On Dec. 20, 1981, a Broadway newcomer named Jennifer Holliday got her first taste of stardom.
It was the opening night of Dreamgirls, and, as the character Effie White, Holliday brought the house down with a commanding performance of “And I Am Telling You (I’m Not Going),” one of the boldest declarations in the musical theater canon.
“If the curtain didn’t fall, the audience would probably cheer Jennifer Holliday until dawn,” wrote The New York Times, who hailed the performance as “one of the most powerful theatrical coups to be found in a Broadway musical since Ethel Merman sang ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ ” nearly a quarter-century before. The enormous reception to the performance sparked the release of an official single, a rarity for a show tune in a post-Beatlemania America.
Holliday herself also had little expectation that the song would enter national conversation. “There aren’t a lot of Broadway shows that have hit records,” Holliday tells Billboard. “We weren’t thinking it would go beyond the theatre. We knew that moment was special, but in terms of it lasting three decades? We had no idea. You really don’t make any money in the theatre, so you just hope that what you do will be rewarding.”
Then just 21, the actress leapt onto Billboard charts, as “Telling” sped to No. 1 on the Hot Black Singles chart (today’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) dated July 24, 1982.
But, how did a Broadway show tune gain enough steam to overtake a national singles chart? Enter, Frankie Crocker. Holliday recalls that the influential New York DJ “played it religiously, every morning” during peak commuting hours on morning radio on WBLS, and the consistent rotation helped it spread across the country.
With “Telling” in her pocket, Holliday reaped rewards after her breakout season. She won the 1982 Tony Award for best leading actress in a musical for her Dreamgirls role and scored a Grammy Award for best female R&B vocal performance for “Telling,” overcoming fellow nominees Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Patrice Rushen, Donna Summer and Deniece Williams in what the victor still considers an unexpected triumph. “I figured they would go ahead and honor the veterans because I was also nominated for best new artist,” she says. (She ultimately lost the latter award to Men at Work.) “I thought I had no chance … maybe for best new artist but in terms of best female vocalist, no, no.”
Amid her Broadway success, Holliday appeared on the Jan. 30, 1982 episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live and performed “Telling” and another Dreamgirls selection, “One Night Only.” Among that week’s viewers was Maurice White, a founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, who expressed interest in writing for the singer for her mainstream debut album. The LP, Feel My Soul, was released in late 1983, and initial buzz was strong: Holliday earned a repeat Grammy nomination for best R&B female vocal performance, while the set’s lead single, “I Am Love,” climbed to No. 2 on the Hot Black Singles chart.
But the singer’s momentum stalled as she claims her record label, Geffen, refused to promote the singer with music videos – an increasingly pivotal promotion tool in 1983, two years after the launch of MTV – and cited her image as a commercial roadblock. “They didn’t even try to hide it,” she says. “My record company told me they were not going to spend a dime on me because I was awkward-looking, overweight and unmarketable.”
The singer’s next two albums, Say You Love Me and Get Close to My Love, also underperformed, prompting Geffen to release the singer in 1987. As her career cooled, Holliday battled with depression, which culminated in a suicide attempt in 1990.
The following year, however, following a weight-reduction surgery that helped spark rejuvenated confidence, she bounced back on the Arista label with her fourth album, I’m on Your Side. The title track, a cover of Angela Bofill‘s 1983 R&B hit, returned Holliday to the top 10 of the Hot Black Singles chart for the first time in eight years.
Mirroring Holliday’s revival, Dreamgirls and “Telling” returned thanks to the 2006 film version, in which Jennifer Hudson plays Effie White. For her role, Hudson earned an Academy Award for best supporting actress and returned the production’s signature song to the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, this time to a No. 14 peak. The two Jennifers have performed the song together on multiple occasions, most notably as the opening of the 2007 BET Awards.
Since then, Holliday has maintained a steady performing career, most recently wrapping a Broadway run as Shug Avery in The Color Purple in January. She plans to record again and develop a one-woman show partly inspired by, of all people, Mike Tyson, who forged a solo stint on Broadway in 2012.
“I was like, ‘Wait a minute. Mike Tyson’s got a one-man show?’ ” she says. “Well, I can have a show like that, to talk about my life, except I can sing!”