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Part 1: 1964-1995

  Rufus Thomas and Aretha Franklin were the two guiding spirits for Wendy Moten on a Saturday night, July the 20th, at the Porretta Soul Festival this year. She stirred the audience up with two funky Rufus’ numbers, All Night Worker and The Breakdown, and kept the excitement up with equally exhilarating versions of Aretha’s Since You’ve Been Gone and Think. Backed by the excellent Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra, in between she brought the tempo down for Baby I Love You and the intense Ain’t No Way. The closing number was the danceable cover of the Staple Singers’ Oh La De Da, but prior to that Wendy did two duets: a mid-tempo interpretation of Eddie Floyd’s Raise Your Hand with Jerry Jones and the highlight for me, the beautiful True Love with Wee Willie Walker. Wendy had originally recorded this Glenn Frey’s ballad with Vince Gill on a CD released last year (see later in the article, part 2). Still on Sunday evening – along with the rerun of Since You’ve Been Gone – Wendy delighted us with a soulful rendition of Mable John’s 1966 recording, You’re Taking up another Man’s Place.

On the pic above: Rev. James Moten Sr., Mona, Yvonne, Jr., Celina, Wendy, Mrs. Viola Moten, Debbie (photo courtesy of Wendy Moten)


  Wendy Renea Moten was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on November 22 in 1964. “My mom Viola was a housewife, and my father James was a minister. I have four sisters and one brother and we all were musical, but I’m the only one that made it a profession. I lived in South Memphis on Kyle Street, off Lamar. It was great growing up in there, because I grew up across the street from this huge park. There were activities for kids, and they maintained the park real well. You came home every day from the school and played in the park. It was safe, and I just remember having a beautiful childhood. I was born into integration. That’s all I’ve ever known.”

  These days Wendy resides in Nashville, Tennessee. “I moved to Nashville 25 years ago, when I met my guy, David Santos, an amazing bass player. He was playing with Billy Joel at the time, and he was moving from New York to Nashville. Memphis people don’t usually move to Nashville. They’re rivals. No way! But I loved him, so I moved to Nashville. He’s touring with Melissa Etheridge right now.” Any children of her own? “Every time we would talk about having children, I would get a tour and then I’ll be gone for two years... and then two years turns into four years... and then, you know – twelve years have passed, and then it’s too late.”

  Among Wendy’s early musical influences you can spot such names as Aretha, Stevie, Marvin, Dionne... “There’s just so many, because I love so many genres of music. There are country artists that I love like Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette. Among jazz artists the queen is Ella Fitzgerald, and then I love Julie London. I also love Doris Day and Anita O’Day.” Current favourites include Michael McDonald, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and – above all – Julio Iglesias. “We just finished a tour last year. We did a year-and-a-half arena tour. This year I toured with Vince Gill, who is now one of the Eagles after Glenn Frey died.”

  Wendy’s father was the musical director in a church, which was located in northeastern Memphis. “I got my first training in St. Stephen Baptist Church. It wasn’t an option. My dad just made us sing. We didn’t get a chance to choose (laughing). We were in church four times a week. We got choir rehearsals, we got Bible studies, we got church all day on Sunday; but he was there and my mom was there. They knew where I and all my sisters were.”

  “I was singing probably at around six or seven years old. I didn’t know then I had a voice. And I was very shy – and I’m still shy. The last thing you want to do is to be in front of a lot of people looking at you. I hated singing most of my life, because I was shy.”

  “My father branched off from St. Stephen Baptist Church and he had his own church called Grace Tabernacle. St. Stephen was considered a Baptist church, and his church was nondenominational. He didn’t want to have denomination. He wanted to welcome everybody.”

  If Wendy’s first training took place in a church, she confronted the more laborious aspect of singing in high school at 5th and 6th grades. “Overton High School was a performing arts school, like a ‘Fame’ school. They had theatre, they had singing, they had orchestras – all the programs. It was very hard to get into their program. I got accepted at the school, and my mentor and the teacher was Miss Lulah Hedgeman. She really taught us not only play the music, but she also taught us mind over matter. In real life you got to get over things and work through things, and if you want it you have to work hard. We had to do extra rehearsals and practise, practise, practise...”

  Still as a teenager Wendy found work at a Memphis theme park called Libertyland. “The first time I did that was maybe from 16 years old till 18-19 years old. It was great, because it was summer. It was a way to make money performing in this theme park. The shows were only twenty minutes long and you had three of them, so there were hours in between. The show was traditional, like ‘on Broadway’ type of music, so we had these dresses and tap shoes. It was the first time doing a regular show in front of an audience, and getting paid.”


