"The odds were against me in this business. Industry insiders said when fans saw me, that would be the death of my career because no one would want to look at someone who looked like me."
Every once in a while, our airwaves are blessed with an amazingly gifted new artist who not only pushes the envelope beyond our wildest dreams as music lovers with their talent, but challenges the industry itself to reevaluate their often jaded, cookie cutter idea of what success is supposed to look like.
In the winter of 1992, an 18-year-old preacher's daughter by the name of Kelly Price was on the brink of becoming one of those artists. But she wasn't quite sold on the idea right away -- and she certainly wasn't anticipating launching a flourishing career as a singer.
"I didn’t know if I was going to be here doing this 25 years ago," Kelly tells ESSENCE. "When I got started, I was 18 years old. I was pregnant and I had an opportunity open up for me and I took it because I needed a job because I had a baby on the way that I needed to take care of. Growing up in a strict, old-school, Pentecostal church household, I couldn’t even listen to R&B music. So, to get offered a job to sing background in anything other than Gospel, I was also kind of taking a step away from what I knew overall. So, I had a lot of mixed emotions 25 years ago and I really wasn’t thinking about whether or not I’d still be here doing this. I was thinking about having to feed a baby and the fact that I was getting ready to do something that no one in my family had ever done before and the possible backlash of that. I just had a lot on my brain at that time and 25 years in the music business was just not one of those things, believe it or not!"
Like many preacher's kids, Kelly's uncertainty about pursuing an actual career in music was also heavily influenced by what she'd learned while growing up in the church.
"Because of my background, I felt like singing was something that I was always going to do, but I never imagined doing it as a career," she continued. "Like, when I say strict Pentecostal background, I mean strict. I was taught that my gift was from God -- which I absolutely believe, and I believe that I use it for God every time I open my mouth -- but the old school teaching was that the only way you could do that was inside the walls of a church. So, while I always saw myself being involved with Gospel music, I never really saw myself having a career in music. I thought I was going to go to school and either become a lawyer or a professor of English. I was thinking about a way to work a job that I could be good at and make a lot of money. As a kid, I was homeless twice and I always told myself I didn’t ever want to be homeless again or sleep outside again. So, singing, even though I did it well, never crossed my mind as a career path."
Eventually, fate and divine purpose stepped in and the rest was music history. Over the course of the next 2+ decades, Kelly would go on to become a staple in R&B/Soul music, with a distinct voice that remains second to none even today. To date, she's worked with-- and garnered high praises from-- some of the most respected names in the business. So when asked to recall three career-defining moments she'll never forget, she had plenty to choose from.
Wowing Mariah Carey
"I will never forget the day Mariah Carey heard me sing 25 years ago," Kelly said. "I was one member of a 40-voice choir that was backing her up for the Grammy Awards that year. We were all on a break for a meal during rehearsals and I was sick. I was nauseous and couldn’t eat so, when everyone went out to grab food, I stayed back at the rehearsal studio. I sat at the piano and started singing and she walked in the door and that’s how she heard me sing for the first time. I’ll never forget that day; that was a life-changing moment and it wasn’t one that I planned for."
Singing With George Michael
"I will never forget my first professional gig with George Michael," she says. "He was on tour in the United States and he was playing Madison Square Garden, so he hired additional background singers locally in New York because he had certain songs that he wanted a fuller sound on. On songs like "Father Figure," he had these incredible arrangements that sounded like choirs. The first night he was in town, he had a group of singers that he did not like and they were fired that day, right after the show. So, I got the call at 12 noon that day. We had to be at MSG by 3pm to go up by 8pm that night. So we had to learn the whole show in that time frame."
