If the legendary Stevie Wonder is playing on stage, it’s fair to assume, before even a note is sung, that the girl leaning against his grand piano holding the microphone, know's how to sing.
“I was there to perform Love Child (the Diana Ross & The Supremes hit) at a charity event in support of the Motown backing group The Funk Brothers,” explains Miss Terry Dexter, from her Los Angeles pad.
“Stevie was headlining the event, which had invitees travel from all over the world to donate. There were many different kinds of artists attending, including Kelly Price & Musiq Soulchild. At the end we each got to perform solo with Stevie and I did the Supremes song. Later, someone came over to me and said: ‘so Stevie Wonder would like to talk to you.’
Stevie stands in front of me - he’s really tall - and the first thing he asks me is:
‘Errr … are you from Detroit?’ Apparently he didn’t know, no-one had told him.
‘Yeah I am actually’
‘I knew it!’ Says Stevie, grinning. ‘Only that voice could come from Detroit!’”
If he’d had the telly on at Wonderland, Stevie might have heard those lungs as early as the nineties. When a big voiced, little miss Dexter, dressed in white with beauty pageant shoulder pads, was officially ‘discovered’ on nationally syndicated show Star Search. The same programme that featured future superstars Beyoncé, Aaliyah, Britney Spears & Dave Chappelle to name a few. Primetime exposure led to a major label contract with Warner Bros and an R&B/pop slanted self-titled debut release overseen by Eric Benet’s executive producer Alison Ball-Gabriel. But it wasn’t until Terry replaced Tamia’s vocals on the remix version of Benét’s million selling Spend My life With You, that we first got to hear Terry’s soul chops, let rip over some Hammond B3 playing. After a brief flirtation with Will.I.Am (featuring on Lay Me Down from his 2001 BBE solo project) and the rest of the Black Eyed Peas - in the vocalist position eventually filled by Fergie – Terry switched to the A&M/Universal label and began cutting, minus the cookie mould, a more overtly soulful r&b album with Grammy winning super-producers Mike City (Carry U later recorded by Melanie Fiona) and Raphael Saadiq. An association that reportedly yielded eight songs, including the Saadiq duet Company, anthemic Take A Minute & the only recording to eventually escape from the label vault, the Taura Stinson co-write Two Way Street (used on the Deliver Us From Eva Soundtrack).
“I got a really cool groundswell of interest from Two Way Street, respect from listeners old and new because people hadn't heard me do that kind of stuff." Explains Terry, who clearly felt she was heading in the right direction. Unfortunately the label’s new exec’s disagreed, having entered through the revolving door of the A&R department, they could only see an expensively produced, hard to sell, sophisticated r&b project. Scoring the lead in hit stage show Love In The Nick Of Tyme, Terry balanced a promising acting career, whilst maintaining a presence on both the dance & gospel airwaves, teaming up with Chicago house producer Roy Davis Jr on a selection of tracks and putting out the indie released Listen via inspirational label Penny’s Gang Records (check out the way Dexter tears through her cover of the Perri Sisters No Place To Go). However, despite recording a complete album of unreleased soul songs - created with long-time co-writer Sami McKinney (who tragically passed away during the project), Rahsaan Patterson’s producer Jamey Jaz, guitar virtuoso Charlie Bereal and up & coming producer Nisan Stewart – the general public, are still largely unaware of Terry Dexter’s soul credentials.
Thankfully, by liberating the “big-drums-at-the-Apollo” ballad Disappointed as a single (via Rock Room Records) Terry is finally letting the “Soul Sessions” loose. There’s a moment, on the second chorus, when she growls the word "baaaad" during the line “how could you turn out to be/such a bad memory” - this is Terry at her soulful best, raw & fearless, taking her voice to a peak that few can reach.
“Since I started recording as a teenager, I’ve always wanted to do a live soul record, with live musicians, kind of throwback, using elements of my church upbringing and the music that my Dad would play in the house. It’s always been pretty difficult, but I feel now as an adult I’ve evolved and matured. I’m more confident in embracing that sound.”
With a 2013 release date in mind, the new album, tentatively titled The Rebirth Of Motown, intends to do just that - take it all the way home to the cradle of Hitsville USA; honouring the singers and musicians that Terry’s parents, aunties & uncles used to rub shoulders with.
“I’d like to pay homage to all the roots that I have in me as a singer /songwriter. I want to show respect, because this music is still in the veins of Detroit. The Motown sound is very present in the city to this day … even with the youngsters. Finally I can connect with that.”
The album won’t be Terry’s only connection to The Sound Of Young America, as it was formally announced earlier this year that she had won the lead role in Blondie the Florence Ballard biopic about the life of the former Supreme.
