Singer/Songwriter & AIDS Activist Siedah Garrett Reflects on Her Early Beginnings in Compton, California, to Becoming Michael Jackson’s Friend & Protégé and the Go-To Gal for Spinning Hits
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Siedah snarls sourly, her lips curling upward, appalled over America’s choice for our next leader. She sits at a hefty wooden table by the swimming pool that’s just a few feet away from the kitchen. The floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door, which separates the pool from the kitchen, is open on this warm afternoon. The modular contemporary house is an open space, with little obstruction from one room to another. Several months ago, Garrett and husband Erik moved into this bright and airy dwelling, which could make the next cover of Architectural Digest.
Once we both vent about the election, the mood lightens and Siedah radiates a burst of energy, reeling out stories and doing vocal impressions of the famous people she’s worked with over the years.
Moments earlier, I was parked in front of Siedah’s house, which borders on the Miracle Mile and Hancock Park sections of Los Angeles. As I gathered my paraphernalia for the interview, a large figure appeared at the side of my car. It was Erik Nuri, Siedah’s husband of two years. A Harvard grad and former RCA Records vice president, he’s now her manager. He offered me a permit for the restricted parking area.
Sipping on iced tea, Siedah offers me something to drink. I accept bottled water.
Siedah settles at the table, scooting inches near me to avoid the direct sunlight. She wears antique caramel-colored sunglasses embellished with rhinestones on the sides. Erik conveniently places a pinnacle acrylic award in front of me. “Erik wants you to see this,” she chuckles mildly. It is the Good Samaritan Award bestowed on Siedah in December 2005 from the Minority AIDS Project. Her efforts have been legion. She participated in L.A’s inaugural AIDS Walk, performed as part of Divas Simply Singing!, and worked with the Elton John AIDS Foundation, as well as other organizations.
At one APLA Health fundraiser, she served as Mistress of Ceremonies.
“I thought myself as a bit of…,” she dons a Brit accent, “a standup comedian.” One of her lines that night was, “They don’t want gays and lesbians to get married? Why shouldn’t they?! They need to be as miserable as the rest of us!” The audience responded with a hearty laugh.
Siedah’s not-so-secret passion is knitting, and she also knits and crochets wearables for people living with HIV/AIDS. “I’m motivated to give because I have so much,” she says, nursing her beverage as the ice cubes clank, clank against the sides of the glass. “I have a lot. When you’re blessed with a lot, you need to give back…a lot.” She clears her throat. “The lion’s share of my spare time and energy goes into creating stuff, mostly hats, scarves, and outerwear for others.”
For today’s interview, she sports an ordinary frumpy beige hat embellished with a large, lavender silk rose. It’s funky and chic. Her shiny dreads flow from under the hat onto a white fluffy blouse, and her tight semi-ripped jeans have a small red flower with green leaves painted on the thigh. She wears cutesy, stylish aqua-blue flats and is accessorized with wrist and ankle bracelets, a necklace, a bling ring, tiny dangling earrings, and clear, dazzling speckled nail polish.
This Grammy Award-winner and two-time Oscar-nominated songwriter has written hundreds of songs. She’s probably best known for co-writing Michael Jackson’s iconic “Man in the Mirror,” which was the fourth number-one hit from Michael’s BAD album and number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for several weeks after its debut. Siedah also sang backup on the track. It was one of Jackson’s favorite songs and it’s Siedah’s personal fave, too. Garrett sang with Jackson when they teamed up on the duet, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” the first single from the BAD album, and then toured with him for eighteen months after the release of his Dangerous album.
Among the entertainment icons who’ve spun gold from Siedah’s lyrics are Quincy Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Roberta Flack, Barry White, Donna Summer, Earth Wind & Fire, Sergio Mendes, will.i.am, and Jamie Foxx. Siedah was also featured vocalist and dancer on Madonna’s 2004 Re-Invention Tour, collaborated on an album with the Brand New Heavies, and co-wrote the hit song “Love You I Do” for Jennifer Hudson in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls. That song won a Grammy, and garnered Siedah her first Academy Award nomination. Her second Oscar nomination was earned from the song “Real In Rio” from the animated film, Rio. Siedah also co-wrote and performed the official theme songs for the 2007 and 2015 Special Olympics World Games, and the 2010 World Expo event in China.
