Since the inception of this paper 25 years ago, it's hard to think of many local artists who have succeeded on a higher level and for a longer time than Wendy Moten. Even through the ups and downs of the industry, Moten's voice has kept her among the biggest stars of our time: Julio Iglesias, Eric Clapton, Faith Hill. The native Memphian has a new solo record out and will celebrate its release at the STAX Museum on Friday, June 6th, from 6 until 8 p.m.
Wendy Moten Sings Richard Whiting was something of an accidental record. Known for duets and background vocals, Moten found herself in a deep pool of talent.
"I was in Los Angeles having dinner with the producer, Paul Brown," Moten says. "We had this discussion about Julie London and Doris Day. I told him I wanted to do a project like that one day. He thought I was just insane to come up with that concept. Sure enough, like three months later, he was commissioned to do this Richard Whiting project. It was going to be instrumental, and he thought he'd have me on as a guest on one song. But everybody involved in the project decided to make it my project."
Moten was somewhat taken by shock.
- Wendy Moten
"It's the first time I've ever stepped out like this," Moten says. "Singing jazz standards? No. It's his team. This is the style they play. I was worried about being the weakest link. So I had to make sure that when I got there I knew my music. I could be spontaneous. I refused to be the weakest link. But the guys gave me the thumbs up and that made me feel really good."
Perhaps taking the lead role alone is new to her. Working with talent at the highest levels is not. But it didn't start out easy.
Moten spoke with Tim Sampson for a Memphis magazine cover story in December of 1994. In that issue, she appears to be on the brink of major stardom. Her biggest concern is the comparison, albeit favorable, to Whitney Houston. Label management has always been the greatest threat to real talent and took its toll on Moten's recording career over three releases, despite a hit that went into the Top Ten of the UK singles chart in 1994.
"The last time I didn't suffer. 'Come in Out of the Rain' got played on like four different formats, which never happens. You usually get one or two formats. It was one of those things. People knew the song, but they didn't know the name or the voice. There was a lot of weirdness happening in that period. But I didn't get dark from it. It was extraordinary to watch. I was surprised that the song went as far as it did. Being respected in the music community was a big deal. Artists come and go. Some may stick, some may not. But I'm okay with it, I'm a realist."
When someone is this talented and hardworking, you hesitate to use the phrase "lucky break." But what followed her collapsing solo career is remarkable.
"I've been very fortunate," Moten says. "I've toured with Julio [Iglesias] for over 15 years singing duets. It was at the right time. When my solo career was dying out a little bit, he picked me up, and I was traveling nine or 10 months per year for 15 years. Then three years ago, he decided, 'I'm going to change my show.' And I had to decide if I'm going to stay in the game or do something else with my life. I was like, 'No. I want to stay in the game.' And then these opportunities started popping up. Dave Stewart, John Oates, and everybody in between."
Now the Memphis choirgirl and overlooked soul starlet finds herself singing standards from the 1930s and touring with country megastar Martina McBride.
"I've been doing country, of all things. With my record coming out, it's like it's all working together. With this project, I wanted to have fun. The first record was just such a blur because so much was going on. With this one, I'm able to shape what's going to happen and to be more aware, to enjoy those moments."