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About the Author
Anna Louise Golden is the author of Brandy.
Anna Louise Golden is the author of several celebrity biographies, including 5ive, 'N Sync, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Brandy.
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Sittin' on Top of the World
By Anna Louise Golden
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1998 Anna Louise Golden
All rights reserved.
Mississippi has never been one of the richest states in the Union. Quite the opposite — it's one of the poorest. The western boundary is the mighty Mississippi River, heading south from Memphis. The famous Highway 51 runs almost parallel to the water, going through Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta at the north end of the state, which isn't really a delta at all, but the home of some of the most famous bluesmen America has ever produced — names like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.
At the southern end of the state, the land reaches the Gulf of Mexico, where Biloxi does solid business as a port. Slightly to the west, however, the state line jogs north and then west as it borders Louisiana. This is the deep south, pretty much as far as you can get, where the main industries in the rolling hills are timber and oil, and the weather fills with humidity in the summer.
It's in this area, on Highway 98, just east of the intersection with Highway 51, that the town of McComb stands. About twenty miles north of the Louisiana border, there's little to distinguish it from many other small towns dotted around the South.
By Mississippi standards, with some twelve thousand residents it's a relatively good size. It's fairly isolated, but still only about one hundred miles from the state capital of Jackson, or Hattiesburg, farther east on 98. And Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is even closer than that.
Like so many small towns, not a great deal seems to happen in McComb. Many of the families, both black and white, have been in the area for decades, sometimes even centuries. People know each other, always have, and know each other's business.
Gospel music has long been part of the Southern religious tradition, the choirs lifting their voices enthusiastically in praise of God. The choirs are important parts of any church, the best voices in the congregation rehearsing and working together. In the late 1970s, a young man named Willie Norwood got a job as the director of the church choir in Brookhaven, Mississippi, a town some twenty miles north of his home in McComb. Musical, and a good singer, he was the perfect man for the job, and it was one that suited him.
Willie was married to a woman named Sonja, who had a good job of her own as the manager at the local H&R Block office, in charge of people preparing tax returns. Both Willie and Sonja were college graduates, products of the sixties and the Civil Rights movement that had seemed to tear the South apart for a while.
For generations the stifling legacy of slavery had lain over the life of African-Americans in the southern states. The Civil Rights movement helped to slowly change that, to begin to bring racial equality.
Willie and Sonja Norwood benefitted from all that. It didn't mean they'd turned their back on their heritage, however, far from it. Just like their parents and grandparents before them, they were both religious people, raised in the church, which continued to be their spiritual home, and for Willie his place of work, too.
When, in 1978, Sonja discovered she was pregnant, the couple was overjoyed. They wanted children to make their home complete, to fill out the family. They even had names picked out — a boy would be William, Jr., and a girl would be Brandy.
However full of anticipation they were, nothing could match up to the reality, and when Brandy Norwood was born on February 11, 1979, in McComb, the event was like magic, a true gift from God. Sonja was twenty-seven and Willie twenty-nine.
But there seemed to be something even more special about her daughter to Sonja Norwood. All new babies seem remarkable to their mothers, but Sonja had a sense of something incredible for the future about the little girl she was holding.
"I know Brandy was going to be a star the day she was born," Sonja said. "I told the doctor that he has just delivered a star and that she was going to be something one day."
How could she know? Was it a sixth sense? Or just wishful thinking on the part of an exhausted new mom? The conversation was forgotten by everyone except Sonja, who remained convinced that Brandy possessed something that other girls didn't. Exactly what it was, or when she'd know, remained to be seen.
Life returned to normal in the Norwood house, or as normal as things could get with a young baby around. Willie was working at the church, rehearsing the choir and preparing the music, and eventually Sonja returned to her job at H&R Block. Every Sunday the family would go to the church up in Brookhaven, dressed in their best clothes. Sonja would sit in the pew, tending little Brandy, as Willie conducted the choir.
Brandy grew quickly and very precociously. Like every kid, she went through the crawling stage, investigating everything, then walking, falling over a lot at first, then becoming steadier on her feet. There were so many big moments for Sonja and Willie — their little girl's first smile, her first step, and eventually her first word.