On this luminous day, Ms. Garrett is chummy, sanguine, easygoing, and unpretentious. She hasn’t forgotten her humble urban roots.
She was raised in Compton, California. Known as the “Hub City” of Los Angeles, it’s an inner-city, working-class community. Although Compton and Hollywood are in close proximity, in many ways they are worlds apart. With hard dedicated work, Siedah trekked down the yellow brick road from Compton to Hollywood show business success.
Born Deborah Christine, she was never fond of her name. “It’s a pretty name but nobody called me Deborah. It was always abbreviated to Deb, Debbie, or DeeDee. I hated it.” At age thirteen, she had the opportunity to change it to Siedah, which means “shining and star-like.”
During Siedah’s childhood, the family would move every nine months. “My mother had it figured out,” explains Siedah with a wink-wink, talking about her and her younger sister, Cynthia. “She had an aversion to paying rent.” Her mother would pay the first and last month’s rent and then it would take about nine months for the landlord to legally kick them out of the apartment. In the meantime, the gas and electricity might be turned off, and there were frequent knocks on the door by people demanding the rent. The furniture was also rented. To avoid repo, the family would move, sometimes in the middle of the night.
Siedah’s paternal grandmother, Laura Draugh, put a stop to the vagabond lifestyle by threatening to call the CPS (Child Protective Services) unless she was permitted to care for her grandchildren. Grandma lived in Watts, but she wanted her grandkids to attend Compton’s better schools. The resolution was to use her Aunt Earlestine’s Compton address. Grandma would drive the kids to school in the morning and Aunt Earlestine would pick them up. They’d stay at her house with their cousins, Cokie and his two older sisters, until the grandmother would pick them up.
“Every single day, the loving and caretaking of my paternal grandmother lives with me. I think of her more often than I ever did when she was alive,” offers a heartfelt Garrett, disclosing that Laura died when she was sixteen. Siedah’s mother, Doris, who wrote books under the name of Penny Rich, sadly died last summer of pancreatic cancer.
At fifteen, Siedah started singing. She was part of a five-piece band called Black Velvet & Satin Soul, performing top 40 cover songs at local clubs and private affairs. It was a cattle call (an audition where tons of people show up on a first come, first served basis) that transformed Siedah’s life. She was in her mid-twenties.
“I had a girlfriend that I had been singing with for a few years and she knew about the audition,” recalls Siedah. Then she lowers her voice and adds, “but she didn’t tell me.” She purses her mouth, her foxy golden eyes dart to the side, and she whispers in patronizing rhythm, “Yep, that’s my friend!” Siedah found out about the audition when her friend’s boyfriend called her. She asked for the address; he gave it to her, but he didn’t know the time. Siedah showed up at seven a.m. The actual audition didn’t start until noon. By that time there were people lined up around the block, but Siedah was the third person to be seen.
Quincy Jones was looking to create a new vocal group like Manhattan Transfer or Fifth Dimension, though he, himself, did not conduct the initial auditions. For nine months, Siedah received letters —“Congratulations, you’re one of 500”; “Congratulations, you’re one of 250,” then 100, then 50, 25, 10. Finally Siedah was picked, along with three guys, and the band Deco was formed. (She didn’t meet Quincy until after her third callback.)
Years later Quincy confided to Siedah that it was she who set the standard for everyone else who auditioned, “They had to be either better than Siedah or as good as Siedah.”
When it came time to sign the contract, Quincy offered the band a publishing agreement and an artist agreement. She knew she could be an artist but had never written a song before. Siedah told the guys that she didn’t favor this part of the contract. The other band members took her plea to Quincy and he responded in a strict tone, “Either you all sign it or nobody signs.” The guys returned to Siedah and said, “Bitch, you better sign this contract!” Adjusting her position at the table, Siedah lets out a howl and says, “When three large black men tell you to sign, ya sign!”
Not wanting to disappoint Quincy Jones, she learned the craft of songwriting. After a year, the band dissolved and Siedah was kept on for seven more years with Quincy Jones and Warner-Chappell Music. During those years, she also recorded a solo album for Quincy’s Qwest Records.