A Chance Meeting With Diddy
"I will also never forget being at Daddy’s House meeting with Stevie J, because it was the moment that sparked the movement for me to be able to come from behind the shadows and become my own artist. I met Stevie because we had mutual friends in church; he’s a preacher’s kid too, if people don’t know it. He was invited to a birthday party that I was having and he didn’t make it but, he invited me to come to the studio the next day. So, we met up there and were talking about our childhoods, church, the music industry and then he just started playing an old hymn on the piano so I started singing. As I always do when I’m singing, I got caught up and closed my eyes.... and Puffy happened to be walking by the room. He heard me and walked in but, I didn’t see him because my eyes were closed and he walked out before I finished singing. After I stopped, he opened the door, said hello to me and then looked at Stevie and said, 'I need to talk to you for a minute.' I had no idea what was going on, but I found out later that he called Stevie out of the room and told him, 'Get that girl to sing again.' So, when Stevie came back in, we started talking and he started playing so, I started singing again. Puffy walks in the room again and stood there and when I was done, he said, "I’ve never heard anyone sing like that."
"So, long story short, we have a conversation, he takes my contact information and then asked me if I could write. When I told him I could, he challenged me. He took me into an active recording session where a guy group was recording, told the engineer to throw on a raw beat and then asked me, 'Can you write to this?' I said yeah, so he says, 'Ok, so write.' So, I start trying to jot something down and he snatches the pen and pad out of my hand and says, 'If you’re a writer, write.' He wanted me to just freestyle over the raw beat! So, I just started singing whatever was in my head and tried to make it sound as pretty as I could. When we were finished, he said he loved it and told me he was gonna call me. I said to myself, “He’s not gonna call,” but, he actually called me the very next day. I was with him for 30 days straight after that and it started what is now known as an era of Hip Hop music and Bad Boy history that will live forever."
A major part of Kelly's continuous success and longevity as an artist has been her devoted fanbase. If she could send one message to her fans, she says it would be to just simply say two words: thank you.
"Thank you. To me, it just seems simple but, there’s nothing that I can say that better articulates how I feel," she says. "Being in this business for 25 years, I’ve worked just about every job creatively and musically behind the scenes that a person can work. Whether it’s a vocal coach, a background singer, a songwriter, a producer; I’ve done all of that from behind the scenes. The odds were against me in this business when I started...but, the fans said 'yes' to me before they even knew what I looked like. Industry insiders told me when fans saw me, that would be the death of my career because no one wanted to look at someone who looked like me. But, the support and the love actually grew even more after that. I think that’s when I began to understand that God gave me this gift and it’s so much bigger than I am because it comes from Him. The gift that He gave me is too big for me to own it like that. So, 'thank you' is the smallest part of what I can say."
While some entertainers revel in the thought of being idolized by their fans to the point of being untouchable, Kelly doesn't quite fall into that category. In fact, she says she believes it's her relatability that has kept her in the minds and hearts of music lovers from all over for so long. One of her ultimate goals is to show the world that it can be done again by helping to launch the career of the next amazing plus-sized singer.
"I want to birth the next amazing plus-sized singer and give them the career that the industry says they can’t have," Kelly says. "Just because somebody said I couldn’t do it. The biggest 'in your face' is to not only do it and succeed at it, but now produce another one just like me. So, I conceptualized a show a few years ago and we're shopping it around. That's my heart’s desire."
Before she puts her executive producer hat back on to groom the next amazing talent, she'll be bringing her own talents to the 2017 ESSENCE Festival this summer.
"What's amazing is that we always find ways to enhance, remix and increase the level of our partnership when we come to ESSENCE Fest," Kelly says."We come every year and it's always so much more than the music. I love being among the people and talking to them, saying hi, walk around, taking selfies, all of that."
As for what's next now that she's got over two decades of notable career accomplishments under her belt, Kelly says she's looking forward to finishing up her next studio album, working on her long-awaited second Gospel album and focused on the road ahead.
"This business is ever-changing and ever-evolving and to be able to say that I’ve been doing this for a living for 25 years is surreal and feels amazing. I’m excited, I’m really grateful and I’m very happy because at this stage, I know that there’s still a lot left for me to do. People are still interested in what I have to say and with the increases in platforms now, they’re even interested in what I have to say when it's not connected to music. A lot of people retire after 25 years of working a specific job. I’m super excited because I feel like I've turned a corner with still so much left to do. "
Be sure to grab your tickets to see Kelly Price light up the stage, alongside more of the biggest names in music, at the 2017 ESSENCE Festival in New Orleans this summer!