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Interview: Seneca Niagara Casino concert a homecoming for talented Vanessa Williams

by jmaloni
Sat, Dec 21st 2013 07:00 am
Vanessa Williams performs Saturday, Dec. 28, at Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel in downtown Niagara Falls. (photo by Rod Spicer)
Vanessa Williams performs Saturday, Dec. 28, at Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel in downtown Niagara Falls. (photo by Rod Spicer)

Singer, actress, Broadway star has family in Western New York

Preview by Joshua Maloni

These days, it seems there are as many singers trying to be actors or actors trying to be singers as there are snowflakes. Snowflakes, it could be said, are just fancily dressed raindrops looking for attention. These performers, likewise, are just half-decent actors or marginally talented singers trying to extend their 15 minutes of fame. It's no surprise, then, that most of them melt away just as fast as snowflakes.

Of course, no two snowflakes are the same. Some, remarkably, persevere and scale the highest heights or create the most picturesque art.

Vanessa Williams is that kind of snowflake.

The daughter of two Fredonia-schooled musicians, she was born with natural talent. Her time at Syracuse University fine-tuned her singing, dancing and acting skills so that, by the time she was ready to make a living as a performer, she wasn't trying to be anything. She was a legitimate talent.

"Music is in my DNA, but it's part of what makes my career so broad," Williams said this week in a phone interview. "I can go into the studio and read music. I can perform and dance on stage because I have a dance background. I can act, because I started acting. I think, certainly, majoring in musical theater and doing theater allows me to be able to sing and dance and act and be able to do television and film and stage and my performing, and do it seamlessly."

In the past decade, Williams has, figuratively, resided in the living rooms of millions of people with starring roles in television series "Ugly Betty," "Desperate Housewives" and "666 Park Avenue." She performed on Broadway, too, and was nominated for a Tony Award for her work on "Into the Woods." Prior to that, she was a successful R&B/pop singer with millions of record sales.

It's Vanessa Williams the singer who will perform Saturday, Dec. 28, at the Seneca Niagara Events Center.

"I just finished a Broadway run," she said. "We did 'The Trip to Bountiful' with Cicely Tyson and Cuba Gooding Jr., and then we just did the TV version for Lifetime TV, which will be out in February, and that was with Cicely, as well, and Blair Underwood.

"The past seven years, I've been on television shows. I never really had the opportunity to go back out on the road like I did previously. I do one-off gigs when I get an opportunity and when the offer comes in. This is a great, kind of mid-holiday opportunity to go to Buffalo."

For those of us who were in high school or college in the '90s or early '00s, Williams' Grammy-nominated songs "Save the Best for Last," from her "The Comfort Zone" album, and "Love Is," a duet with Buffalo's own Brian McKnight (made famous on "Beverly Hills, 90210"), are an immediate trigger of happy, nostalgic memories.

While the music business has all but cannibalized itself since then, Williams would welcome a return to the industry.

"Going back in the studio is an opportunity to make more music," she said. "I'm a creative person. The result is always different things that you can explore and things that you want to do.

"I've had great pop and commercial success over the years, but I'd love to go back in and do a straight standards album. I'd love to do something that has to do with show tunes and musical theater. I'd love to do more of a straight-up Brazilian/Latin album. There's plenty of opportunities to go in the studio and make new music and work with other producers and explore as an artist. ... That's something that'll always be appealing to me."

Williams wouldn't mind hitting the road on a more regular basis, either.

"I would love to go back on tour, but this works for me now," she said. "You know, we'll see. I would love to get back in the studio and create some more music. I haven't been back in - my last album was in '09. I'm due for some new music. Thank God I've got hits that have lasted the past 25 years. Not just romantic, pop hits, but 'tis the season. Everyone's always texting me, telling me, 'You just serenaded me at Tim Hortons,' 'You just serenaded me at Walgreens.' It's great to still have a presence almost during any season."

When Williams performs in Niagara Falls, she promises to give her fans a memorable experience.

"There's nothing like moving an audience," she said. "When people are excited, when they're moved to tears, when they're elated and clap because they're happy or joyous, those are things that not only make me feel alive, but (tell me) I'm doing my job well. That can, fortunately, happen for me in many different venues."

On stage at Seneca Niagara, "You'll hear a lot of hits," Williams said. "Thank God, I've had some hits that are still played on the radio. You'll hear 'Dreamin,' and 'Colors of the Wind,' and, of course, 'Save the Best for Last' and 'Sweetest Days.' And we'll obviously do some recent hits off my latest album, which is 'The Real Thing.' "

This trip will be special for Williams, whose mother, the former Helen Tinch, was born and raised in Buffalo and attended East High. Williams' grandmother, Doris Griffin, is from Buffalo. Her uncle, Fred Tinch, lives in Kenmore, and she has cousins residing in Western New York. Even her boyfriend is from here, hailing from Depew and at one time attending St. Bonaventure University.

"I've got my daughter singing along with me, who's got her own record (deal). So, it'll be nice for my family members that haven't seen her perform live, they'll get a chance to see Jillian back me up on stage," Williams said.

Fans in attendance will find something else about Williams that isn't often seen with those faux singer-actor hybrids. Her backing band is comprised of legitimate musicians who have performed with the likes of Sting and/or have their own touring companies.

"These are musicians that are not just, 'Oh, let's throw a band together and let's do a gig.' These are musicians that have all made records and are recording artists of their own. I'm lucky enough that they come back every time I call to do a gig," Williams said.

Tickets for Vanessa Williams' 8 p.m. show are on sale now at Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel. To purchase one, or for more information, visit http://www.senecaniagaracasino.com/.

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