Mary Vesta Williams, the voice behind such ’80s R&B staples as “Congratulations” and “Sweet, Sweet Love,” has passed away. Williams, 53, was found in a room at Homestead Studio in El Segundo, according to Los Angeles County coroner’s officials.
Vesta Williams might not have garnered the acclaim of contemporaries such as Teena Marie, Chaka Khan or Anita Baker, but the big voiced singer, who was found dead in a hotel room in El Segundo on Thursday, left an impression on soul music in the ’80s.
Often praised as a singer’s singer, Williams wasn’t able to log a massive hit album in her discography, which stretches back to her eponymous debut in 1986, but she will be known for a string of successful singles, including “Special,” “Congratulations” “Once Bitten Twice Shy” and “Do Ya.” She was also tapped to provide backing vocals for Sting and Khan during her career.
Williams was born in Ohio, but made her way out to Los Angeles to find work as a musician. She spent the early part of her career doing session work with the likes of Chaka Khan and Gladys Knight before scoring a recording contract of her own. That led to the release of her 1986 debut album Vesta, which netted her a minor hit with “Once Bitten Twice Shy.”
She followed that up with 1988′s Vesta 4 U. Her most successful release, it became a staple of contemporary R&B radio and gained Williams her biggest mainstream exposure.
The peak of Williams’ career ended with 1991′s Special, though she was still making albums — her last release came out in 2007 — and performing (this video shows her singing “Congratulations” at a jazz festival just four days ago).
“Vesta created some timeless hits that the world knows but there were depths to her artistry that the world at large did not get to hear,” Randall Grass, general manager of Shanachie, said in an email to Pop & Hiss. “Her peers in the industry knew what a special talent she was. Aside from music, Vesta had many other accomplishments and brought a touch of class to all she did.”
She will be remembered as having a unique voice that managed to be much larger than her diminutive stature.