  In 1986 Wendy joined a band called MVP in Memphis and worked with them for about three years. MVP comes from “most valuable player”, and it was the house band at Captain Bilbo’s on the bank of the Mississippi River. “We were a live band. We didn’t record anything. It was another great learning place, because you had this 10-piece band and you got paid weekly to be there five days a week, with a two-week vacation. It was like the best band in town, and they ran it like a good business. We had choreography and we had outfits. The music we performed was whatever was current for the day. We had rehearsals weekly staying current to new songs.”

  Kevin Paige is a blue-eyed pop-soul singer, who was born in Memphis in 1966 and who had two charted singles on Chrysalis Records, Don’t Shut Me out in 1989 and Anything I Want early next year. Together with his wife Bethany they performed regularly at Alfred’s on Beale Street but these days they’re concentrating more on Christian music. Kevin earned a spot as an opening act for the pop singer-songwriter Debbie Gibson, who at the time was riding high with her number one hits, Foolish Beat and Lost in Your Eyes

  “Kevin Paige also went to Overton High School, and he was the first one out of our group to get a big record deal. I was working with MVP and he was like ‘hey, why don’t you come on tour with me? I’m going on a tour with Debbie Gibson.’ It was good for me, because it was the first time I would ever play on an arena and it was the first time I would do a big tour, so once I got out there I realised that ‘oh, if I ever get out there, I want to do this. I know what it’s like now’.” Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth World Tour took place in 1989.

  “After Kevin Paige’s tour I got together with this other band called Charisma, and we would tour the United States in Marriott hotels. At that time the Marriott Hotels would hire bands three weeks at the time and then they’ll have you drive into another city. It was great and you saved a lot of money because you would stay in a hotel.”

MVP performing at Memphis in mid-80s - Wendy singing Anita Baker's Same Old Love (365 Days a Year) (Video courtesy of Charles H. Darden)

  “I did that for a while, and that’s when I met this guy Daniel Abbote, who heard me singing in a Marriott Hotel bar, before the 1990s. He took my phone number and saved it for seven years. Then he called me and said ‘Julio Iglesias is looking for a singer’.”

  Prior to Julio, there, however, was one Michael Bolton. “I was signed with EMI Records (see later) out of New York City, Charles Koppelman. They tried to find opportunities to get creative exposure for you, so they put me on this benefit that Michael Bolton was headlining in New York City in 1992. He was going on a tour that following year and it was up between myself and Regina Belle, who he was going to choose to open up. He chose me and I’m sure he chose me, because I was the least known (laughing). Regina Belle had a career already. So I started doing arena tours with Michael Bolton. I was terrified, of course, but I did a research on my favourite artists to see what they do that I don’t already do.”

  “As a person Michael was wonderful. The first month I didn’t see him at all, which is a good thing and a bad thing. Good thing is that you’re not causing any waves and everything’s going smoothly. Bad thing is: okay, you chose me, I’m here, but are we going to meet. But later on, after about a month, he called me to his dressing room and told me ‘you’re doing a great job.’ We got standing ovations every night.”


  “I had no desire to really be a recording artist, but I would sing some jingles sometimes with Niko Lyras. There really weren’t that many jingles done in Memphis. At this particular time Dick Williams, who was living in Michigan, was in Memphis looking for a band.” Niko is a guitarist, engineer, producer, studio and label owner and a recording artist in his own right, too ( On his solo album, Chunk of Space Funk (on Icehouse Records in 2016), Wendy is one of the guest vocalists. Niko was born in Athens, Greece, moved to Memphis and now runs his Cotton Row Recording Studios.

  “Dick stopped by just to say hello to Niko. I was in the studio singing, and he was like ‘who is that girl?’ Niko had a band that played regularly in Memphis, so Dick asked Niko, could he sit in with this band. I sang Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love for You and Aretha Franklin’s Freeway of Love, and then Dick said to me ‘I think I can get you a record deal.’ I said ‘okay, no problem, we can check this out.’ About three months later Dick flew back to Memphis. He had songs that he wanted me to record, and they were written by Curtiss Boone, who is a Michigan songwriter. We recorded Come in out of the Rain, Once Upon a Time and another song. After we recorded three songs, Dick said ‘okay, I’m gonna go and get you a record deal.’ Literally two months later there was a bidding war going on between Elektra, Warner Brothers and EMI. Dick Williams chose EMI.” Those days Dick worked in promotions at Warner Brothers and he also owned Thunderbird Records.

  Released on August 25 in 1992, Wendy’s debut album simply called Wendy Moten was recorded at Cotton Row and for the most part produced by Niko Lyras. Some of the musicians include Ernest Williamson on keys, Steve Potts on drums, Dave Smith on bass and the Ridgeway Sisters on background vocals.

