Shanice with a 'smile'
Mother, of course, knows better. With a gospel-choir voice that soars five octaves and a range of emotions beyond her years, Shanice could sing the Wee Weekly contents page and not sound silly. Pop-radio listeners from Detroit to Denmark are hooked on her catchy dance ditty, "I Love Your Smile," a hit single that has gone Top 5 in 10 countries, No. 1 in the U.S. and has made hers one of those voices you couldn't get out of your head with ear floss. "She's got so much power and a strong vision," says producer Narada Michael Walden, a hitmaker for Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin before signing on last year to produce Shanice's Motown debut CD, Inner Child. In recording one song, recalls Walden, "I said, 'Just pretend you're singing at Madison Square Garden and let yourself go.' The melody just came right out of her."
As did lyrics. "When I was making the album, the Gulf War was going on, and everyone was depressed about it," she says. "So I said, 'Why don't I write a song that will make people happy?' " "Smile," cowritten with Walden, was the result, and Shanice was on the musical map.
Not that she was entirely new to the territory. The only daughter of musician Carl Black, a guitar player, and Crystal Wilson, a former Luther Vandross and Jennifer Holliday backup singer, she spent her early years in Pittsburgh. Her parents split when she was 7, and a year later mama Crystal and her sister, Penni Wilson, also a vocalist, moved with Shanice to L.A., where the singing sisters began looking for work. (They, too, have since signed with Motown, and their first album, Crystal Penny, is due this fall.)
Carted off by Crystal to TV auditions, Shanice landed her first gig at 9, a Kentucky Fried Chicken ad in which she scat-sang with an older woman who seemed to have a knack for it. "I had no idea who Ella Fitzgerald was," Shanice confesses. "It was nice, but everyone around me was more excited than I was."
At 11, she earned a quick $5,000 from TV's Star Search and, later that year, signed her first record deal after an A&M Records scout heard her sing in an L.A. stage production of Get Happy. An album titled Discovery followed in 1987, but it sold poorly, and Shanice returned to her stuffed animals and—briefly—a life of typical teenage obscurity.
Among Discovery's fans, however, was Michael Jackson, who one day sent a limo to her home and had her chauffeured over for a 90-minute chat on the set of his "Moonwalker" video. "We talked a lot about writing your own songs," she says. "He told me that's when he really became popular."
Last year she took his advice, co-writing nine of the 15 songs on Inner Child. Graduated in 1990 from Pasadena High School, she leaves this week for her second tour of Europe with Bubba, her favorite fluffy teddy bear, in tow. In a few weeks comes the release of "Silent Prayer," a duet with Johnny Gill that should push her album sales even higher.
None of which seems likely to make the singer any less down-to-earth than she is now. Back in the bedroom of her mother's Monrovia condo, Shanice is suffering another bout of the sillies. "She's really almost the same person as when she was little," says Crystal, looking on. "She makes the same faces and has the same giggle."
ANDREW ABRAHAMS in Los Angeles