazz Garden, on Friday. The show is part of a major career development for the Detroit-based singer, who honed her craft as a backing vocalist for R‘n’B stalwart Anita Baker and the ultra-smooth crooner Kem.
You would think the years spent in the shadows of other artists would begin to grate Griffith, but the singer challenges the perception that a background vocalist is in reality a frustrated star in-waiting.
“That is all I really wanted to do,” she says. “And that’s because I thought there would be less pressure that I would have to deal with. I like the idea that I can travel, be on stage and still have my own life, without going through the worries of being a main artist. So it took some time to transition to being the main singer, as you have to carry most of the show.”
What’s behind that development is Griffith’s debut album, Free. Self-financed, the album is collection of intimate R‘n’B tunes that partly pays homage to her mentors. The swelling chorus and lush instrumentation of the title track should appeal to Kem fans, while Anita Baker gets a direct nod in a cover of her 1979 track I Just Wanna Be Your Girl.
While Kem taught her grace under pressure, Griffith cites Baker for providing stern career advice. “Touring with her is where I learned about how to handle things that go on behind the scenes,” she says. “She showed me how the industry can treat women differently than men. Sometimes the pay and respect may not be the same, and they would want you to provide the same energy and performance as the male artist may give. She showed me how we should stand up for ourselves as female artists and she always said that I would be a solo artist one day, which I didn’t believe, of course.”
A bigger and hidden influence in Griffith’s work is her late father, the pianist Johnny Griffith, who was part of the legendary production team, The Funk Brothers, who were responsible for Motown classics such as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971) and The Supremes’ Stop! In the Name of Love (1965). Despite his success and acclaim, it was the unpredictable nature of showbusiness that led to Griffith’s father initially discouraging her from entering the music industry.
“He knew that in the business your highs are very high and your lows are really low. So he didn’t want me to experience that,” she says.
“But when it is in you then you can’t help [it]. I worked in corporate America for a little bit but that wasn’t me, and it was music that I was drawn to. Unfortunately, he passed away just when I was beginning to sing.”
Another late legend who had offered support to Griffith was Whitney Houston. The two met on the set of the 2012 drama Sparkle after Griffith was unexpectedly cast as the diva’s body-double.
“That was funny because I auditioned only as an extra and they put me in that role,” she says. “It was really interesting because I share a lot of things with Whitney, like we have the same birthday and same height. So when I had the chance to meet her and told her what I was doing, she just hugged me. Whitney was so kind, loving and extremely funny. For me they were the most amazing moments ever.”
With Dubai being part of a series of shows to promote Free, Griffith is looking forward to showcasing her work to a new audience.
“I am really excited, because this is really the best thing about being a performer,” she says.“Also the weather here in Michigan is cold, so I am happy to leave this for a while.”
Beth Griffith is one of the headliners at the Jazz Garden on Friday, Habtoor Grand Resort, Dubai Marina, Dubai. Tickets are free with registration at www.jazzgardenseries.com and doors will open at 6.30pm