  On this 11-track set there are six dancers such as the hooky Matter of Fact, the similar Nobody but You and Magic Touch. One poppy song called Make This Love Last was released only as a promo single and Forever Yours appeared two years later on the soundtrack Beverly Hills, 90210: The College Years. Wendy’s very first single was the uptempo Step by Step, which hit # 66-r&b in the fall of 1992 and was written by Troy Taylor and Charles Farrar, collectively known as the Characters.

  A powerful ballad called Come in out of the Rain became the draw on this album and it was picked up as the second single off the set. In the U.S. it peaked at # 55-pop and # 67-r&b, but as high as # 5 on AC, adult contemporary. In the U.K. it became more popular, as it reached # 8 in 1994. “I did Top of the Pops TV show on that song in the U.K.” The similar So close to Love, another big ballad from Curtiss Boone, was tested next as the third single, but it was commercially rated only in the U.K. (# 35). Curtiss’ closing ballad on the album, Once upon a Time, belongs to the same category of MOR songs with rich orchestration. Curtiss himself is also a musician, who has worked with Gerald Alston, Oleta Adams and L.J. Reynolds, to name a few.

  “I love Come in out of the Rain, of course, and Forever Yours... I really love them all. They were all new for me and all these were written for me.” Another big ballad, Whatever It Takes, is a duet with Michael Webb and especially soul music lovers have praised this delivery. “Michael is a local singer in Memphis and he was popular. We have been friends, and he needed an r&b singer, so he asked me to do it.”

  Another favourite among soul music fans is the mid-tempo Wonderin’, which was written by Vini Poncia and Alfredo Scotti, and on this track Najee plays the saxophone. Vini is a musician, songwriter and producer and a former member of the Videls (Mr. Lonely in 1960) and the Trade Winds (New York’s a Lonely Town in 1965). Alfredo is a vocal coach as well as a singer, songwriter and musician.

  In Japan Come in out of the Rain went all the way to the top, to number one, and since then Wendy has been immensely popular in that country. “There’s some kind of a connection. The best thing they could ever have said to me was ‘you are very Japanese.’ I think it’s the personality, how I carry myself, and I’m really connected with their culture. In the 90s I was probably there twice a year. I just resonated with them and they resonated with me.”

  When listening to Wendy’s music and especially her big ballads, the name Whitney Houston is the first one to come up. Inevitably listeners make these comparisons and furthermore Whitney’s I Will Always Love You was released approximately at the same time as Wendy’s debut album. “In the United Stated it’s very complicated, because there’s only one Whitney Houston, and you only need one Whitney Houston. But I’m a realist. I don’t take it personal.”

  The first album, however, wasn’t a big success. Actually it charted only in the U.K. (# 42). “I was so young. I didn’t know what was going on. I sang whatever they said to sing, because I had no idea. Dick Williams was driving the situation, and then the record company got involved. Today I know what kind of artist I am. I wish I knew then, I could have helped them figure it out. So we just threw everything up against the wall to see what was going to stick. I was just thrilled to have the opportunity, because I didn’t see it coming. I never wanted to be a singer.”


  “I went on tour with Michael Bolton. David Foster told this story about how he heard my song Come in out of the Rain on the radio and wanted to know who I was. He found me and that following year he produced a few songs on my Time for Change. He asked the record company and in 1994 he took myself and other people to Japan and we performed in live concerts with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. He was trying to break me out and we were getting ready to work on my second record.”

  Wendy’s second album, Time for Change, was released on EMI on February 22 in 1995, two and a half years after her debut. Clearly the company invested in this record by inviting such in-demand producers of the day as not only David Foster, but also Michael J. Powell, Dan Shea and Keith Thomas to create new music.

  The opening track and also the first single off the album, Your Love Is All I Know, is another pretty “Whitney” ballad with a big sound. On charts, however, it flopped with the exception of Japan, where it climbed up to number two. Michael Thompson is on guitar here and the track was produced by Canada’s gift to music, David Foster (, who during his career has worked with dozens and dozens of luminaries, including EWF, Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick and on the pop side coincidentally with Michael Bolton, also Dolly Parton, Michael Bublé etc. etc. Based on her recording output so far, in this list of David’s collaborations closest to Wendy must be Whitney, Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion. In style the opening and closing tracks of this CD are quite similar, and – surprise, surprise! – David produced and co-wrote also the tender concluding ballad, All That My Heart Can Hold.

  The second track, Forever Yours, is a beautiful MOR ballad written by Bruce Roberts, Carole Bayer Sager and James Ingram. “This song was going to be in a movie, but - when they heard my voice - Carole Bayer Sager asked me to sing this one. That was a great honour. The interesting thing is that I have Forever Yours also on my first CD, but it’s a different song with the same title.” Kirk Whalum plays the tenor saxophone on this track.

