Thank you Oprah Winfrey. On the heels of the success of Fox's American Idol, Oprah created her own talent contest, The Oprah Winfrey Pop Star Challenge, designed to find a talent in the over-25 group. And out of that forum came a 36-year old LaShell Griffin, who blew away the audience and the competition with her rendition of "The Greatest Love of All."
Griffin grew up in Detroit as a lover of Gospel music, and by age thirteen was singing solos in her church choir. That continued to be her exclusive singing forum for the next twenty years, through her marriage to talented local singer Lee Griffin (who sounds like a slightly gravelly Frank McComb) and the birth of their five children. She became popular in the community as a wedding singer and was eventually singing two or three per weekend. Encouraged by her husband, she entered the Winfrey contest in 2004 and became a wonderful National story of perseverance and faith as she sang her way to victory and to a recording contract with Epic Records. Her debut album, Free, was released in June 2004.
As is the case with American Idol, there was certainly a desire to capitalize on the Winfrey contest and to release an album by Griffin as soon as possible. The Idol formula has been to put together a series of competent producers and songwriters and to quickly release an album with a few catchy upbeat tunes but mostly a focus on The Big Ballad -- hooky adult contemporary fare a la "You Light Up My Life" that appeals to twenty- and thirty-something year old women. In that respect, while Free definitely bore the mark of an album put together relatively quickly with a MOR formula, it was far superior to any Idol spinoff album. And the key was Griffin. While an artist like Clay Aiken didn't have the vocal personality to lift the bland music of his disastrous debut, Griffin has a warm, soulful voice that shone on Free's high points and was strong enough to rescue the more pedestrian portions of the disc.
While Free charted in the top 10 on the Gospel charts, Griffin was soon an ex-Sony recording artist and released her first independent album, the holiday disc The Gift, in 2006. She followed it two years later with a more ambitious project, her second true studio album, Dreams are Possible, a fine disc that truly showed her musical personality as a modern Gospel leader. On the heels of the album's release, she and husband Lee Griffin contributed a dynamite performance of "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" at the SoulTracks Awards weekend in November 2008.
Over the last few years, LaShell has continued to be an in-demand concert performer, both in her native Detroit and around the countr. Her live performances and her three discs demonstrate that LaShell Griffin is a uniquely talented singer who deserves the spotlight now being shone on her. She is a talent to watch.
by Chris Rizik
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