“Do you want more water?” asks Siedah. She goes to the huge double-doored ultramodern built-in fridge to collect it. While there, she pours herself more tea.
Two and a half years into Siedah’s contract, Quincy was in the studio with Michael Jackson. Quincy informed her and the other five songwriters on staff that Michael needed one more up-tempo pop song. Siedah went to her friend and fellow songwriter, Glen Ballard, who went to the keyboard and began to peck out some notes. While he was composing, Siedah flipped through her lyric book. She came across a phrase that she had written down two years prior, “The Man in The Mirror.” Siedah straight away started to construct. “I couldn’t write fast enough,” she enthuses, adjusting to avoid the sun, which is now creeping into her area. Within twelve minutes they had the first verse and the chorus. They split, agreeing that each of them would work on the song then reunite the following day to record a demo.
It was Friday night when they finished recording the demo but it was too late to call Quest Publishing offices and Siedah wanted Quincy to hear the song that night. She called him. “Q, Glen and I have really come up with a great song for Michael!” Quincy asked that she take it into his office, he’d listen to it, and get back with her on Monday or Tuesday.
“Can I just drop it off now?” she pleaded eagerly.
“No, I’m in the middle of a meeting with twelve people sitting around the table,” Quincy answered.
Siedah insisted, knowing that Quincy had six daughters, so “he knew he wasn’t going to win [this argument],” says Siedah.
“All right. Shit…” responded Quincy, hanging up.
Siedah went to his home and handed him the demo cassette. Siedah stressed, “Quincy, the only thing I ask is, please get back with me. Don’t make me wait.” He agreed. Three hours later, Siedah was making dinner and the phone rang. “Sid, this is the best song I’ve heard in ten years, but….” Siedah froze, not hearing anything else. She went numb, awash in the moment. When she returned to reality, Quincy was saying, “….Michael has been in the studio for over two years; he hasn’t recorded anything he didn’t write, but don’t worry, Sid. If Michael doesn’t do it on his record, I’ll do it with James Ingram on my record.”
Four days later Siedah got a call from Quincy, who was in a playful spirit. “We in da studio recordin’ your ol’ piece of sooong.” Siedah glows. Quincy adds, “But…Michael says the chorus is not long enough. Hold on.” Siedah heard in an inaudible low singsong hushed voice, “Nee, nee, nee. Nee, nee, nee, nee, nee.” (Listening to this engaging storyteller is sheer heaven as she’s captivating, humorous, and absolutely entertaining, mimicking Michael to a “T,” in a good-natured way). Quincy said, “Sid, Michael says he really wants you to bring home the idea of…Hold on.” Again she hears, “Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh, hee..” Quincy says, “Wait a minute, Sid.”
Siedah continues. “Q puts…”—she pauses, straightens up, throws her shoulders back and says in a regal manner, as if being announced to the Queen—“…Michael Jackson…on the phone. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, Michael Jackson was my husband,” screeches Siedah, nearly breaking into tears with passion, while her voice cracks. “So in my mind, I’m on the phone with my husband. But I didn’t want to be a….” She dons the persona of a hysterical fan, screaming nonsensical words, flailing her arms like an octopus. Instead of behaving the way she truly felt, she composed herself. When Michael came to the phone, Siedah replied with the coolest AT&T delivery, “How can I help you?”
The first thing Michael said to her was, “I love this song,” then he followed with, “I love your voice.” Siedah was in bliss, but she replied in a soft modest timbre, “Why thanks.”
Days later, Quincy invited Siedah to the studio to meet Michael. Michael began listening to the demo, as Quincy, Siedah and engineer Bruce Swedien were stationed around the mixing board. Quincy took Siedah aside and said, “Michael says the key is too high. Can you sing it for him in a lower key?” She agreed. Siedah was making her way back to the vocal booth when she realized Michael was filming her.
Surprised and slightly disturbed, she asked, “What are you doing?”
He answered, “I want to film you recording this song.”
“Whhhy..?” she begged.
“Because I…want…to…sing…it…like you,” said Michael.
Siedah flatly declared, “Great Mike. All my friends are really going to believe me when I tell them…he wants to sing it like me!”
This footage can be found in Spike Lee’s 2012 documentary BAD 25. “You can see Michael filming me and his reflection on the glass in the studio,” Siedah points out. “So I’m the chick in the mirror while the man in the mirror is filming me.”
