Although she is entering the Canadian Music Hall of Fame this weekend as the first black woman inducted due to her impressive international achievements, Deborah Cox humbly remembers the days of relentless turmoil that led to her success.
The Toronto-born, three-time Juno award-winning singer and songwriter — best known for the 1998 power ballad “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” (#1 for 14 weeks on the Billboard Hot R&B/ Hip-Hop Songs) and 13 Billboard Dance Club Songs No. 1 hits — left virtually no stone unturned in her quest to reach the upper echelons of pop stardom and she hasn’t forgotten the struggle.
“It was a lot of sacrifice,” Cox, 47, recalled on the phone recently. “A lot of late nights in the studio: a lot of session work, jingles. Not making a lot of money. Lots of freebies. Lots of favors, just to gain experience…just to try my luck.
It’s the unseen part of a fledgling artist’s career that many devotees never imagine: countless hours in the studio, the incredible expense, sending demos to record labels all over North America, hoping to get a deal.
“At the time, it was on tape,” Cox said. “We didn’t have all the technology you have now. You would use whatever you could to record your songs that you either sent by FedEx or mailed in your demo tape.
“I remember we had all of our photos taken, all of our black and white photos and lyrics typed out, and we were sending all these different packages out to labels and waiting for a response. We were getting letters – and some were taking meetings and saying “no” to our face – and some weren’t giving you an answer. So you should go collect your marbles and play other games and take it in stride. It’s hard not to take it personally, but you have to find that confidence in yourself to keep going.
When things weren’t right, Cox and his childhood sweetheart, co-writer and director Lascelles Stephens, found solace near the Toronto Zoo.
“Depending on whether we got a rejection letter or got the wrong answer and things weren’t really going our way, we knew we could always take a drive by the little lakes very close to the zoo and we relax and strategize,” said Cox, who grew up in Flemingdon Park and moved to Scarborough in his early teens.
“It was so beautiful there and it was our zen.”
Cox’s first big breakthrough came in the early ’90s, landing a touring gig as a backing vocalist with future superstar Celine Dion. She witnessed Dion’s work ethic and almost immediately found herself at a crossroads.
“There comes a time when you have to find a way to differentiate yourself from the pack: have the courage to leave such a high-paying gig and all the great opportunities that were about to come,” Cox said. “She was getting ready to go on a really long tour and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to be on tour for a year and a half and not being able to record my own stuff, do my own stuff. .’
“That’s when I left… I was really grateful for this experience because it really helped me to clarify who I wanted to be as an artist.”
Soon after, Cox and her future husband Stephens met an executive at Minneapolis’ Flyte Tyme Records, the label owned by Prince associates Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who were working with Janet Jackson at the time.
“She said, ‘You write great songs, but you should write something we can hear on the radio tomorrow. What would that song be? And on the way back from Minneapolis, we went to our little studio and found ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’
“It was the first song where we really started to get a response. And it was the song that Clive (Davis) liked on the demo and it was the song that basically got me signed to Arista.
Davis, a star record label executive whose discoveries include Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Billy Joel and many more, backed Cox at Arista and later his J Records, helping him succeed. with milestones such as the aforementioned “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” and top US R&B hits “Sentimental” and “We Can’t Be Friends” (featuring RL Huggar).
Cox also made quite an impression on the club scene, scoring hits like “Who Do U Love”, “Things Just Ain’t the Same”, “It’s Over Now”, “I Never Knew” and “Absolutely Not”.
“I spent a lot of time in Europe,” she said. “Sound in Europe is what we know as EDM and all of that is really big there, so I was really early on and in tune with that market because I had been there before. to be a recording artist.
“Who Do U Love” and “Things Just Ain’t the Same” began to resonate not only in dance clubs, but also in gay clubs.
Cox’s stance on promoting and protecting LGBTQ rights has made her an icon in that community.
“A lot of the stories I heard were that my songs were very empowering to the community: they felt like they could be authentic themselves,” Cox said. “I really took all of these stories to heart and it became part of my mission – not just on civil rights, but on equal rights, human rights – for me to see my friends and colleagues to be respected for being as they are. ”
Since those days, the mother of three has become very versatile, broadening her horizons in musical theater (she made her Broadway debut in Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida” and starred in the musicals “Jekyll and Hyde “, “The Bodyguard” and “Josephine”); television (roles in “Station Eleven” and “First Wives Club”, among others) and direct-to-video movies.
Cox said she likes to keep busy to alleviate boredom.
“What I would do in between albums is I would do those gigs on TV, like I did ‘Soul Food’ and ‘Nash Bridges,’ and I did a few indie movies,” he said. she declared. “It was fun, because it gave me the opportunity to explore a whole other side creatively.”
Now based in Miami, Cox said she’s been partying every day since learning about her induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
How does Cox, who will perform at the Juno Awards, think about it?
“It’s a huge honour. I know it’s really game-changing and historic, and I feel really validated. I think it’s a wonderful acknowledgment for all the hard work and everything I’ve done and the sacrifice that’s been made, and I feel so honored to know that there will be other people who come after me who will know that they have a real opportunity in this industry to make a name for themselves and make music.
“I feel really, really validated.”
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