There was always music around the house. It was simply a part of life there, and a part of life that seemed to be in the air all over the South. So it was as no surprise to the Norwoods when their daughter began singing. After all, kids did sing, whether it was the nursery rhymes they used to help her learn, the lullabies to send her to sleep, TV theme songs, records she heard. Brandy just seemed to be able to soak them all up and sing them back. What was surprising was how well she could sing, and how powerfully. It didn't seem like the voice of a two-year-old, but much more mature, that seemed to come from ... well, people didn't know where. Except for Sonja, who began to understand the premonition she'd had when Brandy was born.
Brandy seemed to love the music at church, too, and was soon singing along with the congregation on the hymns and songs. It was apparent to people besides her proud parents that the girl had something special, and Willie was persuaded to let her sing with the choir as its youngest member.
It didn't take long to realize that Brandy was a standout, even among the strong choir that Willie had. Within a few months, she was a featured soloist, much to the pride and satisfaction of her parents.
Brandy seemed to be a natural performer, the kind of little girl who just lit up in front of an audience, and who, in turn, could completely light up and captivate a crowd. It didn't seem like a toddler singing, but someone else, someone much more grown-up, self-assured, someone who belonged in front of people.
From time to time, Willie and Sonja would discuss the possibilities for their daughter, but there were more pressing matters at hand. Sonja was pregnant again, about to give birth to the couple's second child, and for the moment that was more important than anything else. When Willie, Jr. was born, the family felt complete, full. They were happy, their babies growing well, Sonja and Willie both fulfilled in their jobs and their lives.
Once they'd established the routine with their new infant, talk returned to what they could do about their daughter. That she needed to be in front of people, singing, was quite obvious. And they also knew that just being in a church choir wasn't going to be enough for her. Sonja was still very firm in her belief that the girl would be a star. She was a lovely child, with big brown eyes and high cheekbones, full of personality without ever being sassy — one thing Sonja and Willie insisted on was bringing their kids up right.
If she was ever going to do something, it wouldn't be in McComb or Brookhaven, or anywhere in Mississippi, for that matter. They could have photographs made and send them to agents who handled young talent, but that wasn't going to help unless they lived somewhere else, a place where Brandy could work.
At first the talks were more theory than anything else, but soon Willie and Sonja realized they were quite serious, that Brandy did have a future as a singer and performer, and that they needed to become serious if they were going to do anything about it. They'd need to move, and there were only two possible places — New York or Los Angeles, the centers of the music and entertainment business.
Wherever they went, it was a big decision, a huge step. It would mean leaving friends and family, everything the Norwoods had ever known, and being completely on their own. It would also mean leaving the South, which took a lot of consideration.
In the South, small-town life seemed to move along at a slightly slower pace than the rest of the world. The days weren't filled with the clatter and bustle of people and cars hurrying here and there. There was time to actually enjoy life, to stop and smell the roses, to enjoy that piece of pie for dessert without having to rush off to a meeting. In some ways, leaving all that would be the biggest problem.
Sonja and Willie talked and talked, and finally realized they could talk forever and do nothing, or they could come to a decision. If Brandy was going to do anything, moving was the answer. But where — California or New York?
For so many Southerners, the idea of New York seemed horrible. The big, big city, where the people had a reputation for being rude, with all its crime and pollution. Was that really where they wanted to live after spending so many years surrounded by trees and green hills? Not really.
Of course, California didn't seem that much more attractive. Los Angeles might have had sunshine and palm trees, but it also had a reputation for clogged freeways, people driving everywhere, a place where image was everything and substance meant nothing, where everything was fake.
California did offer something New York couldn't, though — good weather. Maybe there were mudslides and always the threat of an earthquake, but there was also lots of sunshine, very little humidity, and no freezing cold and mountains of snow in the winter. New York had those, and almost tropical summers, with plenty of humidity. That was okay in a small town, where you could sit in the shade on a porch and sip some iced tea, but in the city there was no relief.
A lot also depended on where Willie and Sonja could find work. They might be going to help make Brandy into a star, but they still needed money to live on. Sonja's job was relatively transportable, since H&R Block had offices all over the country, and their busy season was really only from January to the end of April each year, at tax time. Wille, though, needed a church to be able to perform his job, so he had to discover what vacancies existed around Southern California, and begin applying.
With his background and his enthusiasm, it wasn't too long before he had an offer from a church in the perfect location — Carson, California.
It was a community of some 50,000 people in the San Fernando Valley, right on the edge of Long Beach, to the south of Los Angeles, with the big city still close enough to be accessible. Carson itself still had something of a small town feeling, even though it was really a part of the huge L.A. metropolis. And Redondo Beach, with sand and surf, was only ten miles away — no distance at all.
