The 1980s undoubtedly had its fair share of R&B divas, but singer Vesta Williams may have been one of the era’s most underrated talents.

The big-voiced songstress was found dead in her El Segundo, Calif. hotel room on Sept. 23, according to the Associated Press. Coroners said the 53-year-old may have died from a potential drug overdose, but an official toxicology report will likely take six weeks to process.

The singer was widely known for her hits “Special,” “Sweet Sweet Love” and her signature ballad, “Congratulations.”

The Coshocton, Ohio native got her start in the ‘70s as a backup singer for noteworthy artists such as Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan and Sting. But she struck out on her own in 1986 when she released her first album Vesta on A&M Records. Though her initial release yielded a minor hit with “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” her sophomore effort Vesta 4 U spawned several hits and established her as a major force in R&B.

But on the heels of her success, the singer struggled with weight issues and her career was forced into a downward spiral. She often credited her size to the reason why she didn’t reach superstardom.

“When I lost my record deal and my phone wasn’t ringing, I realized that I had to reassess who Vesta was and figure out what was going wrong,” the singer told Ebony magazine in a past interview. “I knew it wasn’t my singing ability. So it had to be that I was expendable because I didn’t have the right look.”

Then in the ‘90s, Williams did a complete turnaround after she dropped from a size 26 to a size six. Shortly thereafter, she became an advocate in the fight against childhood obesity and diabetes.

Also around that time, she launched her acting career and appeared in the 1993 film Posse and the ABC sitcom “Sister, Sister” the following year.

“I’ve always felt that to deliver a song successfully, you have to be an actress,” a post on her website read. “A good actress becomes the part, just as a good singer becomes the song.”

On “Sister, Sister” she played Monica, the best friend of Jackee Harry’s character Lisa Landry.

Harry took to Twitter following the singer’s death to voice her bereavement.

“ received truly devastating news: R&B great, and my friend of many yrs, Vesta Williams has passed away. #RIP Vesta,” she wrote.

Actor Sinbad echoed Harry’s tweet and said, “Our dear sister and one of the ‘sangiest’ divas ever, Vesta Williams, has passed away. I loved that sister.”

Williams’ death abruptly ended what could have been a significant comeback.

Last year, she released a new single on iTunes and was scheduled to perform at the “Divas Simply Singing!” event in Los Angeles in October. The special, put on by actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, will now honor Williams and fallen singer Teena Marie.

The late songstress was also set to be featured on an episode of TVOne’s “Unsung.”

Now, Williams’ legacy will live on through her powerful ballads and unforgettable performances as fans wonder what her career could have been.

“Vesta created some timeless hits that the world knows, but there were depths to her artistry that the world at large did not get to hear,” Randall Grass, general manager of Shanachie Entertainment told the AFRO. “Her peers in the industry knew what a special talent she was. Aside from music, Vesta had many other accomplishments and brought a touch of class to all she did.”

 

Gregory Dale

AFRO News Editor