Although she’s entering the Canadian Music Hall of Fame this weekend as its first Black female inductee due to her impressive international accomplishments, Deborah Cox humbly remembers the days of relentless hustle leading up to her successes.
The Toronto-born singer and songwriter and three-time Juno Award winner — best known for the 1998 chart-topping power ballad “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” (No. 1 for 14 weeks on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart) and 13 No. 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 lot of sacrifice,” Cox, 47, recalled recently over the phone. “A lot of late nights in the studio: a lot of session work, jingles. Not making a lot of money. A lot of freebies. A lot of favours, just to get experience … just to get a shot.”
It’s the unseen part of a fledgling artist’s career that many followers never fathom: countless hours in the studio, the incredible expense, sending demos to record companies all over North America, hoping to land a deal.
“Back then, it was on cassette,” said Cox. “We didn’t have all the technology that you have now. You’d use whatever you could to record your songs that you sent out either by FedEx or mail your demo tape.
“I remember that we had all our photos taken, all our black and white photos, and our lyrics typed out, and we sent out all these different packages to labels and we would wait to get a response. We’d get letters back — and some would take meetings and tell us ‘no’ to our face — and some would not give you a response. So you’d have to go and pick up your marbles and play in other games and take it in stride. It’s hard not to take it personal, but you have to find that confidence within you to keep going.”
When things weren’t working out, Cox and her childhood sweetheart, co-writer and manager Lascelles Stephens, would find comfort near the Toronto Zoo.
“Depending on whether we got a rejection letter or if we had a bad response and things weren’t really going our way, we knew that we could always take a drive by the little lakes that were really close to the zoo, and chill out and strategize,” said Cox, who was raised in Flemingdon Park and moved to Scarborough in her early teens.
“It was so beautiful out there and that was our zen.”
Cox’s first big break was in the early ’90s, landing a tour gig as backing vocalist with future superstar Céline Dion. She witnessed Dion’s work ethic first-hand and almost immediately found herself at a crossroads.
“There comes a point where you have to find a way to differentiate yourself from the pack: having that courage to just leave such a high-paying gig and all the great opportunities that were about to come,” Cox said. “She was getting ready to embark 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 being able to record my own stuff, do my own thing.’
“So that’s when I left … I was really thankful for that experience because it really helped me to hone in on who I wanted to be as an artist.”
Shortly thereafter, Cox and future husband Stephens met an executive at Minneapolis’s Flyte Tyme Records, the label owned by Prince associates Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who were working with Janet Jackson at the time.
“She said, ‘You guys write great songs, but you should write something that we can hear on the radio tomorrow. What would that song be?’ And on our 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 where we really started to get a response. And that was the song Clive (Davis) loved on the demo and that was the song that essentially got me signed to Arista.”
Davis, a star-making record company executive whose discoveries include Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Billy Joel and many more, backed Cox at Arista and, later, his J Records, helping engineer her success with such milestones as the aforementioned “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” and top U.S. R&B hits “Sentimental” and “We Can’t Be Friends” (with R.L. Huggar).
Cox also made quite an impression in the club scene, scoring hits like “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 said. “The sound in Europe is what we’ve come to know as EDM and all that stuff is really big out there, so I was really in early and in tune with that market because I had been out there prior to being a recording artist.
“Who Do U Love” and “Things Just Ain’t the Same” began to resonate not just in dance clubs, but 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 were very empowering for the community: they felt like they could be their authentic selves,” Cox said. “I really took all of those stories to heart and it became part of my mission — not just about civil rights, but about equal rights, human rights — for me to see my friends and colleagues be respected for being just the way they are.”
Since those days, the mother of three has become quite versatile, expanding her horizons into musical theatre (she made her Broadway debut in Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s “Aida,” and has 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 alleviate boredom.
“What I would do in between albums is that I’d pick up these television gigs, like I did ‘Soul Food’ and ‘Nash Bridges,’ and I did a few independent films,” she said. “It was fun, because it gave me a chance to explore a whole different side creatively.”
Now based out of Miami, Cox said she’s been celebrating every day since she found out about her induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
How does Cox, who will be performing at the Juno Awards, feel about it?
“It’s a huge honour. I know it’s really game-changing and historic, and I feel really validated. I feel that it’s a wonderful recognition for all the hard work and everything I put in and the sacrifice that was made, and I feel really honoured to know that there are going to be other people that come after me that know that they have a real opportunity in this industry to make a mark and do music.
“I feel really, really validated.”
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