Google the soulful ballad “And I Am Telling You (I’m Not Going)” and Jennifer Hudson’s name pops up first. Not Tony Award winner Jennifer Holliday, who originated the role of Effie and sang the legendary showstopper in the original 1981 Broadway smash Dreamgirls—which is why this Unsung has been a long time coming. As powerful and substantial as Hudson’s vocals are, she has absolutely nothing on Holliday. And Unsung proves it.
In attempting to explain why this once-in-a-lifetime vocal phenom isn’t a household name today, Unsung has snapped back to original form. Following its mission of initial offerings featuring the likes of Phyllis Hyman that made the show a must-watch in the first place, Unsung once again visits that unfortunately fertile ground of musical injustice. Holliday’s story is so chock-full of made-for-Hollywood elements, glorious and disappointing, that her Unsung is an instant crowd-pleaser.
Imagine not being able to sing a note but then, slightly later in life, being gifted with the voice of all voices. When she was a child, singing wasn’t even a remote consideration for Holliday. The oldest of three children, Holliday, an outstanding student who helped her divorced, single mother financially by beginning work at age 11, believed that politics was her calling, with fellow Houstonian and trailblazing congresswoman Barbara Jordan serving as her ultimate role model.
God clearly had other plans. During one of her mother’s choir rehearsals, Holliday’s grand voice made an entrance. Pretty soon, there wasn’t anyone in Houston who didn’t want to hear it. Her brother John Eaton insists that their pastor battled to keep the congregation from dipping out after his sister sang.
During her 1978 debut at Pleasant Grove Church, a mega-church of its time that broadcast its service, Holliday, an invited guest at barely 18, foreshadowed what was to come. Fellow Houstonian Yolanda Adams, a powerful vocalist in her own right, was there to bear witness and recalls the exact pew in which she sat. Jamie Patterson, a Broadway dancer touring with A Chorus Line, knew exactly where a voice like Holliday’s belonged. “He said, ‘You have this great big voice. You would be great on Broadway,’” Holliday recounts. “Well, I didn’t know what Broadway was.”
Of course, he was right and wrong. Holliday landed a role in Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, and in another A Star Is Born twist, Michael Bennett, the tour de force behind A Chorus Line, caught a performance and knew she was just right for Dreamgirls. Sheryl Lee Ralph also starred in Dreamgirls. And that’s where the drama comes in.
Back then, the two were far from friends, and Bennett played a part in that, Ralph and others insist, by manipulating emotions and making it clear that Holliday was his star. Bennett knew exactly what he had in Holliday and that she and Effie would become legendary.
TV producer David E. Kelley, a Boston law student when he saw an early preview of Dreamgirls, swears that Holliday made him change careers, which is why, years later, he cast her in his legalish series Ally McBeal, which came at a critical juncture in Holliday’s life.
Neither a Tony nor a Grammy could fill the internal loneliness she felt. Unfortunately, she thought food could. As she entered the recording industry, her weight was used against her, even serving as her label’s justification for not shooting music videos supporting her music. That, of course, did little to boost her self-esteem. Early in her Broadway days, she had been tagged “difficult to work with.” Making matters worse, the more pop-oriented David Geffen and his team didn’t really know what to do with her soulful, gospel sound, so her enormous voice failed to yield enough hit records.
The struggle was so hard that she went bankrupt, financially and emotionally. Being diagnosed with depression later in life and undergoing treatment helped her bounce back. Ironically, when she got her weight under control, she had to prove that the new, slimmed-down version was actually her!
Although she was the main reason Dreamgirls warranted a film decades later, somehow the memo missed Jennifer Hudson in a key awards speech. But that slight renewed the fight in Holliday, who was also battling another health issue: multiple sclerosis. Eventually Hudson, as many others did, learned exactly who the grand diva was and made things right, which is one of the reasons Holliday’s Unsung, unlike Hyman’s, ends on a hopeful note.
At its best, Unsung is more than biography. It can be a time capsule, reminding us of what has and hasn’t changed. In human terms, Unsung is a reminder that even those bestowed with the most amazing gifts have demons to battle.
When it comes to the power of Jennifer Holliday, Yolanda Adams may sum it up best: “When she gets that mic, you can hear the pain; you can hear the struggle, but, more importantly, you hear the ‘I made it through and, if I made it through, you can too.’”
Editor’s note: Unsung: Jennifer Holliday airs on TV One Wednesday, Nov. 11, at 8 p.m. ET.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.