Saving Grace: Deborah Cox
She’s recorded 12 number-one hits on Billboard's Hot Dance Club Play chart, was part of Cyndi Lauper's 2008 True Colors tour, and while starting out performed as a backup vocalist for Celine Dion for six months.
What’s more, she’s contributed songs to the movie soundtracks of Dr. Dolittle 2, Akeelah and the Bee and Meet the Browns, had her vocals featured in the movie Hotel Rwanda and for eight years the award winning vocalist’s signature hit and 1998 single, “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here”, held the record for longest-running number one single on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart after spending 14 weeks at the top.
This month, the singer—once recognized as Canada’s top R&B artist— will begin a three-week stint at the Pantages starring as Rachel Marron in the North American Tour of the musical The Bodyguard.
The role has special meaning for Cox, who also provided vocals for the 2015 Whitney Houston biopic, Whitney, directed by Angela Bassett.
“I feel like this is natural—like it’s the next thing to be able to bring the essence of her voice and her story to the stage cause ultimately that’s what it’s about. It’s being able to live in the songs and tell the story,” says Cox, who made her Broadway debut in the Elton John-Tim Rice musical Aida in 2004.
“I feel like it’s part of my duty as an artist and as somebody who has been close to her.”
In fact, she credits one of the turning points in her career to working with Houston in 2000 when they recorded the duet, "Same Script, Different Cast", for the album “Whitney: The Greatest Hits”.
One critic characterized it as “thrilling vocal sparring”, another called it one of the most interesting duets in years, while Billboard dubbed it a special highlight. Accolades aside, any artist able to stand on their own with Whitney Houston at her best was what singled Cox out for most.
But it was on a more personal level that Houston impacted Cox’s career trajectory.
“I was in between albums and approaching 30 and I was like should I start my family, should I do another record and going through that,” Cox recalled. “She was like family first, prioritize and make sure you have balance, which is partly why I haven’t recorded an album every single year or haven’t been on tour all the time because I’ve wanted that balance in my life.
“I saw firsthand what it takes to have that level of superstardom and it’s very tough,” the happily married mother of three continued. “I remember those conversations with Whitney and it just resonated with me.”
So for Cox, The Bodyguard is just as equally a labor of love.
“I had a little resignation about what it was going to be like going from a film to a musical. I read the script and thought that it was done very well. They brought in a lot of the music to help tell the story and shape the characters and they added more music. In the film, there were five songs so they’ve added some of the earlier hits from Whitney’s career as well. The thing that’s most challenging is the fact that she’s very complex— a dancer, singer, actress and I display all of those on the show, which is really grueling.”
With no cast album tied to the show, she released a tribute CD to Whitney in March of eight songs, due to the demand from those who’d seen the show to leave with something of Cox on the soundtrack. It will be closer to the end of the year when die-hard fans finally get what they’ve been asking for: a sixth studio CD from Cox.
“It takes a lot of time to put together a body of work and I don’t like to rush anything,” Cox states. “I hadn’t really noticed that it’s been seven years since The Promise was out. Instead, I’ve put a lot of my focus into doing musicals because that’s where I get the opportunity to sing great music and ultimately for me, that’s what I love to do. I’m not interested in putting together a record just to “be relevant”.
For all of her talent, Cox was not all that comfortable with her vocal gifts growing up.
“I was very shy as a young girl and introverted,” Cox recalls. “I shied away (from my talent). I guess from a very early age my voice singled me out and that’s what made me uncomfortable.”
The voice not only singled her out but opened doors, as by the age of 12, she was singing on TV commercials. By her teen years, she had become more comfortable with her vocal gifts.
“I was like okay, this is what it’s going to be. I had to not be afraid of my light and understand that others were drawn to me because of it.”
Embracing her gifts, Cox began singing in nightclubs in and around Toronto and writing songs. It was through songwriting that she met her husband, also then a songwriter and producer. Today, the girl once shy, has become fearless.
“When I know that I have purpose and a task, that’s when it just kicks in. It’s like you gotta do what you gotta do,” Cox goes on. “You’ve got to soldier it out.”
It is mostly her faith that helps to keep the 42-year old, Toronto native grounded. Though raised in a Christian household, it was at 19 that Cox came to accept Christ as her personal savior.
“That was when I started to really embody what being a Christian is and what the walk was going to be like. When it all really became extremely serious to me to be like if I’m going to continue to be in this business than I need to understand that I am not of this business and not of the world and there are certain things that I am just going to have to walk away from— and not be conformed to,” Cox said. “That’s been the hardest walk —maintaining integrity while being in this industry and all the time people are saying, ‘wow, you’re still married and have three children. How do you do it?’ The only way is through Christ.
“Me and Justin (who plays the bodyguard) pray and try to get the cast members to just focus on what we’re about to do, knowing that our talents and we are the vessels to something very positive. So, we try and use the opportunity to inspire and keep our egos out of it.”
Her faith, she says, is her saving grace.
“I wouldn’t be here without it…without my close, intimate relationship with Jesus and knowing that I always have my faith to fall back on.”
To be sure, Cox is living her dreams with The Bodyguard, which runs from May 2 through May 21, at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood.
“It’s a blessing every moment on that stage,” she states. “The Bodyguard is one of my all-time favorite movies and I get to tell the story and sing those great songs.”