Some people simply have star power. They’ve got a multitude of gifts: singing, songwriting, performing. In some it all comes together organically, and she’s one. And we were there to see this new star shine.
American Songwriter was with Memphis-native Lanita Smith when she received the first part of her prize as the 4th Annual Guitar Center Songwriter of the Year, which was to record an EP in the heart of Hollywood with Don Was and Colbie Caillat. A singer of soulful authority, Lanita writes beautifully melodic songs, such as the haunting “I Love You,” and the title song, the elegiac “Listen To Your Heartbeat.”
Produced by Don Was, that EP resounds with soul perfection. As one might expect from Mr. Was, who said he loved working with Lanita, and that it was reminiscent of working with other soul divas, such as “Miss Ross.”(Diana).
In addition to making this EP, Lanita was also awarded with another life-altering prize: the opportunity to perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Back in July of 2015, she regarded it as some kind of crazy pipe-dream, though she knew it was real. But it was off in the distant, and she had a record to record.
But time passed, as it always does, and the date of January 26 arrived. She had decided, with the encouragement of Was, to perform “I Love You,” the designated single. It’s the perfect choice. A song with deep lyrical content yet revolving hauntingly around essential short phrases of the heart: “I want you and I trust you…” It resounds like a soul classic, with a delicate melody, complex chromatics and modulation, and rich keyboard textures over a gentle bossa-nova. Through which her voice sails with sweetness and grace.
Kimmel shoots his show in his own theater, which is in an historic Hollywood landmark, the former Masonic Lodge, right on Hollywood Boulevard. It is an immense and ancient building, with a large labyrinth of rooms underneath that serve as the vast green room, and houses the dressing rooms. It’s an ongoing party down there, filled with friends of guests on the show and others who play pool, drink at the bar, and watch the show on big screens. Jimmy’s sidekick Guillermo Rodriguez was there, with us, happily posing for photos and being as amiable as he is on air.
Lanita stayed mostly in her dressing room before her performance, except for one moment when she slipped quietly out to say hi, during which Jack Black was on onstage talking with Jimmy. She greeted me and a few other excited friends, but said nothing. Her eyes were full of awe, and, maybe some terror. The look of someone about to do something overwhelming and life-changing, like getting married or flying a plane. She was about to step from her hometown church, from the local clubs in Memphis, to the world stage. No babysteps, just this one giant leap.
Standing in the wings was a man who looked ever more nervous than Lanita. It was John Perry, her father. A man who raised his daughter to sing in church, like he did. That’s where she discovered her voice, and her soul.
To accompany her onstage, she brought many musicians from her native Memphis to fill out her eight-piece band, including Mike Sweep, Andrew Saino, Djon Johnson, Erik Brooks and Julius Knowles, as well as L.A. musicians Krystal Smith and Sha’leah Stubbfield and Taiki Tsyama from Japan.
The Kimmel show often films its musical sequences outside, in their parking lot venue. But as this was January, and both cold and rainy outside, this performance was shot on a secondary interior stage, separate from the main studio. Those of us in the green room were invited to watch the performance on this stage in what is a relatively small space, like seeing her in an intimate club. The lighting was low and soft in the room, though bright onstage and bathed in blue, and the sound was superb.
The band was in place, and Lanita appeared. And from the first note she sang on “I Love You,” she entranced everyone. People were cheering. It was stunning. She sang there under a thousand lights, giant cameras on booms swinging in and out, big crowd of insiders all around. Yet she was calm, focused and gracefully unchained that soulful voice, delivering her words with great purity and power. The band played perfectly, setting the light groove just right, the back-up vocalists wrapping her voice in rich tones. Cool modulation! And then Pure triumph. The audience exploded with a genuinely spirited ovation. Which didn’t stop.
Then there was some discussion onstage. The musical performances are not performed live with the show; they are filmed after the main show is done, and often more than one take is filmed.
They asked her how she felt, and she said the back-up vocalists were a little too loud for her, and she had trouble hearing herself. So they did it again. And again they played it beautifully. It is a lovely, lilting song, with a sumptuous chorus of small phrases like a Motown gem, and it was obvious the band loved playing it. The audience, too, was happy to hear it again.
So they played “I Love You” again, giving her a better vocal mix. Again, she sang it like a seasoned veteran, like a gifted soul singer who has been singing on TV shows forever.
They also gave her another gift, the chance to perform another song – one that would not be used on the TV show but which she could put on Youtube, and use in other ways. That song is the lovely title song of the EP, “Listen To Your Heartbeat.”
In the dressing room after the show, Lanita seemed to have come down to earth, and was graciously thanking all in attendance- especially her band – for being there and making the music happen so beautifully. It was like being with the winning team after the Superbowl. Much amazement and joy.
Her dad stood quietly, taking it all in with great pride. Given that his daughter had just stunned a TV audience with her amazing performance, about to be beamed in less than an hour to millions of TVs around the world, I asked him if he was surprised how well she did.
With a slow, gentle smile, he said, “No. I am not surprised. She has waited for this night her whole life. This has always been her dream since she was a child. And tonight she stepped right into that dream.”
John said he grew up singing in church, and it’s there Lanita also discovered music. “All her life, it is all she ever wanted,” he said. “To sing songs. To write songs. Since she was a little girl, she had so much talent in her. She wrote songs when she was just a child. And she always sang like an angel.” He paused, and then added, “Those songs she writes, you know, they are beautiful songs. Love songs. And the world needs songs of love.”
His only regret, he said, was that Lanita’s mother could not be there. “We lost her in 2011,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “But I know she was here tonight. I know she’s smiling. Our little girl is singing her songs on TV. I know she knows. She helped make it happen.”