Born in 1961 in Berwyn, PA. Education: Attended Berklee School of Music. Addresses: Record company--The Blue Note Labels, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, 35th Flr., New York, NY, 10104.
Rachelle Ferrell began performing professionally when she was a teenager--writing much of her own material, accompanying herself on piano, singing both popular and jazz styles with equal ease. In her late twenties she secured a record deal. Since the release of her first album in 1990, her reputation has spread slowly but steadily. She has toured Europe and the United states, performing to rave reviews at both pop concerts and jazz festivals. Said Washington Post contributor Mike Joyce of Ferrell, "More than a natural singer, Ferrell is a natural wonder.... [She is] capable of singing anything and everything.... Few, if any, singers on the pop scene can match Ferrell's dynamic, octave-leaping range, bordered by low, resonating chest tones that imbue her ballads with a sultry allure, and ear-splitting falsetto flourishes."
Ferrell, raised near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was surrounded by music as a child; her father was an amateur jazz musician, and she heard jazz, gospel, and classical music around the house. She studied violin at school and piano at home. She told USA Today, "I consider myself an instrumentalist first." At 13 Ferrell began singing professionally when she was asked to be a last-minute substitute for another singer. From then on, she sang every chance she got--"from funerals to dog fights," she joked to the San Francisco Chronicle's Lee Hildegrand.
After attending the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston, Ferrell returned to the Philadelphia area. For the next decade she continued to sing in a variety of venues, from bars to gospel choirs, from opera companies to recording studios as backup for singers like Lou Rawls, Patti LaBelle, Vanessa Williams, and George Duke. In her solo performances she frequently sang her own pop songs in addition to jazz standards. During those years she developed a devoted following. She told the San Francisco Chronicle that her Philadelphia-area audiences frequently knew the songs she'd written almost as well as she did. "I don't [always] have background singers" she explained. "[The audience members] will take it upon themselves to sing all the background parts and will be in tune, too. It's quite a surprise." Despite this local success, though, Ferrell could not secure a recording contract. She characterized her problem to USA Today, saying, "I'd get letters from record companies saying 'Dear Rachelle. You're wonderful. Unfortunately, we've filled our roster for black female vocalists.'"
But by the late 1980s Ferrell's luck had changed. She sent a demo tape of her own compositions to Blue Note Records' Bruce Lundvall, who was impressed enough to catch her live. While the demo she'd sent Lundvall included only pop songs, the performance he saw was strictly of jazz material. Lundvall found Ferrell's command of both styles compelling, so he signed her to a contract that allowed for one pop record and one jazz record. She recorded the jazz album, Somethin' Else, first, but for commercial reasons Blue Note only released it in Japan and Europe, where jazz has greater mainstream acceptance than in the U.S. This was fine with Ferrell, who noted in USA Today, "I didn't want to be pigeon-holed. [Singer] Dianne Reeves would tell me horror stores. Her first album was jazz, and no matter what kind of album she puts out now, it'll be in the jazz bin." Coinciding with the release of this album, Ferrell began a lengthy tour of both Europe and Japan.
Ferrell's second album, consisting strictly of popular music, was released in the United States in 1992. She wrote ten of the 13 songs represented and played piano on three cuts. One song, "Too Late," was written for her father, with whom she has had a troubled relationship. "It was born out of excruciating pain," she confided in USA Today." Ferrell worked with producers George Duke and Michael J. Powell on the album, which took two years to complete. It was recorded almost fully live, which is unusual in an industry where synthesized instruments, layered vocals, and electronic correction of mistakes is the norm. "I wanted something ... that somebody can put on and change their mood, and something I would be proud of ten years down the road," Ferrell asserted in USA Today.
The self-titled album received excellent reviews; its commercial success, however, was limited, partly because the record received scant radio play. Ferrell was disappointed by Blue Note's promotional efforts. "It did not get the attention from the record company it deserved," Ferrell told The San Francisco Chronicle. "It's lasted a year as kind of an orphan child." Part of the problem, she pointed out in USA Today, is that the music market is geared towards young artists and a young audience. Expressing the concerns of many an artist, Ferrell said, "We've honed our art for years, but right now, the trend is toward the very young and the immediate dollar."
In an unusual turnaround, Capitol Records, parent company of Blue Note, decided to put some muscle behind the album--two years after its premiere. As Ferrell continued her extensive performance tours in America, the label began to blitz each city on her itinerary with heavy sales promotions just before and after her concerts. The company also produced a promotional concert video for local broadcasts to coincide with area appearances. In August of 1994, a fourth single, "With Open Arms," was released to radio. Sales of Rachelle Ferrell steadily increased with these renewed efforts.
As she has released further albums and her fame has spread, Ferrell has steadfastly resisted the efforts of some in the industry to force her to narrow her musical range to just jazz or pop. She summed up her struggle in The San Francisco Chronicle: "After close to 20 years of being accepted for who I am ... and having diversity being a moniker for my sound, to have to deal with the constant pressure from the record company, as well as the media, to have to choose or splinter myself in order to accommodate their structures is a bit much after a while.... My major focus and goal right now, if I am to remain in this industry, is to be able to find some type of way to strike a balance in my life and in my career and to be able to retain my integrity. If I can't do that, the cost is gonna be too much and I'm not willing to pay it."
In fact, Ferrell seems to have no choice but to work in both the pop and jazz idioms. She told The San Francisco Chronicle that when asked "'Rachelle, if you had to choose between jazz and pop, which would you chose?'" she responds with, "If you have to choose between your right leg and your left leg...." Fortunately, her adoring fans do not seem to want her to make such a choice.
by Robin Armstrong
Rachelle Ferrell's Career
Made professional debut, c. 1974; performed in clubs in Philadelphia area and sang backup for Lou Rawls, Patti LaBelle, Vanessa Williams, and George Duke, 1975-90; signed to Blue Note Records; released debut album, Somethin' Else, 1990; toured Japan and Europe, 1990-92, and U.S., 1992-94; appeared at Montreux Jazz Festival, 1990, and Newport, Martinique, and Santa Lucia jazz festivals, 1994.
- Selective Works
- On Blue Note/Capitol Records Somthin' Else, 1990.
- Rachelle Ferrell, 1992.
- Nothing Has Ever Felt Like This, 1994.
- With Open Arms/Peace on Earth, 1994.
- First Instrument, 1995.
- Billboard, September 5, 1992; February 20, 1993; July 3, 1993; January 8, 1994; September 10, 1994.
- Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1993.
- Essence, February 1993.
- Los Angeles Times Calendar, October 23, 1992.
- San Francisco Chronicle, August 29, 1993.
- USA Today, September 24, 1992; October 16, 1992; December 30, 1992; June 3, 1993; May 10, 1994.
- Washington Post, October 21, 1992; February 5, 1993; October 14, 1993; August 16, 1994.