Shwne, Colina & Sharon Lee
Shwne, Colina & Sharon Lee

A Conversation with... Three Soulful Songbirds

Vocalists’ Colina Phillips, Sharon Lee Williams and Shawne Jackson may not be household names, but they have visited your living room on many occasions.

These three ladies sang both leads and backgrounds on 90 percent of the commercials you heard on radio and television through the ‘70s,’80s’ and’ 90s. I had a sit down conversation with the three February 1990 just as the studio scene was about to change and eventually succumb to modern technology. These were the big money days and the three thrived under the old system.

Bill King: How did your careers end up being centred in the recording studios?

Colina Phillips: It was a happy accident for me. I’ve said this so many times, but I’m telling the truth; it’s just the way things have worked out. I worked around Toronto playing the club circuit. I hadn’t made a commitment to being a singer at the time. I think my beginning was when I tried out for the musical Hair.

S.L.W: I started out in Hair as well in Montreal. It was an independent. Prior to that, I had my own production band, but there wasn’t much work and I didn’t have confidence in myself as a singer. I didn’t get into Hair as a career move. I already thought I wanted to be in computers. I was working for Sun Life and really enjoying it. I started there as a keypunch operator and was learning programming on the side.

B.K.: Did you come to Toronto after Sun Life left Montreal?

S.L.W: No, I left before because of another incident…the riots at Sir George Williams that stemmed from racial incidents.

B.K.: Did this come at a time when there were strong separatist feelings?
S.L.W: That was after, then I left. While I was in Hair, there was the whole FLQ incident — when they killed Pierre Laporte. The production was cut short. I remember seeing the tanks rolling through the streets and saying to ourselves, “This can’t be happening here. We only see this in other countries.”

B.K.: That’s when Trudeau imposed the War Measures Act.

S.L.W: That’s right. It was really quite a time, with soldiers on rooftops and everything…very strange.

B.K.: Shawne, you frequently performed live early in your career and then drifted away from public appearances.

Shawne Jackson: My decision to move to the studios was a conscious one because I don’t particularly like performing live.

B.K.: What turned you off ?

S.J.: I loved playing colleges and community centres where the people listen, but once you do bars, people don’t care. You blow your voice and you have to put up with drunks. For me, that’s not a lot of fun. You burn yourself out. It costs a lot of money to keep going. When it’s your band, it’s always a struggle with everything on your shoulders. I didn’t like that at all.

I also don’t like performing every night, night after night; it gets boring. The same songs, the same things, just moving the act from here to there. I stopped singing twice for five years. To perform live, it must be something special for me and that’s hard to find.

B.K.: When you began were you initially induced by the desire for stardom?
S.L.W.: I was, but the star thing has long passed. When I was younger I wanted to be a star, but once I got into the jingle business it occurred to me I wanted to make some money for my work. You want appreciation and recognition, but in different terms. Still, I’d certainly love to have a hit album and do videos.

C.P.: I had a family. I don’t think I really ever had that kind of ambition.

S.L.W.: It has to be a single minded effort.

B.K.: Colina, when you started singing what sparked the desire? Were there records or certain artists that inspired you?

C.P.: I’ve always really loved Dionne Warwick. I remember the first time I got excited about something musically was on first hearing Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. I don’t think I had ever heard anything like that before. I was real young, maybe three or four, but it impressed me.

That made me want to sing and got me excited about singing. I never really thought about being a singer. I never considered there was such a thing. We always sang around the house. I used to sing with friends, like Shawne.
S.J.: We sang in the church choir together.

B.K.: Where was that?

C.P.: In Toronto, down on St. Charles.

S.J.: BMI — British Methodist.

C.P.: If someone had asked me what I did, I would have said I was a secretary even though I was singing at the time.

S.L.W.: I never thought about being a jingle singer. Maybe people consciously do that now. When I was growing up I didn’t know you made money singing commercials. I just used to sing along.

B.K.: Was singing your main ambition?

S.L.W.: No, I wanted to act or be a fashion designer. My mother used to shove us on this French radio show in Montreal called ‘Call Me Uncle’. My sister and I would sing He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands, We’d always win and I hated every minute of it. It was embarrassing. We’d win tap shoes. My sister wanted to be the singer. She was out there. Real gregarious. I was shy and kept things to myself. I would act in my room with bloomers on my head.

B.K.: Who did you want to be with bloomers on your head?

S.J.: Someone with long hair!

S.L.W.: I had back lighting, sheets wrapped around me…I kissed the frames. I was nuts! Don’t even say it…I had a flair for the dramatic.

S.J.: My story is basically the same. I never wanted to be a singer. I just happened to become one. I wanted to be an actress or a dancer. I knew I didn’t want to work a day job. I’ve worked two day jobs in my life and got fired from one. I hate mornings and I don’t enjoy doing the same thing all of the time. I’m easily bored.

I fell into singing. My mother used to say, “You need to get a job,” and I’d say, “Why? I’ve been working weekends at The Blue Note.” She’d say, “That’s not enough.” I’d say, “Why isn’t it enough? I make as good as everyone else is doing?” She’d reply, “What about school?” I’d tell her, “I finished school and I don’t want to go to college. I’m not a student and I don’t particularly like school. This is what I want to do and you’re going to have to accept it.” After that she basically accepted it because she knew I wasn’t going to do anything else.

I did it because it was the best of the alternatives for my nature. I’m not an office person. I’m very independent.

B.K.: Were your roots in R 'n’ B?

S.J.: Oh, yes. I listened to Dionne Warwick, Aretha, Stevie Wonder, all of the Motown artists, but I used to sing in front of the mirror and kiss the walls too because as I said I wanted to be an actress and dancer.

