In the fall of 1991, the feel-good single “I Love Your Smile” set five-octave singer Shanice afloat with a music video in which her wholesome, girl-next-door charm and wide smile fit perfectly with what she was singing about. Although the single peaked at No. 2 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the U.K. Singles Chart, it was this wholesome image, along with a number of missteps by her label, that would actually help to fade her rising star. Her story, which starts as a teen sensation at 14, will be told on Sunday’s episode of Unsung.
“Her capabilities were much older and you didn’t know exactly what to write for her because she could sing much more than a kid could do,” Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds says about her first album, for which he wrote songs for her.
That first album, when Shanice was 11 years old, featured writing from Teena Marie, Babyface, Ralph Tresvant and Ricky Bell. Her label at the time, A&M Records, felt that the content of the songs was too mature for her age.
“The label just felt like it wasn’t going in the right direction,” Shanice tells the The Root. “Some of the songs were too mature, but the songs that Teena Marie did and Ricky and Ralph from New Edition did were just perfect, but they didn’t want to use them.”
Shanice was 11 when she won $5,0000 and a label deal with A&M after performing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the television show Junior Star Search.
“That $5K was like we won $5 million ... we were so excited,” says Shanice, who grew up in the projects in Pittsburgh. “My mom was so nervous. She coached me on everything: ‘Look them in the eye. Put your hands up at the end.’ I did what she told me to do, and I won.”
Shanice started singing onstage even earlier, when she was 3 years old, with her parents, who were both singers. Her mother says she was humming harmonies even younger at age 7 months, humming the harmonies to Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good.” By 14, Shanice released on A&M Records her debut album, Discovery, which included the up-tempo top 10 single “Can You Dance.”
When she switched to the Motown label, she partnered with Narada Michael Walden who came up with the music to her pop smash on her Inner Child album, “I Love Your Smile,” which became a No. 1 hit in 22 countries, along with a popular duet with Johnny Gill, “Silent Prayer.”
Strangely enough, executives at Motown felt like she needed a more urban image, enlisting hip-hop producers for her second album with the label, 21 ... Ways to Grow. The album panned, with the exception of a few singles, like “Somewhere,” which rose to No. 28 on the R&B charts and “Turn Down the Lights,” which was No. 21 on the R&B charts. Her last studio self-titled album featured the hit “When I Close My Eyes.”
In between touring, she became the first African-American actress to play Éponine in Les Miserables on Broadway.
“Theater is no joke,” Shanice recalls. “The show was three hours long every day of the week. They were really strict about pronouncing certain words. There’s no room for mistakes.”
She would get married to actor-comedian Flex Alexander, one of her best friends. When she was five months pregnant, she got the call she hadn’t been waiting for: Motown called to say it was dropping her from the label.
“It was the worst day ever,” says Shanice. “On the phone, I was like ‘OK.’ And as soon as I hung up the phone, I fell [to] the floor and cried my eyes out. I was really depressed. I signed my deal at 11, so that was all I knew. I never worked a job, I had always made money singing, so I was like, ‘What am I gonna do?’”
She and Flex gathered themselves and put all of their money into starting their own label to release her album Every Woman Dreams. But they had no idea how much money went into producing independently. They had real estate investments, but eventually they were spending more money than they were bringing in. One day the sheriff called Shanice and said she had five minutes to leave their home. They lost their home, filed for bankruptcy and had to move their family to a hotel.
When her family lost everything, she went into a depression that she was only able to get out of when she started singing again. One of her cousins encouraged her to put cover songs on YouTube. The songs—remakes of Mariah Carey, Beyoncé and Rihanna songs—got millions of views.
“I was like, ‘There are people out there that still want to hear my voice. I should not give up,’” Shanice says.
These circumstances became a blessing in disguise. Her family members—aunts, mother, uncles, cousins—moved in with them and helped to support her family. It was a situation ripe for a reality show. And so they pitched the Flex and Shanice show to the Oprah Winfrey Network. They got a deal before they even walked out of the room. The show lasted three seasons.
Shanice is in a space again where she’s ready to do music. She’s released a single, “Breakdown,” on iTunes.
“Right now, I think Bruno Mars is killing it,” she says about the current state of music. “I want to sing great songs, something that’s showcasing my voice—just real music.”