  Once again, Change of Heart is a big and memorable ballad and one of the co-producers is Dick Williams. The song was written by Cliff Downs and Randy Goodrum. Cliff has written songs for numerous pop and country artists and he was a member of a recording duo called Downes & Price in the 1980s, while Randy is a pianist, producer as well as a writer also for pop and country artists. Change of Heart was the second single off the CD, and in Japan it hit the top spot but went practically unnoticed elsewhere.

  On the European edition of the CD, Change of Heart was replaced by Whatever You Imagine, produced by Keith Thomas. This sentimental ballad was written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and James Horner for a movie titled Pagemaster. “It was a big movie. Macaulay Culkin was the star of the movie. It’s his first animation. People still come up to me and say ‘when I was a kid, I heard that song in the Pagemaster.’” The song was nominated for a Grammy, but in that category - “best song written specifically for a motion picture or for television” - Colors of the Wind from Pocahontas won in 1995.

  Hear the Angels Cry is another sentimental big ballad written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and on the CD the producer’s credit goes to Daniel Martin Shea, who during his career has worked, among others, with Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez, Toni Braxton, Luther Vandross and Michael Bolton. Wendy, however, remembers the process differently. “Maybe Shea had something to do with this, but Walter Afanasieff produced this track. When they put me together with him, this was the song that we did.”


  Michael J. Powell is best known for his work with Anita Baker, but since those Chapter 8 and Songstress & Rapture etc. days he has worked with numerous other artists such as Peabo Bryson, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Randy Crawford, L.J. Reynolds and Nancy Wilson. For this CD he produced four tracks.

  Michael not only produced, but also plays guitar on a melodic mid-pacer called Comin’ Back, which is a duet with Keith John, the son of Little Willie John. “Keith is a great person. He loves, lives, eats and drinks music. He’s been touring with Stevie Wonder for at least thirty years. We became friends, and this song was written for us.” On this CD Wendy and Keith share vocals also on another song, Curtiss Boone’s down-tempo “show tune” called Sharin’ My Love.

  The title song, Time for Change, is another show tune, very sweet and nearly operatic and something that Barbra Streisand might do. “Aaron Zigman wrote it and produced it, and he was a known producer in L.A. but was trying to get even more known. He’s done music for a lot of movies now, arrangements and scores. I recorded this song in L.A.” The co-writer on this number is Brock Walsh, who earlier had written Automatic for the Pointer Sisters, and Jerry Hey is the arranger on Time for Change.

  After one more power ballad named Consider This Love, we get a chance to listen to the first funkier track on this set. The mid-tempo This Will Never End was penned by two long-standing songwriters, Anne Breven and Jeff Hull. Jeff is best known for co-writing Piano in the Dark. “It was more on the rocky side. I guess we tried to speed the music up a little bit.” It was only that one hop, because already on the next track we’re back to basics. Michael Powell and Curtiss Boone wrote and produced – you guessed it! – a big ballad titled When You Love Someone.

  All in all, Time for Change was a parade of big, touching and even weepy ballads with well-known and seasoned writers and producers involved. However, it wasn’t a smash album and fared better in Europe and especially in Japan (# 18). “I say that it’s the record company’s fault 50 % and my fault 50 %, because I didn’t know who I was. That makes it a little more complicated.”

  Up to this point, Wendy had been singing professionally for about ten years. After her two first albums, comparisons to Whitney were about to cease, as on her following albums she tested also other genres of music like rock, country and jazz, but - as her performances in Porretta showed -  she never abandoned her soulfulness. I think we all agree on one fact: Wendy’s voice is truly magnificent and she’s a great performer. The upcoming second part of the story covers her career up to these days.


(* - indicates a single release)

WENDY MOTEN (EMI Records USA, 0777 7 98574 2 5) 1992

Matter Of Fact / Nobody But You / Step By Step * / So Close To Love * / Forever Yours / Whatever It Takes / Come In Out Of The Rain * / Make This Love Last / Magic Touch / Wonderin’ / Once Upon A Time

TIME FOR CHANGE (EMI Records USA, 724383118021) 1995

Your Love Is All I Know * / Forever Yours / Change Of Heart * / Hear The Angels Cry / Comin’ Back / Time For Change / Consider This Love / This Will Never End / When You Love Someone / Sharin’ My Love / All That My Heart Can Hold

(Interview conducted on July 19, 2019; acknowledgements to Wendy Moten, Graziano Uliani and Ismo Tenkanen)

© Heikki Suosalo

Part 2 of the Wendy Moten Interview, years 1995-2019

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