13.K.: Who did you want to be?

S.J.: There were no role models at the time.

S.L.W.: I remember my first feelings about acting were from watching Marilyn Monroe on Ed Sullivan. I was drawn to her, not wanting to be a sex symbol, but I just identified with her at that moment for whatever reason. She was dramatic.

B.K.: What kind of material are you most comfortable with?

C.P.: I like jazz and rock. I like Carmen McCrae. She’s my favourite of the singers. I really like Phil Collins, INXS, Stevie  with a great song and performance.

B.K.: Sharon, you work quite a few live dates during the year. What kind of material do you choose?

S.L.W.: Sometimes the wrong things! What I really like to sing is torch songs. I love the drama. I like doing tunes with great lyrics, but I don’t always do that. You get caught up in what you think you should be singing, but I do love ballads. Torch and tearjerkers. I feel them when I’m onstage.

S.J.: I also like ballads and I like my husband’s (Domenic Troiano) writing. He writes songs just for me. I just have no plans for singing live, so I don’t give it much thought.

B.K.: Other ambitions?

S.J.: More acting. I’d like to build. I like building things and I like creating. I’ve been singing so long that I’d like to explore other things.

C.P.: You get to a stage in your life when you have done something for a long period of time and you start to look around. Especially if you’re not doing everything in that certain area that you could. You start to look for other avenues for your energies and talents. I look to writing.

B.K.: At this time in your lives, do you feel a little more comfortable after the climb?

C.P.: You got it. I think that one of the most vivid memories I have is going out of town. Those kinds of clubs.

S.L.W.: When I played the bars, patrons used to come up and say “What are you doing in here?” I knew I was in the wrong place then, It’s the kind of place you have to play. I don’t want to do it. then.

B.K.: It’s very rare that musicians or bands get to make that choice.

S.J: It’s not worth it in the long run.

B.K.: You’ve all done well financially in the jingle business and being businesswomen, you’ve all planned and invested wisely for your futures. The scene is always changing.

S.L.W.: It’s really changed. The machines, the recession, the mergers. When you hear a company like Saatchi and Saatchi are going out of business, I mean they were a big American company, it’s kind of scary.

S.J.: There’s tons of talent in this city and we have to make way for them as well.

S.L.W.: I’m not ready to leave yet.

B.K.: How have you all lasted?

S.L.W.: We’re all genuinely nice people, aside from the talent, and that’s very important.

C.P.: One of the things that’s very important in sustaining a long career in this industry is being adaptable. I think we’ve been that. When you think of all of the different kinds of jobs we’ve done, whether in the studio or live, we’ve pretty much been the best.

S.L.W.: The people in the industry let us know they enjoy working with us and we enjoy working with them. It makes a big difference. We’ve been very lucky.

B.K.: I know all of you attempted to go out as a singing group at one time. What happened to that?

C.P.: We’re really three totally different people who fit together so well it’s ridiculous. I think when you have three strong ideas of what each wants it to be. it makes it all the more difficult to blend everything together.

S.L.W.: There was never a leader among the three of us. We would all bring different things to the table.

B.K.: 1 guess after working together for so long, it’s hard not to be friends.

S.L.W.: We all respect each other, even though we may fight and say stupid things; we’re only human. There’s a great deal of respect for where we’ve come from and where we are now.

B.K.: Do you sing along with the radio or your favourite records? All Three: Sure, and dance.

C.P.: I have a Take 6 album on one side of a cassette and The Alliance album on the other. I just keep it running all the time I’m in the car and sing along. It’s great.

B.K.: Aren’t Take 6 remarkable?

S.J.: Every one of them sings beautifully and they’re all clean-cut, wonderful-looking, straight black guys.

S.L.W.: It’s nice to have those role models out there.

B.K.: Black music has found its audience again.

S.J.: Thank God! Who really knows what it is anymore, it’s become so homogenous. You have black, white, Mexican — everything mixed together.
C.P.: The crossover is black into rock these days.

S.L.W.: Tina Turner.

C.P.: Last year on the Grammys, the band with the dreds, Living Color, showed how it was done.

B.K.: During the early '80s, radio was very tough on black artists in Canada. People like Diana Ross were successful, on the top of the U.S. charts, but omitted from radio here. Did this period frustrate you?

S.J.: What they have done is, they’ve added an R 'n’ B category to every awards show. Personally, I think you’re better off being a crossover artist.
C.P.: If you’re black, you’re expected to be, or classified, R & B, no matter what you sing.

S.L.W.: I remember when  I  was  in  Los Angeles   talking    to   a   major   label. It wouldn’t have mattered what I sang, even if it was in French, I was going to be considered a black artist. They said, “We’ll put you in the black division and you’ll work with these writers.”

In Canada, that’s just reflected on a very small scale. But there are black sections in record companies that do engage in working with artists. There is a much stronger group in the U. S. We don’t have anyone here who could manage like that. We have nothing to relate it too.

S.J.: It was easier when we were kids. When I was in high school, I was doing television. There were variety shows. Lots of opportunities on television as well as on radio. There were lots of clubs too. They just play videos now, the same top 30.

B.K.: The past decade was really a challenge to the arts community. Budgets were slashed. Are you proud of your occupation and would you recommend others pursue it?

S.J.: Oh, yes. I’m proud and happy as well.

C.P.: Absolutely. If that is what you want, you should pursue it.

B.K.: Being an artist is a full-time job.

C.P.: You can’t only be talented, you have to know the business. You must take
care of yourself. I think many artists don’t pay enough attention to business.

S.J.: You have to keep an eye on your own business.

C.P.: You have to understand what’s going on.

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