Interview : Vanessa Williams Superstar’s Roots in Buffalo, Western New York, Run Deep

Interview by Matt Bauer photo by Rod Spicer

As a multi-faceted superstar, Vanessa Williams’ talents run deep. And so do her roots in Buffalo and Western New York.

“It’s family for me,” said the Bronx-born Williams, whose mother and husband both hail from the nickel city. From spending Thanksgivings with her late grandmother and cousins to black Friday shopping at the old AM&A’s downtown to getting married at Saint Stanislaus Church in 2015, Williams has a lot of  love for Western New York and she’ll be bringing  some much welcome soulful holiday warmth when she visits the intimate Bear’s Den Showroom at Seneca Niagara Casino December 4th and 5th. 

Her  upcoming performance will feature holiday selections from her two acclaimed Christmas albums ( 1996’s Star Bright and 2004’s Silver and Gold) as well as classics like the now standard “Save the Best for Last,” the quiet storm staple “Dreamin’” and the Academy Award-winning “Colors of the Wind”-indelible soundtracks from a now more than three-and-a-half-decade long journey initiated by Williams’ crowning as the first African American Miss America in 1983. 

From multi-platinum, Grammy nominated albums The Right Stuff, The Comfort Zone and The Sweetest Days to Emmy nominations  for her role in Ugly Betty to Tony nominated turns in Into the Woods to an Image Award in the classic Soul Food ,Williams has established herself as an international icon while also  co-writing a best-seller with her mom and establishing her own fashion line. “I’ve ticked off a lot of boxes,” she acknowledged  with gratitude when asked about her achievements.

Despite those illustrious accomplishments, she’s not done yet. Of the many boxes still un-ticked, she’d like to originate a role on Broadway in a new musical, host Saturday Night Live (she’s appeared twice as a  musical guest  on the television institution) and would like to do more television and film producing. 

Prompted for her career pinnacle thus far,  Vanessa looks to opening night on  the great white way in 1994, when she followed Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman ,which showcased her magnetic presence in all its glory.  “I grew up in Westchester and I saw Broadway shows my whole life and that was a tangible goal,“ she explained. “But when you get a chance to see your name in  lights on Broadway in Times Square, that was a hit yourself moment, personally, and  for my friends and family who were in musicals from elementary school on; Broadway was a collective goal and achievement.”

Having recently done a talk at NYU to students hoping to break into the business, she also shared advice to up and coming artists:

“ I think the most important lesson is surrendering to what’s given to you; what’s right in front of you. It’s great to have goals but follow your skill sets and what you’re really good at. You’ll never know where you’ll end up,  but your  skill set will help you pave the way. The biggest thing is being patient and  trusting and you’ll find or search for something that is a compliment to your skill set. It might not be where you want to be eventually, but it’ll help you get where you need to be.”

Reflecting on the changes in the music industry since her debut album over 30 years ago, Williams lamented the loss of artist development and the security of long-term record deals, safeguards new artists (including her daughter Jillian Hervey of the group Lion Babe) don’t have, yet she’s also secure in her place in the musical pantheon.       

“I’m glad that I had a chance to start back in the old days but I’m also glad that melody has kept my legacy alive. It’s great to have a quick hit but people love lyrics that mean something to their lives and that’s what gets played year after year and  what brings tears to people’s eyes when I sing. That’s a gift and I’m happy that the songs that stand the test of time out of my catalog are ones that reach people.”  

Tickets for the both Dec 4 & Dec 5 shows can be found on senecaniagracasino.com