She has performed on two number one singles, co-written a variety of hits, and boasts Quincy Jones as a mentor. Working with everyone from Michael Jackson to Sergio Mendes, she has enjoyed a stellar career as a singer and songwriter since the early 1980s. Yet she remains unfairly obscure, an artist that most people know by voice, but not by name. Due to her vast accomplishments, Siedah Garrett deserves a prominent place in modern R&B and pop.
As she told SingersRoom.com in 2008, her career began after Jones signed her to a deal with his label Qwest. First performing in a Jones-created group, Deco, Garrett began writing songs after being forced to sign a publishing deal. Her big break arrived in 1984, when she sang on Dennis Edwards’ classic jam “Don’t Look Any Further.” After achieving this success on the R&B charts, she scored another opportunity by working with Jackson on his album Bad. Along with her collaborator Glen Ballard (who went on to work with Alanis Morissette on her breakout disc Jagged Little Pill), she submitted a song for Jackson’s consideration: “Man in the Mirror.” Her soulful performance on the demo won over Jackson and Jones, and the track became one of the biggest hits of Jackson’s career. In addition, she duetted with him on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” another number one single.
While Garrett had clearly achieved songwriting success, she also attracted attention as a performer. In 1987 she sang on “Ever Changing Times,” a Burt Bacharach, Carol Bayer Sager, and Bill Conti composition, for the Diane Keaton film Baby Boom. The accompanying video earned frequent rotation on VH1, and now serves as a time capsule of the 1980s working woman. Garrett’s expressive voice effectively captures the lead character’s struggle maintaining her career and motherhood. When she sings lyrics such as “Caught in between, it comes back to/You and me running out of time, got to find me a better understanding/Every day I keep forgetting what’s mine/Got to find me a way less demanding,” the listener can sense her torment. Aretha Franklin and Michael McDonald covered “Ever Changing Times” in 1991, but they did not quite capture the deep emotion of the original. The following year Garrett released a solo album, Kiss of Life, which spawned the single “K.I.S.S.I.N.G.” Unfortunately the album met with modest success, reaching number 41 on the Billboard R&B charts.
While these singles gave audiences a taste of Garrett’s talent, her fingerprints were all over Jones’ 1989 album Back on the Block. As always, Jones surrounded himself with well-known artists who had already worked with him (or always wanted to) as well as rising musicians. She co-wrote several songs for the project, including the title track, “One Man Woman,” “Secret Garden,” “Tomorrow (A Better You, Better Me),” and “Wee B. Dooinit,” the latter being entirely acapella. These songs prove she can write in a variety of genres such as funk, jazz, hip-hop, and soul. She sings backup on virtually every Back on the Block track, and shows she can keep up with legends like Sarah Vaughan, Chaka Khan, and Ella Fitzgerald. In addition, her confident lead vocals on “One Man Woman,” “Wee B. Dooinit,” and “I Don’t Go For That” illustrate her sass and charm. Interestingly, she subsequently appeared on a 1991 episode of the sitcom Amen, playing Reverend Reuben Gregory’s (Clifton Davis) singing niece. She performed the Back on the Block song “The Places You Find Love” during her TV appearance.
After being featured prominently on Jones’ disc, it was assumed that Garrett would become a well-known solo artist. Yet such fame eluded her, despite her genuine talent. Her songwriting continued throughout the 1990s–she co-wrote Jackson’s Dangerous track “Keep the Faith,” and penned songs for artists such as Paula Abdul, Amy Grant, and Roberta Flack. However, her next move thrust her back in the spotlight. In 1997 Brand New Heavies lead singer N’dea Davenport departed the British acid jazz band, and Garrett took her place. Their album Shelter featured many songs co-written by Garrett, and her distinctive lead vocals led the group into a more conventional R&B direction. “Sometimes,” the standout track, features a bass-heavy beat and Garrett’s funky voice. “I Like It” retains some of the Brand New Heavies’ trademark acid jazz sound. Eventually Davenport returned to the group, but she and the band performed the Garrett-era songs “Sometimes” and “You Are the Universe” on their 2009 reunion tour.