Though she will become the first black female inductee to enter the Canadian Music Hall of Fame this weekend for her impressive international achievements, Deborah Cox humbly remembers the days of relentless crowds that led to her successes.
The Toronto-born singer and songwriter and three-time Juno Award winner — best known for the 1998 power ballad “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” (No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for 14 weeks) and 13 Number 1 Billboard Dance Club Songs hits – left practically no stone unturned in her quest to reach the upper echelons of pop stardom and she hasn’t forgotten the struggle.
“It was a big sacrifice,” Cox, 47, recalled over the phone recently. “A lot of late nights in the studio: a lot of session work, jingles. Not making much money. Lots of free stuff. Lots of favors, just to gain experience… just to have a chance.”
It’s the invisible part of a budding artist’s career that many followers can never fathom: countless hours in the studio, the unbelievable expense, sending demos to record labels all over North America, hoping to make a deal.
“At the time, it was on cassette,” said Cox. “We didn’t have all the technology you have now. You would use anything to record your songs that you sent through FedEx or send in your demo tape.
“I remember we had all our pictures taken, all our black and white pictures and our texts typed out, and we sent all these different packages to labels and we waited for a response. We’d get letters back — and some would have meetings and say “no” to our faces – and some wouldn’t answer you. So you should go get your marbles and play in other games and take it easy. It’s hard not to take it personally, but you have to find that confidence in yourself to keep going.”
When things didn’t go well, Cox and her childhood sweetheart, co-writer and manager Lascelles Stephens, would find solace near the Toronto Zoo.
“Depending on whether we got a rejection letter or if we had a bad reaction and things didn’t really go our way, we knew we could always take a ride around the little lakes that were really close to the zoo, and relax and strategizing,” says Cox, who grew up in Flemingdon Park and moved to Scarborough in her early teens.
“It was so beautiful there and that was our zen.”
Cox’s first big break came in the early 1990s, touring as a backing singer with future superstar Céline Dion. Witnessing Dion’s work ethic, she almost immediately found herself at a crossroads.
“There comes a point where you have to find a way to stand out from the crowd: have the courage to do such a well-paid gig and forgo all the great opportunities that were about to come,” said Cox. “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 without recording my own stuff, doing my own thing.’
“So then I left… I was really grateful for that experience because it really helped me define who I wanted to be as an artist.”
Shortly after, Cox and future husband Stephens met an executive at Minneapolis’ Flyte Tyme Records, the label owned by Prince colleagues 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 that 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 came up with ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’
“That was the first song that we really got a response to. And that was the song that Clive (Davis) loved on the demo and that was the song that essentially got me signed to Arista.”
Davis, a top executive at a record company whose discoveries include Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Billy Joel and many more, supported Cox at Arista and later his J Records, helping to develop her success with such milestones as the aforementioned “Nobody’s Supposed.” to Be Here” and the American R&B hits “Sentimental” and “We Can’t Be Friends” (with RL Huggar).
Cox also made a big impression on the club scene, with hits such as ‘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 says. “The sound in Europe is what we’ve come to know as EDM and all that stuff is really big there so I was there really early and tuned into that market because I was there before I became an 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 made her an icon in that community.
“A lot of the stories I heard were that my songs empowered the community: they felt like they could be their authentic selves,” said Cox. “I really took all those stories to heart and it became part of my mission – not just about civil rights, but also about equal rights, human rights – to see that my friends and colleagues are respected for being who they are. †
Since then, the mother of three has become quite versatile, broadening her horizons into 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 films.
Cox said she likes to keep busy to fight the boredom.
“What I would do in between albums is I would pick up these TV appearances, like ‘Soul Food’ and ‘Nash Bridges,’ and I did a few independent films,” she said. “It was fun because it gave me the chance to explore a completely different 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.
What does Cox, who will be performing at the Juno Awards, think about it?
“It’s a huge honour. I know it’s really groundbreaking and historic, and I feel really validated. I feel it’s a great recognition for all the hard work and all I’ve done and the sacrifice that’s been made, and I’m really honored to know that there will be other people who will come after me who know they have a real opportunity in this industry to make a mark and make music.
“I feel really, really validated.”