“Everyone is cast, I’m pretty much the newest actor in the whole crew,” says Terry excitedly. “It was a great honour to meet Florence’s daughter, who still lives in Detroit, over the phone. The part is a huge responsibility for me because I want to definitely portray Florence Ballard in the right way. But I feel like there’s no one better to portray her than a woman like me, born and raised in Detroit, with the spirit of the city in my heart.”
Ever since Terry’s first big screen appearance on Deliver Us From Eva (starring LL Cool J & Gabrielle Union) she’s been filing in and out of auditions across Hollywood, attending acting lessons and treading the boards. Exactly what you’d expect from the archetypal entertainer living in LA – surely a little of that SoCal-local has rubbed off on Dexter?
“I had to get used to the weather, being from Michigan I’m used to it being cold as crap! (laughs) But even though I’ve been here almost ten years, I still feel like I’m not a resident here. It’s not my home. My neighbours and friends – we live right in the entertainment centre - are all actors, musicians or writers. Everyone’s working in the industry, so nobody on my block is actually from LA!”
Most of Dexter’s native LA besties are typically chilled out, so much so that when they are having a personal issue or someone’s giving them grief, they call the motorcity girl to sort ‘em out.
“I’m the outsider to them so it’s kind of a running joke that I have a lot of balls!” Terry laughs, “they say ‘let Terry handle that person’ because in LA its so warm that they have more of an easy breezy chill out approach to things, but in a cold, blue collar city like Detroit our attitude is more in your face. You know ‘don’t mess with us!’”
In the Detroit neighbourhood of Southfield, apples don’t fall too far from the tree. Terry has a courageous twin sister, stationed out in the middle-east for the US Army. A little bit closer to home, Terry’s Dad, himself an expert singer, is prone to offer tough, Cowell-esque (without the high waist band) critiques to any industry friend Terry happened to invite round for a Coney Dog.
“My Dad grew up with a lot of those Motown artists, in the same neighbourhood. My uncle even claimed to know Smokey Robinson, so when I met him (Smokey, of course, after hearing Terry sing asked her ‘Say, are you from Detroit?!’) I asked ‘do you know my uncle KD?!’ Terry laughs, “In that era they would all sing on the corner or in church. He doesn’t admit it but my Dad has a great voice! Motown was so big that singing well was the norm. He was raised around Aretha & Smokey, so he treated me that way. When I was coming up my ability was pushed, but really good singing to him was the highest bar. Even when I was ten my Dad would tell me: ‘Make sure your singing from the heart.’ When I told him about the Stevie show, he just said to me, in a loving way: ‘I’m not surprised, because that’s where you should be.’
Pop’s honesty could be brutal too.
“I had a couple of label people come round and they suggested playing demo’s, of artists they had just signed, to my Dad and I said to them ‘look are you really sure you wanna ask my Father? I don’t think you doooo.’” Terry’s voice rises on the last word. “He would then get me in so much trouble! They’d play it for him and my Dad would say
‘You do know that’s not good. No, no, uh uh, just not good enough!’
All that soul pedigree makes it even more puzzling as to why Terry has not been signed to a solo contract by a rejuvenated Stax or Verve Records. Terry believes there are two pivotal events that have directly influenced the fate of the ‘Soul Sessions’ thus far – the first concerned the sudden passing, through cardiac arrest, of Terry’s great friend and mentor Sami McKinney (Sami co-wrote much of the material and has contributed to the songs of numerous artists, including Patti Labelle, Chaka Khan & Anita Baker). The second event was the untimely death, earlier this year; of the singer Terry calls ‘The Greatest Ever’ – Ms Whitney Houston.
“The young kids now don’t really know gems like Whitney, because music has changed so much. Since Whitney died, her music has been playing here in the US, 24 hours a day. For me personally, it was a big wake-up call and gave me the fire to stand up and say, as an artist, I’ve got to stick to doing what I love; to keep singing. She was such a superstar. Man I have all her books. I’m looking at them right now!”
n a beehive dress rehearsal for the new project, Terry was able to return to her Detroit roots, for the retro soundtrack of 2011’s ill-fated NBC show The Playboy Club. Produced by TV & film music production outfit The Transcenders (and former members of the Black Eyed Peas) Terry recorded eight songs, including a stunning version of the Marvelettes Playboy and also leading Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons Walk Like A Man to the snakepit, transforming the oldie and goodie into a lost Tamla Motown classic.
“I literally spent the last 6 month’s recording Motown songs for the show. But when it was first suggested I really didn’t know what the heck to do with the Frankie Valli song. It was his high “heeeeeeeeeeeee” voice! I tried a few things, but finally said, excuse the language:
‘Oh fuck it! Let’s just do Terry Dexter and see what happens.’”