The rising sun’s afternoon rays intensify. We move inside and sit on white bar stools at a mammoth white Formica counter, centered in the kitchen. Siedah replenishes us with more fluids, as we delve into another mirror.
In 1981, when the AIDS epidemic emerged, Siedah learned that her cousin Cokie had died. They had grown up together but weren’t close as adults. “I heard he was sick, lost a lot of weight, then I heard he died,” she laments, closing her eyes. “He was only in his twenties.” Siedah takes a moment. “No one knew what it was, no one had ever heard of it, and there wasn’t a cure.”
Fast-forward nearly three decades. Siedah is performing at the Bermuda Music Festival with Quincy Jones. Afterward, they had dinner with the Premier of Bermuda, Ewart Brown, MD. Twenty people were seated around a huge table, alongside the Premier. Quincy introduced Siedah. The Premier murmured, “Hmm, Garrett….” Then he continued, “Are you any relation to Cokie?”
Siedah was dumbfounded. “I…went…ghost. I felt my blood drain….” She doesn’t finish the sentence.
While the Premier awaited Siedah’s reply, she pondered, ‘He doesn’t mean my cousin?! He can’t mean him!’
Siedah exclaimed to the Premier, “Cokie Garrett?”
He answered, “Yes, Cokie Garrett.”
She replied, “That’s my cousin.”
Siedah’s speech wobbles and she fights back tears, but continues. “The Premier said, ‘I was his physician. I took care of him when no one would touch him.’”
Siedah halts. She surrenders to the primal gut-wrenching emotion, and weeps. Tears stream down her cheeks. I hand her a tissue and stroke her back. “Oh my gosh. Thank you,” she says, surprised at her own outburst. Breathing heavily, she clarifies, “When I was talking to him I just started crying uncontrollably. I felt so embarrassed. Here’s the Premier of Bermuda and I’m bawling. Quincy was at the other end of the table wondering what the hell was going on. I’m losing it. So I thank this man for taking care of my cousin when no one else wanted to touch him.”
The epidemic had affected Siedah when her cousin died, but the full impact didn’t come until decades later.
Reminiscing about this strikes a chord. She’s returns to the early days of AIDS when some songwriting friends of hers would take a daily swim at the YMCA. One day they didn’t go anymore and she wondered why. They told her, “There are gay people who swim in the pool.” At that time, people did not know how this disease was transmitted, so they were frantic, creating their own fear.
Siedah has not yet written a song about the epidemic. Although the majority of her songwriting is now commissioned for special projects and events, television, film, and musicals, several times this afternoon she brings the topic up. “I’m going to get around to writing that song…,” she insists, twirling her dreadlocks. She starts singing Prince’s song, “Sign o’ the Times”: “‘…a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name….’ We all knew Prince was talking about AIDS.”
I support her idea of composing a song. As we walk toward the front door, I can picture notes and lyrics swirling in her head. (Siedah is also open to doing a PSA about HIV prevention, as well.) Husband Erik, who has an HIV-positive older brother, is collaborating with Siedah on a screenplay about music in the late forties and early fifties. We near the atrium where we pass the BAD album wall, which is plastered with elegant framed platinum records, awards, and pictures of Siedah and Michael, including one of the original demo.
As we are walking into the atrium that leads to the iron door, Erik, who’s been working in another room, sees us through the glass walls. He joins us. Gracious and hospitable, they leisurely walk me outside. We bid farewell.
Gazing into the mirror with Siedah today was inspirational. It reflects the light upon all who share the hope that compassion still exists and will thrive, especially in the unprecedented and uncertainity of our new political era. Let’s take a look at ourselves and make a change.
Wardrobe, styling & accessories provided by Siedah Garrett. Designer knits by Siedah Garrett: http://twitter.com/SIEDAHGARRETT #siedahcreations.Hair & makeup: Jeff Jones; www.krop.com/jeffjonesmakeuphair. Post-production (digital styling) by Eve Harlowe Digital Styling(www.EveHarlowe.com). Shot at Apex Photo Studios, Downtown L.A.: www.apexphotostudios.com.
For more information, log on to: www.siedah.com.
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U.