Debelah Morgan has been on the brink of stardom for so long and had so many opportunities slip by, she would have every right to feel snake bit.
With “Dance With Me,” her third album on her third label in the past six years (out Aug. 15 on Atlantic), the R&B-savvy pop singer knows she’s running out of time, but she has never been more sure she’s going to make it this time around.
Now that the tango-flavored title track, its unbeatable hook taken from the classic “Hernando’s Hideaway,” debuted July 29 at No. 91 on Billboard’s pop chart, the former Miss Teen Black Arizona and Miss Black Teenage World was right about her instincts.
“I’ve just learned in this business that patience sometimes can be the best thing,” Morgan said recently, “because there’s so many variables that need to be in place for a person to be successful. If you feel you have yourself at a certain level, sometimes it’s best to wait until the other elements are there.”
Morgan has had to wait a long time. Her first album, “Debelah,” came – ironically – on Atlantic in 1994; a few years after getting dropped, she signed with Motown. Even though “Yesterday,” the first single off her “It’s Not Over” album, peaked at No. 56 in 1998 and sold more than 200,000 copies with little radio airplay, the album was mired in the Seagrams-Universal merger.
Based on “Yesterday’s” sales, “It’s Not Over” certainly would have cracked gold (more than 500,000 copies), but Morgan’s management chose to wait it out and not release the album.
“Honestly, it was a good thing,” Morgan said. “It gave the international department, PolyGram at that time, to send me to 14 different countries, and that in itself was an amazing lifetime experience, but while I was over there and just so busy with all that, PolyGram was becoming Universal and they were changing hands and my management realized that if this album were to come out under the current system that they would not be able to do it justice. Everyone was so afraid of doing their job, because they didn’t know if they were going to have a job. So a lot of key people were very concerned with interviewing and doing the whole musical chair thing in this business. During that process, I had three different product managers. There was a lot of changing going on in my life.
“Basically, I was able to ride out the storm. They moved me to Universal after the Motown experience, and Universal – not to downplay them because they’re great at what they do – they weren’t necessarily into having a woman of color doing an album that had more of a pop flavor. And so much time had passed, we needed to add new songs and remix some to make it fresher, and they weren’t into that.
“That gave me an opportunity to rethink, ‘Gosh, this is your shot. Do you want it to be something you really believe in or something you hope will make it?’ I realized that it has to be something I really truly believe in. I was having problems with the other producer that was involved, and there were financial issues. They did some sneaky things, and it allowed me to get out of that deal.”
Amid the chaos, Morgan was holed up in the basement of her Phoenix home with her brother, Giloh, writing and arranging songs for what became “Dance With Me.” Universal ultimately passed on it, but Atlantic quickly stepped up to the table and offered her another deal.
“When Atlantic heard it at the first meeting, my managers said everyone was so ecstatic, so excited,” she said. “They said, ‘This is exactly what we’ve been wanting. We want someone to be like a new young Whitney or a new young Mariah who’s not afraid to sing pop music with an R&B vocal.’ They didn’t want to change a note. They said, ‘We want it. Can we sign her?’ The irony for me is that my first deal was with Atlantic, so I’m back here again.”
Morgan admits her confidence was rocked by the Motown/Universal experience, but therapy and hypnotherapy kept her balanced, as did having managers David Sonenberg and Scott McCrakin of DAS Communications looking out for her best interests.
“My faith kept me going, the belief that this was something in my life I had to endure and go through,” she said. “To me, failure isn’t the end; failure is the beginning. Failure is a lesson; you will only fail that lesson if you don’t recognize what it is you were supposed to learn. For me, I thought, ‘Okay, this didn’t work out, so how do I make this better? What did I do wrong?’ I really analyzed myself … ‘you didn’t have the best lawyer here, you didn’t do this here.’
“It’s so easy when people are talking about you as a commodity for you to start losing touch with the fact that you’re a real person, you have real feelings. … At the end of the day, I was using up all those emotions to write songs. There’s no way I could do anything else.”
Traveling the world, including performing for the newly elected democratic president of Nigeria, convinced Morgan that music was the common dominator.
“No matter where you are, who you are, everybody wants to be loved, everyone has been in love,” she said. “No matter what language you’re singing in, it’s all the same emotion. When I was traveling, when I was on Motown, people kept saying, ‘It’s been years since Motown released an album that was pop music,’ and it made me realize what a big hole in the market there was for that type of music, singing pop music in a soulful way.
“When I came back, I wasn’t going to allow myself to be pigeonholed within America the way that they market music. I was going to sing music that I really love. If the rest of the world didn’t have a problem with it, then I felt I had to take a chance here also.”
How does she like her chances now?
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve been through so much. I will say that once this is released, I will feel good because this is something that I believe in. And up to now, the response from the record company and radio people has been great.”
Atlantic, ThermaSilk and Macy’s are teaming as sponsors for Morgan’s multi-city mall tour that begins Aug. 16 in New York and stops in major markets through Oct. 28. In each city, fans can win a “Dance With Me” weekend in New York, which will include tickets to a Broadway show and … cha-cha-cha … tango lessons with Morgan.
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “The first Whitney Houston record, from my own allowance. I had to sing ‘The Greatest Love of All’ for a wedding when I was maybe 11, so I had to get that album so I could learn it.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “M.C. Hammer at the L.A. Coliseum in the late ’80s. It’s funny, he performs forever because there were so many people on the show, including Bobby Brown. I remember my parents came along, we went as a family, and my mom fell asleep during M.C. Hammer. That bass is so loud and after sitting for four hours, it desensitizes you.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “Christina Aguilera and Toni Braxton’s albums. There’s a song called ‘Spanish Guitar’ on Toni’s album that I really like. Even though I prefer pop R&B, I love listening to different types of music. I enjoyed Toni’s album, even though it’s more urban, and it’s nice to hear a newcomer like Christina.”
BWF (before we forget): For more on Debelah Morgan, visit www.atlantic-records.com. … The Debelah Morgan album discography – “Debelah” (Atlantic, 1994); “It’s Not Over” (VAZ/Motown, 1998); “Dance With Me” (Atlantic, 2000).