With six top-20 Billboard R&B singles and 11 (count ’em) No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart, Canada’s Deborah Cox has built a career in pop music with which most performers would be more than content. Actually, most performers would kill for it.
But not Cox – nor Lascelles Stephens, the high-school sweetheart who became her husband, songwriter, producer and now full-time manager. The couple have been mapping out a diversification strategy, one designed to give Cox what every artist seeks, but few find: professional longevity.
The first hint of this approach came in 2004, when Cox did a four-month stint on Broadway, playing the title role in the Elton John/Tim Rice musical Aida. To that was added some acting roles in a few independent films. Now, Cox is raising the ante – playing the prostitute Lucy in the Broadway-bound remount of Jekyll & Hyde, opposite former American Idol semi-finalist Constantine Maroulis.
Musical success – five albums, multiple Juno awards, a Grammy nomination, her own music label – is not the only aspect of Cox’s life that others might envy. At 38, she has managed to combine her thriving pop career with the pleasures and responsibilities of parenthood. Spend a few minutes in her company and it’s clear that, as driven as she is professionally, the soft-spoken Cox could happily and just as easily talk about her children all day.
During a promotional stop in Toronto last week, Cox said she started to wrestle with the quandary that many women face – the conflicting forces of career and family – about a decade ago. At the time, she was recording a duet with Whitney Houston – Same Script, Different Cast, on the album Whitney: The Greatest Hits.
“I was between albums, trying to figure out if I should start a family and when I should start a family, because they’re always telling you, especially in this business, you can’t take time off. And Whitney just said to me, ‘Don’t let the business dictate. Have your family.’ It was great, sisterly advice.”
When she was presented with the Jekyll & Hyde opportunity, she discussed the project at length with Stephens. “He saw that this was an amazing chance for me to make a mark in the musical-theatre world,” she says. “How often does a role like this come along – especially for a black woman? I don’t take that lightly.”
The 25-week road show, including a week at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre, is due to arrive at New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre next April. The reviews to date have been mixed, although Cox has drawn strong notice.
Home base for the past several years has been Boca Raton, Fla., but with the show taking her on the road for almost half a year, she and Stephens decided to home-school the two older children, Isaiah, 9, and Sumayah, 6 (they also have a three-year-old daughter, Kaila). “A tutor comes for six hours a day,” she explained, “but the schedule is flexible. So the kids can fly to where I am on a Sunday, and I can spend my day off, Monday, with them and most of Tuesday. … We’re still navigating our way through it. But I love being onstage at night and doing the creative thing and then being a mommy or working on recording during the day.
“Finding the balance hasn’t been easy,” she conceded. “I’ve only been able to do it because of the tremendous support I’ve had – from Lascelles particularly and our extended families. My mother, my mother-in-law, aunts, uncles, sisters, they’ll come down for a month at a time. Everyone chips in. It’s about staying connected, and we make sure that happens. I want my children to know who their relatives are.”
Of Afro-Guyanese descent, Cox has music in her bones – her mother sang and played guitar and piano and the family’s Scarborough home was filled, she says, with the sounds of blues, jazz and pop. She attended the Claude Watson School for the Arts and , by her early teens, was performing in local bands. Eventually, while singing back-up for Celine Dion, Cox landed a meeting with legendary producer Clive Davis.
“I met him at the Beverly Hills Hotel and played him my demo tape. And he loved it.”
The meeting led to her first, self-titled album, on Davis’s Arista Record, and her subsequent move to Los Angeles. They parted company a few years ago, when Cox and Stephens established Deco Recording – a move that facilitated more creative control.
When Jekyll & Hyde wraps, Cox is scheduled to star in Josephine, a new musical based on the life of singer, dancer and actress Josephine Baker. She is reported to have landed the part after a single audition.
But for the moment, she has no plans to abandon the recording stream. In fact, she has three new albums in development, one R&B, one dance and one dedicated to classic tunes from the American songbook. “Not every label understood that desire,” she says. “They’d ask why would I want to do that material? But I choose not be pigeonholed. I’m not a traditional artist. I want to do it all. That’s what the best performers did – Tina Turner, Whitney, Streisand, Aretha, Gladys Knight. It’s all about leaving a legacy.”
Jekyll & Hyde will have eight performances at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre Nov. 14-18.