Born Vanessa Bell on October 2, 1953, in Detroit, MI; daughter of Jesse Bell, a minister; married with five children. Addresses: Record company--BMG Entertainment/Verity Records, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10019, Phone: (212) 930-4000.
Singer Vanessa Bell Armstrong has been praised for her R&B-flavored contemporary gospel music and has met with success in both the gospel and secular realms. She has often been compared with another Detroit native, Aretha Franklin. At times, Armstrong has stretched so far afield of "traditional" gospel music that in the 1980s she was at times considered too contemporary for gospel. Billboard , in a 1998 review of Desire Of My Heart--"Live," wrote, "A lot has changed [since 1988] and Armstrong has stood her ground, emerging with a work that is the perfect summation of gospel's rich history and its cutting-edge presence in the mix of today's R&B music.... It took a while, but the world seems to be catching up to Armstrong."
Vanessa Bell was born in Detroit, Michigan on October 2, 1953. She was raised in the Church of God in Christ, a denomination that had nurtured other gospel greats such as BeBe and CeCe Winans, Andre Crouch, Edwin, Walter and Tramaine Hawkins, and others. In 1957, when she was four years old, Vanessa began traveling with her mother singing in various churches in the Detroit area, singing. It was clear even at that young age that she had both remarkable stage presence and the vocal control of someone considerably older.
In 1966, when she was thirteen years old, Vanessa was discovered by Dr. Mattie Moss Clark. Clark became her mentor. She began traveling with Clark, singing in her various choirs and sharing the stage with such gospel titans as Rev. James Cleveland, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Clark Sisters, and the Winans. Other early influences include Marion Williams, Mahalia Jackson, Inez Andrews, and Aretha Franklin. Armstrong's first recording experience was an appearance on Donald O'Connor's 1981 release, Bring Back Birdie. Her own recording career began in 1984 when, at the age of 31, she signed with the Onyx label and released Peace Be Still.
Career Took Off
In 1987 Armstrong's career took off in earnest. She beat out stiff competition--including the likes of Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle--for the chance to record the theme song for the popular television sit-com Amen. Armstrong had her Broadway debut in 1987, captivating audiences in the musical Don't Get God Started. She made a guest appearance on Tom Jones' Move Closer .
When she signed with Jive Records in 1987, Armstrong began a period of prolific recording activity. Her eponymous album, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, released in 1987, yielded the crossover R&B hit, "You Bring Out the Best in Me". Her 1990 release, Wonderful One, featured a duet, entitled, "True Love Never Fails," with Jive label-mate jazz guitarist Jonathan Butler. The track was also included on Butler's acclaimed More Than Friends album. In 1990, Jive released a CD of Armstrong's greatest hits album along with the highly praised Truth About Christmas . In 1991 Chosen was released.
The multi-talented Armstrong branched out even further afield of gospel music in the late 1980s when she appeared with Oprah Winfrey in the Women of Brewster Place, a made-for-TV movie which enjoyed widespread critical acclaim. Armstrong continued her brisk recording pace; she released Something On The Inside i n 1993 The Secret is Out in 1995, and her first live album, Desire of My Heart: "Live" in 1998. Armstrong was a featured guest on the 1995 compilation release A Tribute to Rosa Parks, and on two John P. Kee CDs, the 1994 release, Color Blind, and the 1995 release, Stand.
Continual Spiritual and Artistic Growth
Armstrong has continually expanded her horizons and her audience, performing on Broadway and releasing eclectic, contemporary albums such as Truth About Christmas, Something on the Inside, and The Secret is Out. Mainstream entertainment and her music has been praised figures such as Oprah Winfrey, Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Tisha Campbell; artists such as Sandra Crouch and Donna McElroy have found musical guidance and inspiration in Armstrong's music and career.
Desire of My Heart--"Live," released in 1998 on the Verity label, was recorded in Detroit's Perfecting Church, and accompanied by a live video shot during the recording session. The recording shows the spiritual and artistic growth Armstrong has undergone over the course of her career. Its title track was the first song she wrote herself. And while recording the album, Armstrong reconfirmed her life's desire, above all else, to please God. Armstrong was the record's co-producer, also a first for her.
She decided to release a live recording for two reasons: her fans had wanted one for some time, and Armstrong felt it would be a new challenge. Recording in a studio afforded her a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere; the live CD brought Armstrong's fans into the recording process and reproduced the concert experience. The CD was something of a family affair--her father, Elder Jesse Bell, contributed the track "Labor In Vain." Joining Armstrong on the live recording were the Perfected Praise Choir; Perfecting Church pastor Marvin Winans sang with Armstrong and the choir on the powerhouse track "He Is Lord."
An Enduring Classic
Armstrong's career has flourished throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and gives every indication that she will continue to challenge herself and delight listeners. Billboard 's gospel reviewer brimmed with praise for the live CD, calling it "an enduring classic." Darren K. Greggs of Love Express wrote, "It's always a pleasure to see someone continue to grow in their ministry, and that's just what sister Vanessa Bell Armstrong appears to have done. The evidence is manifested in ... Desire of My Heart--Live. Each song on this one is powerful and displays the talent that sister Vanessa returns to God in his service."
Whether singing urban contemporary ballads, secular material, powerhouse gospel tracks, or television theme songs, Broadway hits, or forging into completely new territory, Vanessa Bell Armstrong will continue to astound her fans and to test the limits of her seemingly boundless talent.
by B. Kimberly Taylor
Vanessa Bell Armstrong's Career
Began singing in various Detroit area churches at the age of four; discovered at the age of thirteen by Dr. Mattie Moss Clark; sang with gospel performers such as Rev. James Cleveland, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Clark Sisters, and the Winans as a teenager; appeared on Donald O'Connor's 1981 release, Bring Back Birdie; released Peace Be Still in 1984; released Vanessa Bell Armstrong album in 1987; recorded the theme for the television sitcom Amen in 1987; appeared in the Broadway musical Don't Get God Started in 1987; appeared on Tom Jones' Move Closer in 1988; released Wonderful One in 1990; released Greatest Hits and The Truth About Christmas in 1990; released Chosen in 1991; released Something On The Inside in 1993; released The Secret is Out in 1995; released Desire of My Heart: Live in Detroit in 1998; featured on the 1995 compilation A Tribute to Rosa Parks, on John P. Kee's 1994 release, Color Blind, and on Kee's 1995 release, Stand.
- Selected discography
- Peace Be Still ,Benson, 1984.
- Vanessa Bell Armstrong ,Jive/Novus, 1987.
- Wonderful One ,Jive/Novus, 1990.
- The Truth About Christmas ,BMG, 1990.
- Greatest Hits ,Muscle Shoals, 1990.
- Chosen ,Onyx, 1991.
- Something On The Inside ,Jive/Novus. 1993.
- Secret Is Out ,Verity, 1995.
- Malaco's Greatest Gospel Hits: Vol. 2 ,Malaco, 1995.
- Desire Of My Heart--"Live," Verity, 1998.
- Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration , Warner Brothers, 1992.
- Billboard , May 30, 1998.
- Love Express , 1998.
- All-Media Guide: http://www.amg.com
- Additional information provided by the publicity department at Verity Records.