It all seemed ideal. Willie couldn't have asked for anything better. So when the offer arrived, he quickly accepted it. So, in 1983, the Norwoods began the massive task of packing and relocating.
It all seemed so final, going through their belongings and figuring out what to keep and transport across the country, and what to just leave behind. Everything seemed to hold a memory. And then there were all the family and friends who kept stopping by the house. For the kids it wouldn't be bad — Brandy had some friends in McComb, but she would adapt easily enough, and Willie, Jr. was so young that he wouldn't even really notice the difference. But for Sonja and Willie, every day made them realize how big a step this was. Even the excitement of a new job and a new life couldn't completely stop the sadness of leaving everything they'd ever known.
Eventually, though, they were ready. The moving truck was full, and had already set off for the west. There was nothing left but final goodbyes and promises to keep in touch, to see people soon. The kids were packed in the car, along with everything they'd need for the journey. Willie turned the key, pulled the gearshift into drive, and the Norwoods headed off for a new life.
The scenery changed as they moved across Louisiana and into Texas, the green hills giving way to a dryness that just seemed to get drier and drier. West Texas semmed to be parched, almost desert, the air conditioning in the car working overtime to keep the family cool. At night they'd stop at motels to rest, Willie's eyes weary from a day of watching the road, and the family would eat out at a diner. Then, next morning, it was back in the car and onto the road, neither of the children quite understanding why they were on this journey that never seemed to end. New Mexico had the towering mesas and more desert, the history of the Native American tribes up in the hills, the people who'd been here before whites or blacks.
Phoenix was the first huge city they'd come across on the trip. So clean, with the sky so blue, it seemed a good omen for things to come. From Arizona, the road took them across the Mojave Desert, and through the Joshua Tree National Park, before climbing up into the San Bernadino Mountains, higher than Brandy or Willie, Jr. had ever been in their lives, several thousand feet in the air, before descending on the other side, into the valley, and out toward the sea, and what was going to be home, on Interstate 10.
Every mile seemed to become more and more built up, with houses, stores, malls. And the traffic was unlike anything they'd encountered, each road so busy, Willie concerned with directions, finding his way through all the unfamiliar streets and roads to Carson. The signs kept coming ... Downey, Willowbook, Compton ... until finally they reached the exit for Carson. There things seemed to calm a little, like an oasis, and they could relax, as Willie searched for the house they'd rented that would become home. Finally he pulled up in front of the place. They'd arrived. A new life was waiting for them.
* * *
Adjusting to life in a new place is never easy. Even the basic small things, like running to the grocery store, become harder. It took a little while for the Norwoods to settle into Carson. The city was friendly, there was no problem with that; it was simply a case of learning everything anew.
Once the family had settled in, they had to wonder what to do about Brandy and getting her a career. It wasn't as if Willie and Sonja were experienced stage parents. They really had no idea how to go about it, other than the fact that they wanted to approach everything cautiously. Whatever happened would happen in its own sweet time. And that was just fine.CHAPTER 2
For a long time, nothing much did happen. A good education came before everything else, both for Brandy and Willie, Jr. That was what Willie and Sonja firmly believed — family, education, church were the cornerstones of a good life.
As she grew, Brandy sang at all the talent shows, and attended open-call auditions with her mother, who believed in her even when she came home without any kind of small part. Sonja had known that her daughter was going to be a star, and she was still absolutely certain of the fact.
One immediate problem was that there were lots of kids in Los Angeles who could act and sing and were very cute. Competition for each child role was tremendous. With success, Brandy could get an agent, and things would become a little bit easier. But that wouldn't happen until she achieved some success. It seemed like a vicious circle.
And there weren't that many parts for African-American girls. Things were slightly better than they had been, but color weighted the dice against her.
Singing remained Brandy's great love, and her biggest talent. Coached by her father, her voice continued to improve. But her biggest inspiration came in 1985, when she was six, and heard Whitney Houston for the very first time on the radio.
The song was "Saving All My Love For You," (which was a cover of a 1978 Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr., album track), and it would become a massive hit, topping the charts in both America and England. Whitney's voice struck a deep chord in Brandy.
Excerpted from Brandy by Anna Louise Golden. Copyright © 1998 Anna Louise Golden. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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